David Recine

For Teachers: Dealing with Plagiarism from ESL Students, Part 1

I’ve already given the students here at Magoosh some advice on how to avoid plagiarism. Unfortunately, certain ESL students may struggle with paraphrasing skills so much that some level of plagiarism is unavoidable. And of course, some ESL students will plagiarize deliberately, as a shortcut to a complete paper and a better grade—provided they don’t’ get caught.

ESL students plagiarize for different reasons than native English speakers. Understanding how and why plagiarism occurs in ESL writing can help you effectively deal with this problem in your classrooms. In this first post, we’ll look at forms of plagiarism that are truly innocent—common ESL mistakes that lead to plagiarism, but do not constitute true cheating.


Cultural plagiarism

You may have already heard of the concept of “cultural plagiarism.” This is a kind of plagiarism that occurs very innocently, from a misunderstanding of standard plagiarism rules on Western, English-speaking campuses.

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To put it simply, many other countries and cultures define plagiarism differently than it’s defined in English language academic discourse. In East Asian academia, for instance, it’s usually acceptable to directly copy the words of a famous writer or thinker without attribution, provided that the writer and reader are both assumed to know the original source of the words. As such, famous quotes from US leaders and celebrities, or individuals that East Asian ESL students think their teachers will know about, may be placed outside of quotation marks and might not be clearly attributed.

Similarly, East Asian students are a lot less likely to quote and attribute words taken from a course textbook—after all, they know the textbook, and presumably so does their instructor. Even when a quote is taken from a lesser known source, there can be a misconception that in-text citation and/or citation of the source on a works cited page is credit enough, and that direct quotations do not need to be enclosed in quotation marks or attributed with introductory phrases that name the source.

What is not cultural plagiarism is the copying of a whole source—such as a Wikipedia article—without any alteration or any attribution. This practice isn’t an acceptable way to write a paper anywhere in the world. When caught, some students will try to play off this sort of cheating as an innocent misunderstanding, of course.


Plagiarism due to exhaustion

In my own experience, plagiarism due to sloppy mistakes is a lot more common than cultural plagiarism. ESL students—even advanced-level students taking regular degree classes—have to work a lot harder at the writing process and devote much more time to it.

The more time-consuming a writing assignment becomes, the more exhausted your students will be by the time they put the finishing touches on their essays. This can cause them to make mistakes that are seemingly easy to avoid. English-weary writing students can forget to put in quotation marks or citations. I’ve talked to students who were absolutely convinced they’d thoroughly paraphrased a sentence or two, when in fact they’d changed the wording of the original source minimally—and sometimes not at all.

Needless to say, not all plagiarism is innocent. This is why schools have codes specifically designed to punish plagiarism. In my next post on this subject will look at why ESL students sometimes cheat in this way, and what teachers can do about it.



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