Cultural Issues and Plagiarism (overview)

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.


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