Academic Writing and Plagiarism: A Linguistic Analysis

Kim Louise Walden examines the case for a less judgmental approach to student 'misconduct'

January 15, 2009

Alarm about the perceived "endemic" problem of plagiarism in higher education has given rise to a frenzy of activity in academic institutions, with the drafting of policies, procedures and guidelines crafted in the hope of combating these practices.

While the vigour with which these measures have been put in place has been impressive, our institutions' attitudes towards plagiarism have often been couched in judgmental terms more commonly associated with the law than with education. Policies refer to "the charge of plagiarism" and "penalties", and academics can be quick to take the moral high ground, discussing plagiarism in terms of "misconduct" and "theft". Furthermore, a university's procedures will typically include declarations that must be acknowledged with students' signatures, placing the responsibility for misdemeanours squarely with the students.

It is into this arena that Diane Pecorari's Academic Writing and Plagiarism provides a timely contribution. Her premise is that when the dust has settled, the only practical response is for teachers to take a pedagogic approach. Universities, she argues, should avoid placing responsibility for academic writing solely with students and look at how we can teach our way out of the problem.

These conclusions are based on Pecorari's research. At the heart of this monograph is a survey of source use by non-native English-speaking postgraduate students at three UK universities, chosen because of the widely held presumption that cultural differences will cause this group to be more likely to plagiarise. Pecorari conducts a forensic analysis of writing samples taken from students' work that makes using detection software look like wading in the shallow end.

The survey reveals some rather startling findings, and shows that students are highly reliant on the languages of their sources and exhibit a concerning lack of transparency in their source use. But rather than just taking these findings at face value and marching students off to academic misconduct hearings, Pecorari conducts interviews with the students in order to fathom their intentions and then does likewise with their academic supervisors. The results point to myriad reasons that are connected more to students' learning experiences, writing processes and citation skills than with cultural differences or any intent to deceive.

As you might expect from a book dubbed a "linguistic approach" to plagiarism, the study then addresses the issue of what exactly students need to know about source use. In the battle for curriculum space on programmes, citation is often taught in a prescriptive this-is-how-it-is-done manner using the Harvard system, the Chicago system or suchlike. But Pecorari's findings seem to indicate that this is no longer sufficient. Citation is a complex skill that requires careful and staged acquisition, and she considers some of the practical strategies for both teachers and institutions.

Plagiarism is first and foremost a problem of language, but consideration has been given to connections between linguistic issues and the wider academic context, including the diversity of the student body whose prior educational experience may not have prepared them for this kind of writing culture. Also examined are plagiarism detection software, the increasing commoditisation of higher education, and the international academic community that makes English the lingua franca and puts international students at a disadvantage.

The most interesting part of the whole inquiry lies in a discussion of how students learn to write from the models of writing that they encounter during their research. One of the unforeseen findings of the research project was that models of writing presented on the web clearly place less weight on the traditional academic conventions of attribution, preferring instead models such as the wiki-style collective accumulation of knowledge. At odds, then, are the linguistic styles of emerging web culture, the academic conventions of attribution and the language learning processes (which often emphasise learning by copying) for students who are non-native speakers of English. No wonder students are confused.

Attitudes to plagiarism are as diverse as the contexts in which it emerges, but this meticulous investigation makes an important contribution to the debate. It will make interesting reading not only for researchers in applied linguistics but also for anyone concerned with academic writing, faculty academic conduct officers, directors of studies and academic registrars.

Academic Writing and Plagiarism: A Linguistic Analysis

By Diane Pecorari

Continuum, 224pp, £75.00

ISBN 9780826491664

Published 24 July 2008

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