Understanding International Student Plagiarism: Differences in Causes and Culture

The topic of plagiarism is one that almost always inevitably arises when international students first begin their studies at American high schools and colleges. The concept of plagiarism is often unfamiliar to many international students studying in the U.S. and can result in severe disciplinary actions such as receiving failing grades and expulsion. The biggest challenge for international students and schools in addressing academic integrity is overcoming the hurdle of cultural differences in understanding plagiarism.

This issue is not nearly as simple as telling international students not to copy directly from sources or to provide proper citations. Many educators report that their students, “just don’t get why it’s a big deal.” As a result, teachers, administrators, and international students alike end up frustrated when the issue of plagiarism comes up.

To better provide guidance on academic integrity and ways to avoid plagiarism, we need to understand the cultural foundations of how many international students view knowledge. To effectively communicate the issue of plagiarism with international students from East Asia, we highly recommend examining some of the cultural differences between East and West. Typically, the root cause of plagiarism among this segment of the student body are cultural.

Although there are many reasons as to why this topic is so challenging for international students, here we highlight four main categories of disconnect on plagiarism.

The Role of Confucian Ideology in Education

The Master said: “Transmitting insight, but never creating insight, standing by my words and devoted to the ancients: perhaps I’m a little like that old sage, P’eng.” 7.1 of the Analects of Confucius

Confucian thought has substantially influenced the intellectual philosophy and pedagogy of East Asian countries such as China, Korea, and Vietnam in particular. According to the teachings of Confucius, students are taught to respect those who provide knowledge and to avoid challenging authority.

At school in China, students are expected to memorize and repeat classical texts. Rote memorization is evident in all subjects in Chinese pedagogy, whether it’s Math, Science, Geography, Literature, History, or Social Science. Students are not encouraged to create original ideas because of the belief that the masters in each subject have already established the best solutions.

Ownership of Intellectual Ideas and Property

Students may believe that knowledge belongs to society as a whole, not to the individual.

In other words, international students are taught that there is a right answer, and nobody owns it. Students may believe that knowledge belongs to society as a whole, not to the individual. Ownership, or rather non-ownership of ideas, also have philosophical foundations in the teachings of Confucius. Students may think that it is disrespectful to their teachers or readers if they cite their sources, as this may imply that they did not already know the source.

Challenges Related to Learning Academic English

Students may copy texts because they believe that the original text was written better than they could express the idea themselves.

Learning a second language is challenging, and English language learners will struggle to convey complex thoughts and ideas that are usually required in an academic essay. Students may copy texts or modify them only slightly because they believe that the original was written better than they could express the idea themselves. Students may be using this as a technique, called patchwriting, to improve their writing skills.


Morality of Plagiarism

Students may generally not understand why plagiarism is considered immoral in American culture.

Students may not be aware that plagiarism is considered stealing or cheating in the American educational system. In contrast, it may be frequently regarded as acceptable in their home countries. Students in most cases are not attempting to deceive their teachers but may not understand what they are supposed to do or why plagiarism is considered wrong.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about plagiarism is how deeply embedded it is within American education. As your new students begin the acculturation process, they must understand why plagiarism is taken so seriously. Address this issue as early as possible. We suggest schools speak to students about U.S. standards of academic integrity as soon as your international student orientation.

If you would like to learn more about this topic, we encourage you to reach out to your International Program Manager who can provide additional background information.

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