The Internet TESL Journal

A Different Perspective on Plagiarism

Dahlia Syahrani Md. Yusof
Multimedia University (Cyberjaya, Malaysia)


Plagiarism is a disturbing issue among academic societies across the world.  More and more students in the higher education levels are resorting to plagiarism to complete assignments, tasks and research papers.  In fact, many websites are established to accommodate this need.  Research papers are made available for free or at a price online.  Despite students having ample warnings, both written and verbal, the rates of plagiarism has increased rather than decreased.  

When a student enters a tertiary learning institution, he or she is introduced to the concept of plagiarism.  In the old days it was called copying.  Today, it is known as plagiarism.  The act, whether intentionally or unintentionally, may result in the severe punishment of being expelled from an institution.  Less major cases may simply result in lowering a student's grade in the subject involved.  Regardless of severe warnings to students, cases of plagiarism seem to be on the rise. 

Current Trends

The rules on plagiarism are usually published in the handbook on academic rules and regulations.  It is a concept that has been embedded in many curriculums across the world.  A description of what constitutes plagiarism is also normally given as well as the punishment, the most common form being dismissal from the institution.  Nevertheless, those methods have not deterred students from plagiarizing.  The effectiveness of those warnings and punishment is yet to be confirmed.

It has been suggested in research that the practice of plagiarism is rampant mainly due to the rapid advancement in information technology (Hansen, 2003, Introna et al, 2003).  A lot of information, which includes literary composition, journal articles as well as practically anybody’s work, is put online, readily accessible to any interested parties.  Other reasons or justifications for plagiarizing include pressure to meet deadlines, being encumbered by other responsibilities such as working and family commitments, as well as having poor skills in writing especially for English as Second Language (ESL) and English as Foreign Language (EFL) students (Dawson, 2004).  Regardless of the reason, it seems that students in higher education do not take the issue seriously enough. 

Plagiarism among Asian Students

Among many of the cases cited on plagiarism, Asian students have been highlighted as one of the largest number contributing to the problem (Introna et al, 2003).  These students, or ESL/EFL learners, who studied in USA and UK commonly practice plagiarism.  A lot of reasons have been cited.  Among those reasons include that quoting from a well-known authority is showing a sign of respect and deep reverence for the authority (McDonnell, 2003, Introna et al, 2003). Altering and changing even a bit of the authority’s word is a sign of disrespect and bad intellectual judgment.  At a more philosophical level, knowledge according to some societies including Asian is considered to belong to the society as a whole and it is a duty to share it with others (Hu, 2001 in McDonnell, 2003, Introna et al, 2003).  This asserts the idea of a collective society and the concept of societal interdependence advocated in Asian societies which opposes the view on the value of individual rights and ownership

Historical Overview

To combat plagiarism more effectively, it may be useful to view the issue from its historical context.  Plagiarism did not become a strong issue prior to 1700 (Hansen 2003).  Before then, articles and texts are not considered as privately owned by individuals but considered as messages from God. Thus, copying from others’ work was accepted as positive imitation and not plagiarism.   

In 1710, the first copyright law was passed in England while US passed its first copyright law in 1790 (Hansen, 2003).  It was partly claimed to be attributed to the invention of printing press in 1440 and the reformation of Protestant which put values on individual ownership.  Despite much objection during that period, plagiarism became the accepted norm sometime in the 1890s (Hansen, 2003).

Origin of the Concept - A Western Notion

Pennycook (1996) cited by Introna et. al (2003) views that the claim on text ownership is particularly a western notion.  He outlined three distinct stages of authorship in the western world which began with pre-modern era, progressing into the modern era and lately into the post modern era period.  He further commented that during the pre-modern era, the concept of authorship did not belong to one particular individual but nevertheless, to God himself.  Knowledge was believed to belong to society and free to flow for the benefit of all societies involved.

However, the Enlightenment era which took place in the 17th century “brought about a shift in the western thinking” (Introna et al, 2003) which replaced God with humans as the source of imagination.  Thus, authors are considered the “creator of literary text” (Pennycook, 1996 cited in Introna et. al, 2003).  Scollon (1995) also agrees that the idea of plagiarism arose during the Enlightenment era.

Lately, however, the post modern era has begun to take shape which rejects the notion that the individual is the creator of the text but rather the “text itself is the creator” (Foucault, 1977 in Introna 2003).  Nevertheless, the modernist view of authorship is still prevalent.

Definition of Plagiarism

A definition of plagiarism is not easy to form.  On the basic premise, plagiarism comes from the Latin word “plagiarus” which means “kidnapper” or “abductor” (Williams, 2002).  It can be considered cheating or stealing of other people’s ideas and form them as your own.  Thus it is morally and ethically wrong.  

To define the concept of plagiarism on a universal context, Howard (2000) concluded that there is no standard definition of plagiarism that could be applied.  Various definitions of plagiarism are stated below:

“using the ideas or words of another person, without giving appropriate credit”
(Hu, 2001 and Myers, 1998 cited by American National Academy of Sciences.)

“having selected, ordered and uttered words…in some written document that can be checked and cited by others”
(Dillon 1988, in Evans and Youmans, 2000)

On the surface, the meanings seem similar.  In practice, the meanings are rigorously subject to debates.  Western critiques have constantly attacked the lack of consistency in defining plagiarism and demand that “the standard be comprehensible” (McDonnell, 2003).

