In Western academia, intellectual property is highly protected. Using others’ ideas or words without acknowledging the authors or citing the sources properly, intentionally or not, is considered cheating and known as plagiarism. Thus, writing instructors often use software to identify this misconduct in students’ written assignments. Similarly, writing center tutors consider helping students avoid plagiarism a higher-order concern in tutorial sessions.

Teach What Plagiarism Is in a Western Context

Students’ understanding of plagiarism is closely associated with their cultural backgrounds (Scollon). Some speakers of English as a second or foreign language, hereafter referred to as L2 writers, have home cultures that may not share what may be a uniquely Western and ideological conception of plagiarism (Currie). Nevertheless, many writing instructors and tutors have the misconception that L2 writers are frequently academically dishonest and thus tend to perceive and label these writers as plagiarists. But most L2 writers do not want to commit this academic taboo. What confuses them is the meaning of plagiarism and how to appropriately avoid it. Hence, writing instructors and tutors should recognize that possible cultural differences and an inaccurate understanding of plagiarism may lead L2 writers to plagiarize. These educators should, therefore, shift from labeling L2 writers as plagiarists to explaining to L2 writers the meaning of plagiarism in Western academia and teaching them to cite sources properly.

Explain How to Express Ideas in Clear Language

Another problem among educators is that when comparing a student’s text with other writers’ texts on the same topic, they assume that the more the student repeats words from other texts, the greater the chance that the student is plagiarizing. For this reason, professors and students often use Turnitin, the most popular Internet-based plagiarism-detection software, to identify similarities between a student’s paper and existing sources. But lexical similarity should not be the determining factor in whether a student has plagiarized. Oftentimes, to express a clear and thorough idea, a student must use a certain number of key words. In other words, lexical similarity between the student’s version and works by other writers on the same topic may be hard to avoid. Hence, the use of the same or similar words in the student’s text cannot be used as a single standard in judging whether a student has plagiarized. Writing instructors and tutors should shift their focus from checking lexical similarity to teaching students to express their ideas in clear language.

Provide Opportunities for Students to Improve Their Linguistic Abilities

The third misconception among educators is that in a writing classroom, the job of L2 writers is solely to improve their writing. From a learning perspective, however, most L2 writers improve their writing and linguistic abilities at the same time—experienced L2 writers and, especially, newly arrived L2 writers. Sometimes L2 writers may not be able to express their ideas completely and clearly in English. Thus, when they notice that what others wrote is exactly what they want to express, some of them may apply the “patchwriting” strategy of “copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one-for-one synonym substitutes” (Howard 233). For this reason, writing instructors and tutors should understand that the “memorization of the words of others” is a major and plausible language-learning strategy for nonnative speakers of English (Pennycook 202). Thus, it is vital for educators to differentiate text borrowing for language learning from plagiarizing intentionally. They should offer explicit help with how to paraphrase others’ ideas while providing opportunities for L2 writers to work on their language development.

Avoid Perpetuating Stereotypes of L2 Writers

If educators stop to consider plagiarism among L2 writers from the perspectives of cultural difference, content construction, and learning, they will see that this issue is more complex than often thought. However, I do not want to mislead readers into thinking that I encourage L2 writers to borrow texts without attribution or to practice patchwriting or that I want to defend academic dishonesty among these writers. On the contrary, it is critical for writing instructors and tutors to guide L2 writers in dealing with plagiarism. But to do so, educators need to know what causes plagiarism in L2 writing and to avoid oversimplifying or criticizing other cultural practices. The misconception that L2 writers are plagiarists can stereotype them. Educators should inform L2 writers about the Western notion of plagiarism and guide them in developing strategies to avoid it. Only through the joint efforts of instructors, tutors, and students can plagiarism be dealt with appropriately. 

Works Cited

Currie, Pat. “Staying out of Trouble: Apparent Plagiarism and Academic Survival.” Journal of Second Language Writing, vol. 7, no. 1, 1998, pp. 1–18.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “A Plagiarism Pentimento.” Journal of Teaching Writing, vol. 11, no 3, 1993, pp. 233–46.

Pennycook, Alastair. “Borrowing Others’ Words: Text, Ownership, Memory, and Plagiarism.” TESOL Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 2, 1996, pp. 201–30.

Scollon, Ron. “Plagiarism and Ideology: Identity in Intercultural Discourse.” Language in Society, vol. 24, 1995, pp. 1–28.

Photo of Lan Wang-Hiles

Lan Wang-Hiles

Dr. Lan Wang-Hiles teaches in the English department at West Virginia State University, where she is the director of the English as a Second Language Program. Her research, which appears in journal articles and edited books, focuses on second language writing, writing center theory, and tutoring practice.