Textual ownership, international students, and plagiarism

As of late, international clients have sought our expertise in devising plagiarism policies for their language institutes/universities. This hasn't been easy as addressing plagiarism is never a simple cookie-cutter solution that works everywhere in every context; it's much too complex. That said, plagiarism, an egregious intellectual violation, remains an important concern for institutions seeking to maintain ethical standards and for individuals that stand to profit from their intellectual property (IP). By eradicating plagiarism there is an assurance that IP, something that individuals work so hard to create, remains sacred and protected and such assurance benefits and drives a free intellectual and financial market. In spite of these safeguards on IP, plagiarism remains a phenomenon, especially in higher education (HE).  Some studies have indicated that plagiarism is not only prevalent in HE (International Center for Academic Integrity, 2015) but that incidences of plagiarism and academic dishonesty may also be on the rise (Ali, 2016). It would be wonderful if getting to the root of it were a simple task, but the causes of plagiarism are multi-faceted: comprised of linguistic, academic, and cultural elements. While examining all of these elements is beyond the scope of this short post, one aspect that deserves particular attention is the critical role culture plays in plagiarism. How knowledge is formed, who it belongs to and how knowledge is formally referenced can be culturally relative. Thus, when we give any consultation about plagiarism with international students studying in English speaking countries, or students studying English in foreign contexts, analyzing cultural perspectives on textual ownership is almost always where we start. 


Central to understanding why plagiarism sometimes occurs amongst international/EFL students is the notion of textual ownership. As defined by Merriam Webster, to plagiarize is "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's ownuse (another's production) without crediting the source" (Merriam Webster, 2018). Yet as scholars in Western academia, we must submit that this is a very constricted view of textual ownership. "To steal" something necessarily means the unlawful appropriation of something not owned by the "thief". In Western academia, a person's "ideas or words" (the creation of knowledge) are seen as a hallmark of individualism, and his/her creation of knowledge becomes a commodity in the intellectual marketplace. This knowledge can be used or disseminated in the market only after proper reference is given to the original proprietor. Such understandings of the nature of agency and textual ownership are by no means universal.

Pennycook (1996), in a very thought provoking piece, argued that triumphing agency and individual creative expression are rooted in Anglo-Saxon tradition. Thus, "an understanding of the notion of authorship and originality as a very particular cultural and historical orientation to meaning raises profound questions about plagiarism" (Pennycook, 1996, p. 211). Further, Pecarori and Petrić (2014) present a number of concurring views of many contemporary scholars; that "plagiarism...as literary theft...is thus a historical and cultural phenomenon...and may not be applicable to writing cultures...marked by a different course of development" (Pecarori and Petric, 2014, p. 274). If we can agree that plagiarism, as concerned in HE, has evolved from a specific view (and a specific region of the world) of textual ownership, then we must be sensitive to the the fact that other cultures may not necessarily share the same view. And in becoming sensitive to this, we can begin to help international students who hail from various cultural backgrounds (as well as students studying English in foreign settings) to better acclimate to the conventions of academic scholarship as they study in English-speaking countries.


Though plagiarism is considered a serious (and unethical) academic violation, not all plagiarism by students stems from ill will. Scholars have distinguished between unintentional versus intentional plagiarism, and this blog post is concerned with students who have honest misunderstandings that arise from conceptual confusion (unintentional): not those with nefarious intentions (intentional). Some common reasons (for unintentional plagiarism) that have been identified are 1) differences in source use between the students' native culture and Western academia (Pecarori & Petric, 2014), 2) differing perspectives on what constitutes "common knowledge" (The Higher Education Academy, 2014), and 3) lack of vocabulary to express themselves in their own words. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is meant to identify common difficulties students may face.

Of these three common reasons, the last one can be remedied by a learner simply expanding his/her vocabulary; the first two need explicit and extensive training on the expectations of scholarship and how they may differ from conventions practiced in students' home countries. In fact, one of the things we suggest is a mandatory "induction" period. The induction period can range from a few weeks to a few months depending on the specific objectives of a particular institution. The main goal, however, is to highlight the cultural underpinnings of plagiarism, and this will help students better acclimate to academia. There is research that suggests (Pecarori & Petric, 2014; Bretag, 2013; Macdonald & Carroll, 2006) that intervention by the institution from the onset of a writing program can significantly reduce instances of plagiarism. Additionally, "there is...a growing awareness among scholars and practitioners alike that the solution to problems relating to plagiarism lies in education rather than punitive measures" (Pecarori & Petric, 2014, pg. 287). Thus, relevant and appropriate plagiarism pedagogy becomes an integral part of reducing plagiarism in HE. Students should attend a series of workshops which should be conducted at the beginning of university study or at the beginning of a language institute's writing course, and these workshops would revolve around two major themes: 1) educating students explicitly about [the cultural aspects of] plagiarism and (2) teaching source use and referencing in greater depth" (Pecarori & Petric, 2014, pg. 287).

To empower students and give them every opportunity for success in university and HE, we should acclimate learners to the concept of plagiarism by giving them a comprehensive overview as they become accountable for their academic writing performance. Failing to do so, especially when plagiarism can be considered as culturally relative, will inevitably set our learners up for failure and expose them to grave academic consequences. 


Ali, A. (2016). Plagiarism investigations at Welsh universities rise in the last 5 years. Independent. Retrieved July 6, 2018 from https://www.independent.co.uk/student/student-life/Studies/plagiarism-investigations-at-welsh-universities-rise-in-the-last-5-years-a7144621.html.

Bretag, T. (2013). Challenges in addressing plagiarism in education. PLoS Med 10 (12): e1001574. Retrieved June 30, 2018 from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001574.

International Center for Academic Integrity. (2015). Statistics. International Center for Academic Integrity. Retrieved July 15, 2018 from https://academicintegrity.org/statistics/.

Macdonald, R., & Carroll, J. (2006). Plagiarism—a complex issue requiring a holistic institutional approach. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31(2), 233-245. Retrieved June 30, 2018 from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02602930500262536.

Pecorari, D., & Petrić, B. (2014). Plagiarism in second-language writing. Language Teaching47 (3), 269-302.

Pennycook, A. (1996). Borrowing others' words: Text, ownership, memory, & plagiarism. TESOL Quarterly30 (2), 201-230. Retrieved June 30, 2018 from http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3588141.

Plagiarize. (2018). In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved July 3, 2018 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plagiarizing.

The Higher Education Academy. (2014). Addressing plagiarism. Retrieved June 30, 2018 from https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/resources/addressing_plagiarism.pdf