Academic and Non-Academic Plagiarism

The debate on what constitutes plagiarism is extended not just within the academic circle but also to the real world practice.  Martin (1994) argues that plagiarism has two different standards, one in the intellectual field and the other in the institutional field, referring to the workplace setting.  He said that although plagiarism is strictly abhorred in the academic society, it is not so in the work environment.  Plagiarism is said to occur in the form of ghostwriting, honorary authorship, and bureaucratic authorship.

Martin (1994) mentions the case of ghostwriting when a politician, movie star or business executive gives a speech, writes a book or a newspaper column.  In actuality, the authors are not themselves but another person who sometimes goes unacknowledged or just put in small print somewhere at the acknowledgement section.

Another type of plagiarism that goes unpunished in the real world setting is the type of “honorary authorship” where a supervisor of a laboratory who contributed little on the research  is listed as co-author of the research paper (LaFollette, 1992 cited in Martin, 1994).

Another common type of plagiarism is at the bureaucratic level where it is common for higher level officers to take credit and put their name on documents which are the work of their subordinates (Martin, 1994).

Martin argues that it is quite unfair to put emphasis on plagiarism in the academic world, calling to apply a different standard totally in the real world setting.  Thus it is quite unfair to punish students severely in the academic context but overlook the issue in the real world setting which has much more importance and significance on individuals and society in general.

All these differing meanings of plagiarism as well as the different standards that are applied may give cause to students to misinterpret the real definition and values of plagiarism.  Students may question or challenge the rules of plagiarism when many parties beyond the academic world practice it and justify it with some other name.  The real world practice even clouds students judgment and understanding of what is and what is not plagiarism, a subject that is becoming more and more unclear in the western world, the place of its origin.

Cultural Definition

Another common debate in the academic circle is the differences among the students themselves that gives rise to different interpretations of plagiarism.  Research has suggested that many students who come from countries other than United Kingdom or United States has displayed different kinds of understanding towards the meaning of plagiarism as well as its importance in the academic circles.  In many cases the concept of plagiarism brings them confusion on the definition as well as its application.

Research by Introna et. al (2003) has outlined several cases on the understanding of plagiarism.  The adaptations of the findings are as listed below.


A student was accused of plagiarizing and said it was correct to rewrite the author’s word since the author was well known and respected.  It shows the importance of reverence for authority which originates from a culture where respect for betters and elders is emphasized greatly.


A visiting student was accused of plagiarizing but claimed that it was perfectly acceptable in Spanish academic circles.


A Mauritian student was accused of plagiarizing but appeared shocked as he claimed that he was merely writing as how he would have written in his home institution.  It appears that plagiarism is not recognized in Mauritius but a widely accepted practice.

This differing interpretation is clearly supported by Hu (2001, cited by McDonnell, 2003) who observed that “In many Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and First Nation cultures,…knowledge is believed to belong to society as a whole, rather than an individual…” .  In fact he further outlined that in China and Italy, students learning science and history “are only required by their teachers to find the source answers and copy them”.

These differences clearly corroborates with the theory developed by Hofstede (1991, cited by Introna, 2003) which says that different cultures across the world see the world differently and have different values which may influence the way they learn and teach.

If it can be said that plagiarism is a concept originating from the west, thus a product of western creation, then perhaps a new perspective could be established to analyze and find methods that would help reduce the practice.  Since it is a western concept that has been imposed on societies across the world, it could be that the concept is totally alien in non-western societies.  It points to the question of what culture is and how culture shapes behaviours, thoughts as well as the notion of education.  Some societies believe that information should flow freely and thus could be shared while other societies believe that knowledge should be guarded well and not be allowed to travel freely by its own course (Hall & Hall, 23).

Plagiarism in ESL Context

Given the various definitions and interpretations of the concept of plagiarism in the academic context, it is thus not easy for ESL learners, who are relatively new to the language compounded with their lack of understanding of the western learning culture, to grasp the very idea of plagiarism, of how to avoid it and how to appropriately write an academic paper. The concept of plagiarism is confusing among westerners themselves, thus it could be even more confusing among non-westerners especially ESL learners all around the world.  It is undoubtedly a daunting task for ESL learners who are strangers to the western principles, standards and values to embrace the concept of plagiarism.

It could be argued that plagiarism could be an inherent part of learning by ESL learners (McDonnell, 2003) and thus should be tolerated.  Howard (1993, cited in McDonnell, 2003) argues a form of copying named as patchwriting to facilitate the writing process.  She defines it as a process of “copying from a text, deleting some words, changing some grammatical structures or substituting words with synonyms”.  Mc Donnell further cites Hu (2001) who argues that “the nature of learning to write is a developmental process...” and explains that “the concept of patchwriting – which many consider a form of plagiarism – as a useful learning strategy for ESL students as they move from second-language writing skills to mature writing”. 


There is no denying that many institutions across the world have endorsed the concept of plagiarism and its rulings/punishments. We simply borrowed the definitions of plagiarism and print those into our academic rules and regulations handbook, including the penalties involved upon getting caught, knowing to a certain degree that the concept possibly emerged in the west and thus could be challenged.  

Perhaps it could be said that we have simply “plagiarized” the concept into our education system.   It is due to this understanding that a new perspective on plagiarism that is solidly based on our cultural views should be formed.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XV, No. 2, February 2009