Foreign student rule-breaking: culture clash or survival skills?

North American administrators call high rates of plagiarism 'tip of the iceberg'. Jon Marcus reports

October 6, 2011

Gary Pavela remembers being surprised by the defiant reaction of a visiting student from China who he confronted over a clear-cut incident of plagiarism.

"But in my culture, we view it as honouring someone to use their words," the student told Mr Pavela, who is the director of academic integrity at Syracuse University in the US.

He thought about that for a moment before responding.

No, Mr Pavela told the student, there really was no cultural difference in that regard.

"All we're asking is that you honour them a little bit more by giving them the credit," he said.

Such conversations are becoming increasingly commonplace for administrators in the US and Canada, as North American universities aggressively recruit international students - and find that a disproportionate number of them break the academic rules.

In one study, the University of Windsor in the Canadian province of Ontario tracked how many foreign students were being cited for academic dishonesty compared with their Canadian classmates. It found that one in 53 international students had been charged versus one in 1,122 Canadians.

Even that, said Danielle Istl, Windsor's academic integrity officer, "is only the tip of the iceberg. We don't know how much goes on behind the scenes."

Most of the international students who wound up in the disciplinary process were accused of plagiarism, she added.

"To me, that isn't that surprising because you have students whose first language isn't English and they may struggle writing papers in English."

However, other studies have found that the most common offence perpetrated by foreign students is cheating in examinations.

But many of the misdemeanours are not deliberate, said Florida Doci, a student from Albania and an officer of Windsor's International Student Society.

"Most of the international students have not had to write a paper and follow the rules of referencing (before)," she said. "They happen to cheat or make mistakes like this because they don't know they're doing it. They're used to writing down whatever they read.

"I see it more as a problem that affects international students because of where they come from, rather than something they're doing intentionally."

'Survival mechanism'

While administrators are hesitant to generalise further about what may be driving students from abroad to cheat, they acknowledge that cultural differences play a major role - although not the kind claimed by Mr Pavela's unrepentant student.

Twenty per cent of international students in the US come from China (up 30 per cent on last year alone) and 15 per cent are from India, the largest groups of foreign students in the country (the numbers are similar in Canada). Experienced administrators suggest that this has a lot to do with the rise in cheating.

In some countries - China and India included - "the climate for academic integrity is not strong", said Mr Pavela, a lawyer by training who has served as a consultant to the US State Department.

"It is not simply an issue of the deficiencies of students, but includes faculty who cut corners or who do not share any more of a commitment to academic integrity than students do," he added.

Cheating for such students, he said, "is a survival mechanism. They are part of cultures where you have to do what you have to do."

Compounding this is the pressure heaped on Chinese and Indian students by relatives and sponsors.

"Those pressures include the potential embarrassment of having to go home (having not) succeeded here," said Don McCabe, professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School and founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity.

But Professor McCabe added that US and Canadian universities had to take their share of the blame, too.

"It's the fault of the institutions in the sense that they aggressively recruit these students and don't adequately orient them in the different traditions of academic integrity," he argued.

At Windsor, international undergraduates do receive orientation, including a separate programme for engineering and management students, and yet another focused on academic integrity and managing exams tailored to foreign graduate teaching assistants.

International students in master's programmes for management and engineering are also required to sign "academic honesty agreements".

There are plans for even more comprehensive measures to be introduced next year.

Mr Pavela said this was welcome, but cautioned that highlighting concerns about international students' honesty could cause further problems.

"The debate here includes whether there is a 'spotlighting effect' going on, that we are more likely to scrutinise people from a different culture," he said.

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