Academic writing involves extensive interaction between writers and texts. Writers develop their arguments out of other writers’ ideas and use published sources to both support and refute perspectives. Examine almost any academic journal article, and you will see references and quotations from other articles and books woven throughout the text. Learning how to integrate those sources in ways appropriate to disciplinary and cultural norms is a core challenge of learning to write academically.
Second language writing teachers are almost certainly aware of plagiarism as a concern in their practice. In our own educations, we probably heard teachers stressing the importance of “using your own words” and “giving credit where it’s due” over and over again. We probably repeat those phrases ourselves. We may teach at institutions that impose harsh penalties on students who copy words from sources without appropriate citation. But plagiarism is nowhere near as clear an issue as it might initially appear. This post explores some of the concerns we should keep in mind as we work with second language writers in academic contexts.
What Is Plagiarism?
Most institutions of higher education in the United States and many around the world include plagiarism as a concern in their official statements of ethical behavior. Often these definitions frame plagiarism as a crime akin to theft—students caught plagiarizing have stolen the words or ideas of others. It is often in the same section of a university’s ethics policy as assault and robbery. It may be connected with cheating in similar ways to bringing notes into an exam.
A More Nuanced Perspective
From an applied linguistics perspective, however, we recognize that such a stance ignores much of what we know about writing. Aside from the small number of students who buy term papers from essay mills (a very different issue), many second language writers plagiarize for benign reasons often connected to their still developing abilities as readers and writers. In other words, they may do it because they do not know how to do otherwise and may not even be aware that what they are doing is problematic.
Effective integration of source texts into an academic essay requires the writer not only to understand the words the original text used, but also to have the linguistic, contextual, and cultural knowledge to interpret the deeper meaning of those words and to determine how to connect them effectively to their own text. Keck (2014) points out that for both native-language and second-language writers, university-level expectations in terms of genre, source usage, and authorial stance, among other issues, often differ greatly from what students were expected to do in their secondary school writing. Effective paraphrasing requires extensive mental gymnastics on the part of the writer. In this regard, Keck (2014) cites Kennedy (1986) and Kirkland and Saunders (1991):
She must form a mental representation of the key ideas in the source text, must identify key excerpts in the source text that help the author to convey these ideas, and must decide how those excerpts might be transformed, linguistically, so that they can become part of her own written summary. (p. 17)
One way many people learn to write in new ways is through imitation, a process sometimes referred to as patchwriting; we may learn a new way of structuring information by copying a published text and substituting individual words to make our own sentences. Li and Casanave (2012) traced two students’ writing processes, noting that both did extensive patchwriting, but for different reasons. One student did not understand much of what she had read and was unable to smoothly integrate the phrases she had taken from the original into her own essay, while the other student understood what he had read and successfully integrated those words into his text—although without appropriate citation or quotation, meaning that although his teacher did not catch his patchwriting, he was technically plagiarizing.
What Are the Consequences for Students?
Too often, being accused of plagiarism can be the end of a student’s academic career rather than a learning opportunity. When an institution’s policy frames the practice as a crime, students are treated as criminals, given a trial (sometimes by a jury of academics), and penalized with course failure or even expulsion from the institution. Even if teachers do not report the violation, they may choose to fail students on assignments that included copied text.
Although sometimes this level of punishment is warranted (as in, e.g., students who attempt to pass off other people’s work as their own), when the student was not ill-intentioned, we may want to moderate how we deal with the case. In a language class, particularly one where students may be experiencing the academic culture of an institution for the first time, teachers owe it to their students to help them learn what they have done and why it is not appropriate.
A first offense case of copy-paste in a homework assignment, for example, may be treated as a learning experience where the student is asked to repeat the assignment. Students who assume information is common knowledge (as Shi, 2011, discussed), or those who sincerely attempted to paraphrase and did include a citation, might be called in to talk about their writing process and explain their language choices to the teacher before being asked to revise or write a new text with appropriate quoting and paraphrasing. Teachers who doubt students’ veracity might ask them to write during office hours in order to observe their process.
How Can We Teach Students Better?
Li and Casanave (2012) found that students in their study knew the definitions of plagiarism and that they should not do it. What they did not know, however, was how to not plagiarize in their own writing. We owe it to our students, therefore, to teach them how not to fall into the hazards before they are stuck in a situation they can’t get out of.
Because plagiarism often happens when student writers do not understand the source texts, an important tactic is to increase our instruction in reading strategies and support students to figure out what a text means and how those ideas fit with the writing task they are approaching. These reading strategies need to be at all levels, from getting the overall gist of a text to making meaning of a complex sentence. We should also help students learn how to select appropriate texts for their projects and their reading abilities.
Instruction should also help students move beyond patchwriting to true paraphrasing and the effective integration of direct quotations into a text. Finally, as writing teachers who know our second-language students well, we can also take on the role of educating our colleagues and administrators to reframe plagiarism accusations as a learning opportunity rather than a crime. If we can get our departments and institutions to recognize that our students need opportunities to learn how not to plagiarize, rather than punishments for doing so unknowingly, we can make everyone’s lives a bit more kind and welcoming.
What approaches have you taken in teaching students how to avoid plagiarism? How well have those worked? Share your ideas in the comments section below.
Keck, C. (2014). Copying, paraphrasing, and academic writing development: A re-examination of L1 and L2 summarization practices. Journal of Second Language Writing, 25(0), 4–22.
Li, Y., & Casanave, C. P. (2012). Two first-year students’ strategies for writing from sources: Patchwriting or plagiarism? Journal of Second Language Writing, 21(2), 165–180.
Shi, L. (2011). Common knowledge, learning, and citation practices in university writing. Research in the Teaching of English, 45(3), 308–334.