Cultural Perspectives on Plagiarism

Different cultures have various customs about how to use texts, how borrowing should happen, and where names should be placed. The “I” writing this text is unnamed because the group producing this web site agreed to work and share collaboratively. In some traditional cultures in Asia and the Middle East, for example, college students are expected to quote or paraphrase the best known political or religious authorities without attribution because readers, especially professors, are expected to know what texts are being circulated. Indeed, it might be a serious insult to the teacher if the student writer formally cites the text being borrowed. The student writer in one of these traditional cultural settings must understand what she or he can reasonably expect readers ­ professors ­ to know as a source text being quoted or paraphrased without being cited. If the student misjudges what is common knowledge, either by citing what is common knowledge or by not citing what is not common knowledge, the student writer gets into real trouble. Gaining enough intellectual maturity and experience to know what is common knowledge in a traditional culture is a complex and demanding task.

If determining what constitutes common knowledge in a traditional culture is a complicated process, especially for first-year college students, imagine how much more perplexing this process is in intercultural spaces, such as American universities. An intercultural space is a place where a number of cultures meet, overlap, dispute, and challenge. It is a place of endless restructuring. It is a locale that bridges, contests, and separates what might seem like unchanging cultural structures. But if one sees cultures as interactive and unfixed, rather than self-contained and stable, then intercultural spaces resist any form of stasis and can suddenly change dramatically and in the most surprising ways. Authoring and plagiarism are just such intercultural spaces. A national authority on authorship and plagiarism, Rebecca Howard argues that “the autonomous, originary, proprietary, moral author is not a foundational fact, but a cultural arbitrary” (151). We are in the midst of the most fluid and conflicted transformations of authorship and plagiarism since Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum invited the concept of legal ownership of intellectual property. Students who work through intercultural landscapes and a fluid experience of authoring discover that if words are many-sided acts, territory shared, student writers need to move from having inherited values and beliefs to choosing or modifying them through the use of consciously intentional language. This is the time when especially first_year students fear open questions. They fear the clear need for re_conceptualization: students invariably ask some form of two questions: “where will re-conceptualization lead?” “What and who will I become?” Students in the intercultural spaces of American universities by the very conflicting nature of intercultural spaces, are forced to question the sustaining postulates of the world view they inherited. Students need to consider the democratic character of the pursuit, and regard it as the minimum requirement for education to take place. As one Chinese student — Fu Chun — wrote: “if a college course doesn’t produce times of deep writer’s block, and if a classroom experience doesn’t produce intense culture shocks, then one has retreated to the surface of things, to comfortable stereotypes and deadly familiar dogma.”

The first-year college classroom is a new culture to students in which there is a perpetual invitation to analyze and criticize all cultures, including academic discourse itself, endlessly, and to act on the critique. Academic discourse becomes more than playing with ideas; it is an invitation to change self and society individually, collectively, and democratically. Students who work through culture shock and writer’s block begin to realize that writing is an author’s answer to the world and is a powerful form of action. As we move increasingly in the direction of multi-media authoring, students are demonstrating the desire to create new conceptual environments in which diverse, overlapping, cultural and intercultural perceptions and experiences provide new environments for acts of freedom and connectedness. Authorship and plagiarism are the most contested and rapidly changing intercultural landscapes in the American academy. Who or what are we becoming?

Howard, Rebecca Moore. Standing in the Shadow of Giants : Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford, Conn.: Ablex Pub., c1999.