Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Source Referencing & Plagiarism
Plagiarism is the intentional use of another's work as one's own. In the United States, plagiarism is a serious issue with serious consequences. Yet around the world, different cultures have different perspectives on how attribution for someone else's work should be given. This means that what may appear to be plagiarism in one country may be an acceptable practice in another. In a globalized world where individuals and students regularly cross borders for study and business, understanding different perspectives on source use and common knowledge can reduce tensions, especially between professors and students. This article gives a brief overview on some of the different ways cultures perceive the construction of knowledge, the writing process and source referencing.
Keywords: Academic Integrity; Collaborative Writing; Cross-Cultural Perspectives; Enlightenment Period; ESL Writing; Intellectual Property; Patchwriting; Plagiarism; Postmodernism; Referencing; Source Citation
Plagiarism, intentionally claiming another's work as one's own, is a serious offense in the United States. In the professional world, careers have been ruined when instances of plagiarism have been discovered (Stolberg, 2008). In colleges and universities, the penalties for not doing one's own work may range from failure on a paper or a course to suspension or expulsion.
On the surface, plagiarism might seem like a straightforward concept. A student who purchases a paper over the Internet to submit for a grade, for example, has obviously plagiarized. Such a case of blatant cheating of the system is easily punished (if not easily identified despite anti-cheating programs such as Turnitin.com). But plagiarism is actually a complex subject that involves many culturally constructed notions.
Plagiarism as a Cultural Construct
One of these notions is that individuals can be the source for original and creative ideas. A second is that original and creative ideas should be property, controlled by the individual that produces them for the benefit of the individual. These underlying assumptions, which make plagiarism an issue, are not universal. Rather, the ideas are tied closely to developments in European-American history, which through the Romantic and Enlightenment periods, advanced the concept that the human mind is the source of all knowledge and wisdom, not God. Following this line of reasoning, individualism, creativity, and autonomy became important cornerstones in the foundation of western intellectualism (Swearingen, 1999). Additionally, capitalist ideology, which emphasizes that the means of wealth should be privately controlled, leads to the concept of intellectual property. Ideas, like any form of capital, have the potential to make money, and thus, those who develop the ideas should have the right to benefit financially from them (Stearns, 1999; Swearingen, 1999). Together, these two strands of philosophy laid the foundation for the traditional western approach to authorship and creative control. That is, sole authors are granted the right to produce work that can then benefit them economically. To protect their ability to obtain this benefit, an individual's work must not be used by anyone else without attribution or permission. If work is used without permission, copyright and plagiarism violations occur.
One reason that plagiarism is a cultural construct is because not all cultures share the same history. Thus, different cultures perceive differing relationships between ideas and people. Confucian-influenced societies, for instance, which include countries such as China, Korea and Japan, are frequently noted for their more collective and communal approach to ideas. Instead of viewing ideas as property with economic benefits for the owner, these societies tend to view them as being part of a collective foundation of knowledge available to all who seek it through advanced study. While Confucian-influenced societies perceive those who have contributed original ideas to the body of knowledge as being masters in their disciplines and worthy of study, the ideas themselves do not belong solely to those who created them. Furthermore, modes of learning in these societies, which frequently emphasize memorization as a way to absorb the knowledge of the masters, reward those who can reproduce important teachings with accuracy (Lund, 2004; Maxwell, Curtis, & Vardanega, 2008). In these societies, knowing the information is an indication that one knows its source. Thus, citing the source is not always necessary. In fact, some have reported that citing the source could be considered an insult to the intelligence of the reader (Buranen, 1999).
Given the fact that concepts of authorship, ownership, and source use are influenced by cultural understandings, it is tempting to desire a systematic classification of how various cultures perceive the issue of citing sources. Having such a classification might help professors in American universities understand why some of their international students appear to be frequent plagiarizers. As many ESL teachers would attest, the answer is usually not an attempt by the student to deceive the professor, but instead a misunderstanding by the student of what he or she is supposed to do. Students from cultural backgrounds where giving attribution for an idea is unfamiliar or perceived to be insulting cannot be expected to understand its importance in American academia. A classification of perspectives on writing and citation by culture could help professors understand their students better, alleviating some of the tension surrounding the issue of plagiarism in the university. Unfortunately, cultures are too diverse to reduce to one homogenous perspective.
As in the United States — which has always been a culture comprised of eclectic ideologies due to the diversity of its population — cultures around the world now reflect multiple influences. International students and scholars, for example, have transported western ideas to middle eastern and eastern cultures. It is not uncommon for Chinese scholars to have studied in American, British or Australian universities. Similarly, the diversification of western curricula has integrated many ideas into American institutions of higher education that were once considered foreign (Ryan & Louie, 2007). Today's scholars of any one culture are likely to demonstrate the attitudes, behaviors and practices of not only their native culture but also of the culture in which they have studied and practiced their discpline. Thus, developing a taxonomy of cultural perspectives would be somewhat impossible and possibly could be a disservice that could lead to inappropriate stereotyping.
Nevertheless, while one's native culture may not be the single determining factor in influencing one's writing behaviors, culture does play a role in shaping how individuals approach the writing process and in how they assess the writing product. Because culturally diverse individuals can and do approach writing with different standards and expectations, and because some differences, when they occur in a western academic context, may be perceived as plagiarism, understanding the interplay between individual, cultural background, and context can be useful in helping writers adjust to various discourses. To this end, researchers have focused on the stages individuals go through as they learn to write in an unfamiliar academic discourse as well as on their understanding of western ideas about source citation and plagiarism.
One study that examined the role culture plays in international student writing and source citation behaviors is Gu and Brooks's (2008) investigation of how Chinese students changed as they learned to write for a British academic context. The researchers followed ten Chinese postgraduate students as they learned the conventions of western academic writing. They found that for students to become successful writers in the community, they had to acquire a conceptual understanding of how knowledge is constructed in the community. In that process, culture played a role, but so did student identities, learner motivation, and the power relationships between teachers and students. Importantly, they found that students frequently used memorization and copying as a tool for learning the language. This makes sense, the authors note, because in China, students are often required to memorize text in order to learn English. The practice is designed to help the students pay attention to details of the language and to learn rhetorical writing styles. In the study, students noted they may copy a passage from a text because they like the style of the language, and they want to learn it. To make it original, they may change words or some of the sentence structure. The authors highlight...
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