Plagiarism: Questions about Copying, Culture and Consequences

I have been asked to prepare a staff development seminar on the topic of plagiarism and a few questions have come to mind. It would be great if you could share your ideas by adding a reply.

1. Plagiarism Trends

Is the problem of plagiarism becoming more widespread and more serious? That is, are more students plagiarizing and is the plagiarism itself more serious? With the growth of the World Wide Web, plagiarism is certainly more tempting. With a couple of mouse clicks, you can almost instantly locate, copy and paste entire paragraphs or pages into your assignment. In the past, if you wanted to plagiarize, you probably would have had to go the library, find the book you wanted, skim through it to find something worth copying and then type the passage (or write it by hand).. Quite often that would be just as time-consuming as doing the work properly.

So much is online that even highly specified assignments may be easily ‘plagiarizeable’. For example, in one assignment I gave recently, students had to write a very simple kind of poem (an acrostic poem) about one of several mysterious places that were mentioned in their textbook. Sure enough, one student managed to find (and plagiarize from) an acrostic poem about one of those places—Stonehenge.

There is simply more temptation.

And if students go to the trouble of using online essay writing services, which offering custom written reports and essays (for a fee, of course), there is less chance of being caught.

2. Concepts of Copyright

Are students sufficiently aware of what plagiarism is and why it is wrong to plagiarize? In this era of peer-to-peer file sharing, video mash-ups and  musical remixes, notions of intellectual property seem to be becoming more muddled. Can collecting and rearranging samples of text from different sources, for example, be considered the academic equivalent of a mash-up? Can copying a classmate’s assignment be a form of p2p networking? Is self-plagiarism (e.g., submitting work from a previous course) a kind of re-mixing? I wonder what the relationship is between attitudes toward intellectual property rights in general and a student’s willingness to plagiarize. (This idea is the theme of a recent New York Time’s article: Plagiarism Blurs for Students in Digital Age

Do schools do enough to help students understand the issue of plagiarism? Are the policies within the school consistent?

At tertiary institutes, plagiarism is usually quite clearly defined and students are required to use specific citation and referencing formats. At secondary school, however, there is a lot more variety in what teachers expect of students. For example, for some assignments, students may be required to take information from different sources and write a report making use of the information (some copied, some paraphrased and some summarised)  but without citing any sources. It sounds like plagiarism, but how can it be considered plagiarism if the students are doing exactly what is required by the assignment? Then what happens if the same students are simultaneously writing a report for another teacher who wants all sources attributed, but has not taught students how to cite and reference sources?

I came across a teaching blog in which students had posted views on plagiarism and noticed that the some of the students had interesting views. One wrote that there were two forms of plagiarism—intentional and unintentional—and that unintentional plagiarists should be treated more leniently (but the student did not say how a teacher could actually know a student’s intention). Another student adopted the let-he-who-is-without-sin defense that because “everyone has cheated at some point,” plagiarists should not be condemned (the student does, however, accept that marks might have to be deducted or withheld).

Are there clear school policies regarding what happens once plagiarism is detected? Are such policies necessary?

What examples do we set as teachers when we reproduce materials illegally? (I’m not perfect when it comes to respecting copyright. For example, although I’ve produced all the text and most of the images used on this site and have also used graphics from purchased clip-art collections; some graphics—specifically the photos of performers in the music-related articles— have just been pulled from other websites and without any form of attribution.)

3. Cultural Differences

This is a sensitive issue that comes up from time to time in contexts where there are large numbers of Chinese students. Many universities in Australia and England aggressively target students from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Mainland, and plagiarism among these overseas students has long been a source of concern. There are a wide range of opinions on the matter, including:

  • Someone’s cultural background does not create a stronger tendency to plagiarize;
  • If overseas students appear to plagiarize more frequently, it might be due to the language barriers encountered when reading and writing in English;
  • Plagiarism is only more noticeable (not more prevalent) among overseas students because they are less able to adapt the writing style of the source material to match their own style (i.e., they are less able to disguise plagiarized text);
  • In some cultures, the concept of intellectual property is different (or does not even exist); therefore, plagiarism is more common;
  • In some cultures, students may be taught to have so much respect for the source material that altering it would be disrespectful;
  • Culture might play a role, but you better ignore it. If you have preconceived notions about who will plagiarize, you will likely monitor the work of those students more closely (similar to racial profiling) and consequently uncover more cases, thereby reinforcing your existing prejudices.

From my own point of view, I do feel that culture does have an influence on a student’s willingness to plagiarize, but it might be more useful to think of culture in terms of educational culture rather than on racial or ethnic terms. A common kind of learning activity in most Chinese and some English classes in Hong Kong, for example, is the recited dictation. In this activity, the teacher assigns a passage, the students memorize it at home  and then they write it down from memory during the lesson. Does this type of assignment turn word-for-word copying into a school-approved learning strategy? If copying a passage can help you learn Chinese, can’t copying an article about the French Revolution word for word help you learn history?

I suspect that this possible cultural effect on plagiarism is fast becoming a non-issue. I would argue that the influence of the Internet in enabling quick-and-easy copying and the related shifting attitudes towards intellectual copyright are now having a much stronger effect than any cultural differences.

4. The Responsibilities of Teachers

To what extent are teachers responsible for their students’ plagiarism? If you go away on holiday and leave your front door unlocked can you complain if someone breaks into your house while you are gone? Similarly, if teachers give assignments that can be plagiarized in their entirety with a couple of mouse clicks, can they complain if students are copying?

If teachers set assignments that are basically just busywork, won’t their students be more willing to cut corners to get the job done? There are two questions to consider here. First, if an assignment does not provide meaningful learning opportunities, can plagiarism become a justifiable strategy for a student who is attempting  to prioritize workload? Second, what can teachers do to ensure that students are able recognize the value of doing a particular assignment properly?

In the blog I mentioned earlier, one student wrote:

I have plagiarized in an effort to hasten my workload before. On assignments that teachers don’t take seriously, it is especially tempting. However, I think that school systems make a larger deal over plagiarism than necessary. I do think it is unfair to the actual author of the work if you are using their ideas and not giving them credit for them. But, in the long run, what’s the big deal? For most school assignments, no one even really cares what you have to say. You write papers because you’re told to, and teachers read them because they have to, not because they are interested. It’s their job.

Another question that concerns me is why so many teachers turn a blind eye to plagiarism. Is it because they cannot detect it, because they don’t care or because they are unwilling to deal with the aftermath, which can get quite messy? Dealing with plagiarism is rarely straightforward. Sometimes when I discuss a case of plagiarism with a student, the student admits it, accepts the penalty and promises never to do it again. Then we move on. Sometimes, however, the student will deny plagiarizing despite incontrovertible proof, an act which causes additional problems.  Basically the student is forcing the teacher to say that the denial is a lie and the student, by implication, is a liar.

It is also quite common for students to try to punish the teacher. One method is for the student to give a low score in teaching evaluations. Another method is to complain about the teacher and thus draw attention away from the plagiarism offence. I remember one student—one who had decided to adopt the complaint approach—arguing that although it was wrong for her to plagiarize, I was equally in the wrong—because I “didn’t look the other way” like a good, understanding teacher should. As educators may worry about strained teacher-student relationships and the risk of low teaching evaluations and student complaints, is there any wonder that many teachers avoid dealing with cases of plagiarism?


If you have viewpoints on this topic, I hope you will share them by writing a reply.

~by longzijun


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