Cultural insight can help tackle plagiarism

April 24, 2008

Cultural attitudes to knowledge must be understood if UK universities are to get to grips with plagiarism among Chinese students, a conference has heard.

Ouyang Huhua, professor of English at Guandong University of Foreign Studies, told delegates at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator event that it was "very hard" for Chinese students studying in the West to abandon an approach learnt over a lifetime.

"The notion of plagiarism is alien to Chinese culture, where there is no individual claim, no ownership over intellectual property, and it is hard for Chinese students to conceptualise the idea," he said. "In China, knowledge-making is not open to everybody as it is in the West. It is a privilege belonging to a handful ... (who) stay in history, so everybody knows who said what and there is no question about the source."

Professor Ouyang said that quoting these "sages" without referencing them was common practice in China, where the claim to have originated knowledge could be dangerous. "People will say that person is an individualist in a collective culture and he will be punished," he said. "(In the West) you use works as second-hand evidence to support your own claims, your own judgments. You are the master and they are the slaves serving you.

"Students coming here to study are suddenly supposed to write a paper in this new system. It is hard for them," said Professor Ouyang.

However, Adrian Slater, legal adviser at the University of Leeds, warned against stereotyping specific groups as "high risk". "If you get into that scenario, are you stereotyping and looking for plagiarism and therefore finding more? I don't know of one group worse than others."

Speaking at the conference, Mr Slater set out some of the issues that face universities when they draw up policies for dealing with plagiarism. He cited "auto-plagiarism", when students reuse their ideas; the status of public domain material, such as Einstein's formula E=mc2; and students who conspire, for example giving marked assignments to others in earlier stages of a course - all factors that had to be considered.

The accessibility of material on the web, he said, had dragged institutions into a "constant arms race of suspicion" with students. Asserting that responses must be proportionate, he recommended the use of a tariff setting out the punishment for grades of plagiarism.

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