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Issues in Plagiarism

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Faculty Resources > Understanding Plagiarism > Cultural Issues and Plagiarism




Cultural Issues and Plagiarism


The framework under which "plagiarism" is conceived in American academia is the product of a particular cultural and institutional history and not one that is universally shared. Notably, this framework depends on a notion of student writing as intellectual property--that is to say, writing valued as the original scholarly contribution of an identifiably autonomous author--that may clash with other frameworks for understanding the function of student writing (for example, as simply a means to demonstrate the retention of information, as the intellectual equivalent of stomach crunches, or as an opportunity for building social networks for future use).


It may be too simple to describe different conceptions of plagiarism as embodying "western" or "non-western" cultural values or ideas of intellectual property rights. After all, some of the earliest copyright laws were developed in China during the Tang dynasty more than a millennium ago. And some of the strongest challenges to ideas of autonomous authorship have emerged out of western traditions of theory (Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida) and practice (hip hop sampling, open source software, wiki-produced reference sources).


Nevertheless, as teachers, we are likely to encounter students who have grown up in a non-U.S. academic context and may have different ideas of individual ownership and property rights, or for whom the academic construct of a scholar or researcher owning words and ideas may seem unnatural, nonsensical, or even ethically indefensible. Of course, our job is to make sure all students understand and follow the academic integrity expectations of the institution in which they are enrolled, but we'll be better equipped to teach these expectations if we are aware that work we might regard as plagiarized is the unintentional result of differently understood notions of originality, paraphrase, citation, and the student-centered classroom.


Even when the plagiarism is intentional, there are differences with respect to international students of which we should be aware, though these differences are likely to be more situational than cultural. That is to say, the same pressures to do well that can lead American students to cheat may have special force when a visa is on the line, and the same desperation experienced when an assignment is confusing or overwhelming may be ratcheted up when language barriers interfere as well.


To learn more about the cultural issues involved in questions of originality, attribution, and plagiarism please visit the resources below.




Ranked Choices (in order of relevance)


  • #1 - Sharon Myers (March 1998). "Questioning Authority(ity): ESL/EFL, Science, and Teaching about Plagiarism." TESL-EJ 3(2)



This article provides a wide-ranging account of the ramifications for scholars and teachers of the dominance of western notions of academic integrity, particularly plagiarism, in an increasingly global and networked scholarly world. Myers considers both experienced publishing researchers in the sciences and inexperienced ESL students, with a particular focus on Chinese scholars and students trying to adhere to academic conventions contrary to their own cultural sense of intellectual propriety.



  • #2 - Christine Keenan and Peter Jemmeson (2006). "International Students and Plagiarism: A Review of the Literature." UK: Bournemouth University Centre for Academic Practice.



As the title suggests, a review of the current scholarly literature on unintentional plagiarism by international students. Factors reviewed include a lack of knowledge of western academic expectations; the degree to which a commitment to those expectations are shared when there is a tension between western and non-western views of ownership, respect, and copyright; and the impact of relative competency on matters such as quotation, paraphrase, and citation. Of particular value is the examination of the reasons for the rise of plagiarism among international students.



More Choices


  • Rebecca Moore Howard (March 2007). Plagiarism Bibliography: Intercultural Issues



Rebecca Moore Howard, a noted scholar of plagiarism, has put together a collection of bibliographies on key issues in plagiarism scholarship. For a complete list of her plagiarism bibliographies, see the Plagiarism Scholarship section of this site.


  • International Student and Scholar Services Offices (2006). Tips for Faculty Working with International Students in the Classroom. University of Denver



Handout prepared by the University of Denver to aid faculty in understanding how to work with international students, especially in terms of being aware of the cultural issues involved in helping international students conform to Western notions of scholarly attribution.


  • NAFSA: Association of International Educators (authored b y Michael Smithee, Sidney L. Greenblatt, and Alisa Eland) (2004). U.S. Culture Series: U.S. Classroom Culture



A State Department-sponsored brochure designed to orient international students to the student-centered classroom, administrative structure, and faculty roles within American academia. Not restricted to academic integrity issues, but these are thrown into useful relief by the brochure's comparison of different cultures' notions about the level of participation, independence, and deference expected of students.


  • William P. Alford. To Steal a Book Is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.


Attempts a cultural, historical, and economic of why intellectual property theory and practice emerged unevenly across the globe, with particular reference to China.




This article uses qualitative interview methodology to explore gaps in the understanding of plagiarism between instructors and ESL writers. Though writing is a socially situated endeavor, instructors are sometimes biased against non-native writers due to the perception that they are more likely to plagiarize. Students may misunderstand the American convention of plagiarism or some may even understand the concept yet choose to plagiarize anyway.


This article uncovers some of the confusion that ESL students face even after having been taught the rules of textual borrowing in the American academy.  The writers contend that learning “not to cheat” is sometimes a cultural barrier, and they provide several specific solutions that move instruction beyond textbook exercises and lists of rules and citation styles.
Pennycock argues that plagiarism needs to be understood within the context of text, ownership, memory, and learning. He chronicles the historical development of the Western treatment of text, thus uncovering a paradox: crediting "original" authorship, yet managing a “fixed canon” of knowledge within a field.  He uses the example of Chinese cultural practices as an alternate context for understanding plagiarism and applies these practices to issues that surround textual borrowing in the classroom.
The author provides a counter-point to articles that claim notions of plagiarism are culturally-bound.  He claims that the argument that Chinese students are more likely to plagiarize due to their cultural background is based on faulty information and reasoning.




This article, based on interview data with ESL students, indicates that non-native speakers' management of writing tasks depends on the source of information being used.  Tasks assigned in ESL writing classes do not always match what is assigned when students leave the ESL classroom, especially in terms of interaction with texts and source material.  The authors conclude by saying that learning text-responsible writing is critical to students' growth and success in the American university.


Comments (3)

Anonymous said

at 3:19 pm on Apr 17, 2007

What other resources are needed in this section?

Anonymous said

at 4:48 pm on May 30, 2007

I plan to take a crack at this section (and the parallel one for students) over the next few days, to address a few things that I think are worth clarifying:

1) the very different premises behind notions of "plagiarism" and "copyright infringement," and the consequences of the cultural framework that regards student output as intellectual property (as opposed to, say, intellectual exercise, a tool for retaining info, or an opportunity for social networking);

2) What we mean by the West/rest distinction, since I don't think it holds up particularly well (i.e., there ARE non-Western cultural taboos on plagiarism; there ARE knowledge communities within the "West" that challenge the model of autonomous authorship, e.g., folk culture, wiki writing, mash-ups and other forms of sampling.

3) To provide a more thorough survey of some of the literature that is out there on cultural and situational forces that might produce different conceptions or practices of producing original/borrowed work, including some of the work pointed to in this recent Inside Higher Ed article at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/05/24/cheating

Anonymous said

at 12:04 pm on May 31, 2007

Ryan, I went through the piece from Inside Higher Ed the other week and incorporated two of the outstanding resources referenced in the article and through the corresponding links.

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