Why should you paraphrase when you use sources?

When you use material from sources in your writing you should always provide a clear citation, but you also need to paraphrase the information, “put it in your own words”. But why is that – why not copy the information, word by word? Copying would be faster, and you would not risk misinterpreting the material. There are, however, several reasons that you should paraphrase – and when you are aware of these, it often feels easier doing so.

Firstly, paraphrasing the text actually helps you understand the material. When you need to put the information in your own words you really need to consider what you want to say and how different aspects of the material relate to each other. If you feel that paraphrasing is difficult and just takes time it is good to consider that written examinations should not merely indicate that you know something – you should actually learn from them too.

Secondly, a paraphrase signals to your reader that you have processed the information and understood the material. Paraphrasing requires, as mentioned, more understanding than merely copying the text, and in that way it helps your reader determine that you have understood the material and not just copied it. This is of course especially important when your reader is also your teacher, who has to make sure that you have understood the material.

Thirdly, the processing of the text helps to ensure that your text is relevant to the task you have been assigned. All texts are written for a specific purpose and in a specific context, and if you attempt to answer a question from a take-home exam by copying a passage from a book, there is a risk that you do not keep to the topic and thus fail to answer the question. Instead you may sound as though you are trying to write everything that you know about a topic – in short, as if your text was a textbook. 

Lastly, just copying from a source is actually considered plagiarism – even if you provide a citation. There is however one exception: if you quote. Then you can use the text exactly as it is, verbatim – but you need to use quotation marks to indicate that the text is copied word by word (plus provide a citation as usual). Quotes are mainly used when not only the information is central, but the actual phrasing too – for example when you define something or evoke a very central statement. Within the fields of medicine and care, quotations are not very common (but if you are conducting an interview study you can and should use quotations more frequently).

To summarize, in most cases you should paraphrase the information that you take from other sources (and always if you do not use quotation marks). This is true even if your sentences are not as elegant as in the original text. That is actually completely fine; the author has spent much time polishing the text – perhaps a couple of years – and as a student you simply do not have the time to do that. So do not be afraid of paraphrasing and putting the information in your own words – in that way you learn more and get more credit for your work, just like you deserve when you have worked hard!

Do you want to know more about using sources in a clear and effective manner? Make an appointment to discuss your text with Academic Writing Support.

In an upcoming blog post you will get to know more about how to paraphrase material.   

Anna M Borgström

I have a Licentiate of Philosophy degree in English and teach academic writing. You are most likely to meet me in the Academic Writing Support room in Solna, but now and then I am in Flemingsberg.