As I understand it, Rebecca Moore Howard would prefer that we dropped the notion of plagiarism from our vocabularies for talking about academic writing. Her most forceful argument appears to be a 2000 piece in College English, in which she says plagiarism is an inherently sexual and sexist notion. You can get a pretty good sense of her (more moderate) views on patchwriting and plagiarism by watching the videos on her website. And here is the patchwriting section of the plagiarism policy she proposed in 1995:
Writing passages that are not copied exactly but that have nevertheless been borrowed from another source, with some changes—a practice which The Bedford Handbook for Writers calls "paraphrasing the source's language too closely". This "patchwriting" is plagiarism regardless of whether one supplies footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical notes that acknowledge the source. However, patchwriting is not always a form of academic dishonesty; it is not always committed by immoral writers. Often it is a form of writing that learners employ when they are unfamiliar with the words and ideas about which they are writing. In this situation, patchwriting can actually help the learner begin to understand the unfamiliar material. Yet it is a transitional writing form; it is never acceptable for final-draft academic writing, for it demonstrates that the writer does not fully understand the source from which he or she is patchwriting. Because patchwriting can result from a student's inexperience with conventions of academic writing, instruction in quotation and source attribution and a request for subsequent revision of the paper may be an appropriate response for the instructor. But because patchwriting often results from a student's unfamiliarity with the words and ideas of a source text, instruction in the material discussed in the source and a request for subsequent revision of the paper is even more frequently the appropriate response. Patchwriting can also be the result of a student's intent to deceive, in which case the minimum penalty is an "F" in the course and the maximum penalty, suspension from the university. (Howard 1995: 799-800)
On the plus side, it's good to see that she characterizes it as a form of plagiarism and says that it is "never acceptable in final-draft academic writing". That is, she does not suggest a lowering of the bar. But I'm uneasy about the decisive role she assigns to intention. Not only does she allow that it is "not always a form of academic dishonesty", she proposes severe penalties only in cases where the "intent to deceive" is present. There are at least two problems with this. The first is that intent is notoriously difficult to prove. The second is that if patchwriting is what Howard says it is, then it is, actually, always deceptive. Let me explain why I say that.
Howard tells us that patchwriting is a way students deal with their "unfamiliarity with the words and ideas of a source text". Indeed, she says that "it demonstrates that the writer does not fully understand the source". Obviously, however, it can only "demonstrate" something if is caught by the teacher. Until then, patchwriting actually fakes familiarity with the words and ideas of the source. In other words, patchwriting is done with the intention of deceiving the reader about the linguistic and intellectual competence of the writer. For this reason I think it is very important to call it plagiarism. The student must be told that what they have done is more like cheating than it is like learning. In the end, I don't think patchwriting can help the learner even to begin to understand difficult notions. All it does is to open the possibility of getting away with one's ignorance.
It gives the teacher a lot of unnecessary work to do, treating students who are taking an easy way out, half-hoping to get away with it, as though they just well-intentioned learners. Students must understand that a certain amount of care is required of them. Under those conditions, catching only the odd patchwriter/plagiarist will suffice. They have to realize that it's much better to use a concept in their own perhaps misunderstood way than to "patch" in a sentence or phrase that (presumably) uses it correctly but for no reason the student is aware of.
Next week I'm going to present an example of patchwriting by a high-profile academic that appears in a widely used textbook. I'm going to be very curious to hear what my readers think of it, i.e., how bad it is.