When ‘Oops’ is not enough

  • Nepali students should be sensitised about ethical writing practices
- Kunti Adhikari

Dec 30, 2018-

In the United States, plagiarism is considered highly inexcusable. For international students—many of whom come from contexts where plagiarism is not regularly discussed— misunderstanding the rules of academic honesty can be extremely traumatising.

While in graduate school in the United States (US), a friend once plagiarised while writing her master’s thesis without even knowing it. Although she had cited her sources, she also needed to paraphrase ideas. In response to her actions, her professor required her to completely rewrite her entire literature review section. My friend had to restart-back to square one for a mistake she did not realise was plagirism. This happened just before graduation. She had to stay in the library for hours upon hours—rummaging through her work for many late nights. The experience left her traumatised. Succumbed by shame and stress, she claims it was one of the most painful experiences of her life.

International students often talk about cultural differences between their current environments and their home countries. Most often these topics pertain to family, food, dress, housing and time zone differences. But they miss a crucial difference: academic writing ethics across cultures. Although less discussed, academic writing practices across cultures constitutes one of the most significant elements of cultural difference. 

International students in universities in the US can feel overwhelmed by unfamiliar academic practices. In the beginning, several tasks make the new academic setting quite strange: making classroom presentations, dealing with strict due dates for assignments, participating in group discussions, reviewing peer work, and learning online course management systems. On top of this, international students can face extreme confusion and stress once they realise that American writing practices do not align with what they had learned throughout their school years at home. These students may have arrived in these academic institutions wielding good scores in english language proficiency tests such as TOEFL and great academic receipts from their previous educational performances. But these items do not reflect their knowledge of western academic writing practices. After a few attempts to write, these students find writing tasks highly intimidating. To say the process of adapting to new writing cultures is ‘stressful’ would be an understatement. As a result, so many international students fear that their investment in global study might go to waste. This anxiety can prevent them from reaching their academic potential and exercising their full capacities. 

Zero tolerance to plagiarism is a strict norm among US universities and professors. If caught plagiarising, students are subject to serious penalties— ranging from failing paper grades to expulsion. The international students’ unfamiliarity with writing ethics in such an environment is not considered justifiable. It’s not excused. This leaves the students charged hefty plagiarism fines. 

Students in US universities are often reminded to comply with an honor code of academic honesty. They encounter this reminder almost everywhere: in the policy documents of the institution, program handbooks, course syllabi, and in classrooms while being given individual assignments. Despite all these efforts by universities, the internet has encouraged the ever-so-frequent practice of ‘when in doubt, copy and paste,’ which is common among students and even academicians. Universities use plagiarism detecting software to combat this practice.

At first, during my graduate study in the US, I felt like professors overstated the issue of plagiarism and writing ethics. In Nepal, teachers either avoid talking about these issues or they do not bother to take the steps to confirm whether or not written work is truly a product of original creation. Most times, a perquisite for a good grade is that the assignment is complete. Besides, when people plagiarise, no serious action is taken. However, even if cases are missed in Nepal, it is important to remind all students that the practice in any form is an unjustifiable offense whether in Nepal, in the US, or any other part of the world. 

Plagiarism is not just an academic issue but also a cultural one. The way plagiarism is understood differs across cultures. Students understand plagiarism according to the way they are taught in their home education system. In Asia, we are taught in a system that values memorisation and rote learning from the textbook or teacher’s note. This cultural practice encourages students to imitate or simply copy others’ words/ideas without acknowledging the original writer. Most students are unaware that they could be penalised for this act in a different country. 

The problem arises when students from a country where plagiarism in one form or another is commonly overlooked join academic institutions where plagiarism is treated as an extremely serious academic crime. Plagiarism may be an inadvertent offense for decent students. Poor citation, footnoting, paraphrasing and referencing might not be a case of deliberate fraud-they may reflect cultural influence or lack of knowledge, not intentional crimes. However, with plagiarism, intentions do not matter. Unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism. Ignorance about what constitutes plagiarism cannot save students from penalties.

To discourage the practice of intended or unintended plagiarism among students, Nepali high schools and colleges should sensitise them about international standards of writing ethics. Nepali students need to be oriented about this often overlooked but crucial cultural difference. 

Information on what exactly constitutes plagiarism, accurate citation procedures, appropriate ways to draw from others’ ideas, writing ethics, intellectual property rights, and the serious consequences of plagiarism is essential for students. If schools and colleges provide this information, Nepali students can avoid possibly embarrassing situations in the future, no matter which academic institution they join across the globe.


Kunti Adhikari is a Graduate in TESOL from Michigan State University

Published: 30-12-2018 07:28

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