I could not have put it better - so I won't

June 25, 2004

More foreign than home students are caught plagiarising. This may be due to language, stress and different cultural traditions, Harriet Swain finds.

Cheat sites offering ready-made student essays have made universities wake up to the problems of student plagiarism. But as detection improves, it has become clear that catching cheats is only part of a complex cultural issue. Most researchers looking into the problem note a particularly high incidence among overseas students. "We don't know whether plagiarism is more common among international students, but it is certainly more commonly caught," says Jude Carroll, senior lecturer in teaching in higher education at Oxford Brookes University.

This is one of the issues being discussed at the inaugural "Plagiarism: Prevention, Practice and Policies" conference being held at Northumbria University next week by the Plagiarism Advisory Service. The service is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee, which offers universities an electronic detection program. Jisc stresses that "detection should be used as part of a wider approach to prevention". One concern is that better detection might unfairly single out foreign students.

Language is the main reason for this. Non-native speakers find it difficult to recognise the changes in rhythm and vocabulary that make it clear to others that passages have been lifted. Patch writing, whereby students link ideas from different sources in their own words and with some of their own ideas, is harder for those working in a second language, as is distinguishing between when this way of working crosses the line from acceptability into plagiarism.

Betty Leask is coordinator of international staff and student services at the University of South Australia's Flexible Learning Centre and a keynote speaker at the conference. She says: "Writing and thinking are closely tied together. (Working in a) second language, you can lose track of what are someone else's words and what are yours." Many also find it hard to understand the need to rewrite when the original has expressed it better than they could.

Plagiarism is particularly tempting for students under pressure. Not only is working in an unfamiliar language and environment stressful, but many students in such a position also face greater financial pressures and demands to succeed than home students. Philip King, lecturer in English for international students at Birmingham University, says that there is also often a mismatch between British academic expectations of how students should write and construct an argument and students' past experiences and cultural traditions. For example, King says, in Middle Eastern cultures, one honours great thinkers when one reproduces their words. "As they have said it perfectly, who are you to rewrite it?"

Research at Lancaster University suggests that Chinese students may have similar traditions, and that the practices of Greek students may be shaped by their lack of belief in the integrity of their native educational system. Niall Hayes, one of the researchers, says he began looking into the issue out of concern for overseas students. "Several had to go to the standing academic committee. Really, it was their own cultural background disadvantaging them, and our cultural understanding of them."

Leask says that plagiarism must be seen as a cultural construct.

"Plagiarism is not a universal principle. It is not even universally applied." She says it is necessary to explain clearly to students that one of the ideologies behind plagiarism is that someone can own an idea. It is a particularly difficult concept to explain, she says, because part of being a scholar is using other people's ideas.

There is a fine line between recognising cultural differences in learning methods and racism. Leask is concerned when people talk about Asian students being unable to think "properly" or critically. "These are value judgements, and they are pejorative."

Carroll argues that most international students know what plagiarism is but succumb to it when under pressure. The answer, she says, is to give students practice, feedback and opportunities to develop new skills before they are judged. "By and large, international students are just expected to turn up and get on with it," she says.

For Hayes, it shouldn't be assumed that all plagiarism is cheating. "We should be trying to help (students who plagiarise). If they don't want to take up the offer, we should bring in more Draconian policies." Leask says standard good teaching principles - such as giving feedback on every assignment, linking tasks so they build on from each other and ensuring students apply knowledge in new situations - are the best ways of deterring plagiarism.

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