Education, Culture, Gender, Economics

Almost all participants in the discussion agreed that one of the problems with assessing plagiarism lies in the extent to which cultural, economic and/or educational backgrounds may create a confused environment in which students have different understandings of how to use and cite sources. Sally Henschel recounted her repeated experiences with students who "[insisted] on turning in papers with each sentence documented," having been required to do so in local high schools. According to Henschel, they have been taught that "form is more important than content, and they believe plagiarism is the only way to survive." Dean Rehnberger echoed the oft-stated claim that "students don’t know. They know that if they quote they must document but often they think paraphrasing makes it their own. And often they are bad paraphrasers."

Cindy Wambeam pointed out the cultural factors that often figure significantly into a student’s understanding of plagiarism. Reminding us that in the United States "our emphasis is often on originality and confidence," Wambeam narrated the story of one of her students from Japan who, after hearing from the instructor that he had produced an "original and interesting" piece of writing, returned the next week with a "completely changed" essay that had "lost all of its originality" and which "just developed the comments by the editor of the Reader we were using." When called on it, the student remarked "in a surprised voice, ‘you mean – you wanted me to be original and different in my writing?!’" As this anecdote suggests, and as Wambeam summarized in her provocative post, there may be certain "cultural assumptions about writing" that inform our understanding of plagiarism. "In some countries, plagiarism is against the law. In other countries, plagiarism is the law."

Patrick Courts also submitted compelling evidence with regard to cultural differences. In China, he claimed, it is a "common sign of respect (and rhetorical expectation in certain traditional essay forms)" to use another’s work, but "primarily when the work would be known by many…." He also clarified that in China "personal narrative is shunned…. This has more than a little to do with potential problems connected with the use of Peter Elbow, etc. and requiring personal narratives from certain groups (including Native Americans) without a preliminary (slow) transitional stage."

Questions of class, race and gender also figured into the plagiarism discussion. Dean Rehberger insightfully reminded List members that "definitions of critical thinking, independent thought, and originality [as well as the conventions of use and attribution informed by them] are predicated on preconceived (and highly uncritical and unoriginal) notions of ‘proper’… academic discourse." Access to this discourse, Rehberger implied, does not necessarily cross gender, race and class lines, and therefore we need to be more careful about what we expect (or what we assume as conventional). In a question which again focused attention back on the educational and institutional assumptions informing plagiarism talk, Rehberger asked, "Perhaps before we question students’ sense of ethics for being truthful in reporting what they have taken, should we be more honest about what we want?"