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Cultural-linguistic Considerations of Plagiarism and Self-plagiarism

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Plagiarism amongst non English-speaking students has been, in part, attributed to a variety of cultural factors, including their different conceptions of intellectual property, originality and attribution. For example, students from some Asian countries presumably follow ancient traditions of memorizing and copying texts from original sources out of respect for the authority those individuals represent (see Pecorari, 2013, p. 110) and they do so without attribution under the assumption that the reader will already be familiar with the provenance of the material (Bloch 2012, p. 14). Certainly, earlier research suggested that some Asian students may not even be familiar with the concept of plagiarism (see, for example, Decker, 1993), but more recent evidence does suggest that even if they are familiar with the concept, plagiarism may simply be ignored by teachers because such behavior does not seem to be a matter of concern to them (see, for example, Moon 2002). To be fair, such lax attitude toward plagiarism on the part of teaching staff and of students is not confined to Asian nations. Heitman and Litewka (2011), point out how students in Eastern European nations (see Magnus, Polteroich and Danilov, 2002; Pupovac, Bilic-Zulle & Petrovecki, 2008) and also Middle East, Latin America, India, and Africa are much more tolerant about issues of misconduct than some Western European nations or the United States (see Vasconcelos, Leta, and Costa, 2009). On the other hand, many of these attitudes may be slowly changing as individual nations and even entire regions attempt to become more competitive in an increasingly global market. For example, Chinese-English bilingual education is growing rapidly in China (Hu, 2008) and, invariably, such instruction will likely lead to wider exposure and familiarity with Western scholarly traditions, including issues related to plagiarism and proper attribution of sources. Other emerging economies (i.e., Brazil) are similarly making great strides toward curbing both, academic and research misconduct (Vasconcelos, et al, 2009).

In addition to cultural variables, Heitman and Litewa (2011) identify two other major factors that predispose some non English speaking individuals to plagiarize: 1) The acceptability of plagiarism in their home environments and 2) vague or non-existent policies on this and related subjects.

With respect to the second point, it should be noted that in most Western, English-speaking nations, secondary, and tertiary academic institutions familiarize students with issues of academic integrity, and plagiarism in particular, via a number of mechanisms, such as in-class verbal admonitions, written academic integrity policies, student honor codes, and similar guidance. Yet, studies repeatedly show that many students from these same nations, including those from North America, admit to plagiarizing at all educational levels, i.e., graduate and professional schools, even though they likely know what plagiarism is and are well-aware that it is wrong. Similarly, most Western academic institutions, funding agencies, professional associations, etc., have written policies in place that identify plagiarism as a form of research misconduct. Yet, plagiarism is one of the most frequent areas of concern for journal editors (Wager, et al., 2009) with a third of retracted journal articles being due to plagiarism or self-plagiarism (Fang, et al., 2012). Some of these retracted papers are from native English-speaking authors who work at Western institutions with strong misconduct policies.

The academic dishonesty literature can help inform us about factors that can influence whether students will plagiarize. For example, according to Donald McCabe, perhaps the most widely published researcher in this area, one of most important predictors of whether students will cheat is their perception of whether others will do so (McCabe, Treviño, & Butterfield, 2002). Thus, and consistent with Heitman and Litewa’s (2011) observation, if there is a perception that others plagiarize and/or that this misbehavior will be tolerated, students are more likely to engage in it, especially if they believe that doing so does not lead to any negative consequences.

Admittedly, some of the evidence does suggest that many native English-speaking students (McGowan & Lightbody, 2008; Power, 2009; Roig, 1997; 1999) and even some professionals (Julliard, 1994; Roig, 2001) are simply not familiar with the nuances of appropriate scholarship. In addition, the evidence also suggests that an important factor that leads writers to misappropriate long strings of text from sources is a combination of uniqueness of the terminology used, etc. (cite sources). To this point, Pecorari (2013) writes: “Most people, from undergraduates in their first term to senior and frequently published scholars, find academic writing challenging because of the high degree of accuracy and precision of expression it requires” (p. 113). It makes sense, then, to suspect that a major factor in the incidence of plagiarism by non-native writers of English lies in these writers’ difficulties managing the production of mechanically sound, appropriate grade-level prose in their acquired second language. Consider what is involved in being able to write correctly in a second language: one must be able to memorize the meaning of thousands of words and learn the syntactical rules for combining those words to form grammatically correct sentences. The ease of acquisition will depend on many factors, such as the age and the context in which the second language is acquired, and the educational and linguistic background of the individual. For example, it is probably much easier for someone whose native language uses an European alphabet system than, say, someone who uses an Arabic or Asian system with little to no prior exposure to English. In addition to learning a new language, there is the added step of needing to learn the language (e.g., terminology, technical expressions) of the discipline being studied. Thus, in the context of the sciences, learning to write proper English is not enough. Additionally, the student needs to then learn the unique vocabulary and expressions of the specific discipline in which s/he operates, including the additional requirements for utmost clarity and conciseness demanded by scientific writing.

The “rules” of scholarly-scientific English have a long-standing tradition and are unlikely to change in order to accommodate the needs of non native English writers. However, considering the fact that some native speakers of English will take years to master the production of good scientific writing, it is important for all of us to have some appreciation of how much more difficult it is for most non-native writers of English, who often lack many of the resources available to native speakers, to master this important task. Thus, in the words of Pennycook (1996), “… we need to be flexible, not dogmatic, about where we draw boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable textual borrowings.” It is, therefore, essential for all of us to take all of the above considerations into account in judging ethical writing lapses of these linguistic groups.