Ownership of ideas varies across cultures


I drew Josh (and his beloved skull) this week and thought… I really need to work on my digital painting skills.  So I bought Adobe CS5 this week.  I don’t even know why I *bought* it.

I could’ve easily gotten it off a torrent and my Panama friends keep on asking me why I’d break a hole in my student budget to buy it.

Simply, my views on stealing and intellectual rights have changed over the years.

Buying Adobe CS5 made me think about ethics and how the concept can vary across cultures.  The truth is, in Panama, there is no common concept as intellectual rights, or ownership to an idea. Maybe legally, but not in practice.

It’s ethical in the U.S. to use in-text citations to let a person know when the thoughts are someone else’s, but in Panama, nobody really cares about this.  This creates a problem when some Panamanian students who haven’t been taught this start a U.S. education.

But after talking to Deans and other professors, as well as researching, we are not the only ones that struggle with the issue.

This is an explanation for U.S. professors who are dealing with some international students and might be annoyed and disappointed when educating them in proper source credit attribution.  I am not condoning plagiarism. I merely wanted to provide cultural context, so the professor can better guide the student into realizing the ethical implications.

Of course, some international students will come from cultures where the definition of what is and isn’t plagiarism is similar to that in the U.S., but other students will bang their heads on a wall and will never understand even why there is a need to use in-text citation or citation formats like MLA or APA.

Copy-Pasting and How Perception Varies Across Cultures

In my country, unless you attended an International Baccalaureate school or an  “American school,” you were never taught about plagiarism or how to cite, quote, paraphrase, or summarize.

In Panama, the standard for plagiarism is very different than it is here in the U.S.

We could copy large portions, paragraphs, of it, paste them, and then do the same with other sources, creating a quilt of plagiarized material.  The only thing we weren’t allowed to do was to copy-paste entire Wikipedia pages.

That, to us, that would’ve been plagiarism.  It took me two semesters of English classes when I started college at FSU Panama to half-heartedly understand how to give credit to the sources of my information.

Like me, many international students struggle with conforming to the U.S.  plagiarism.

Yes, we’re given a copy of the Academic Honor Code, and know by heart we shouldn’t plagiarize, but it’s still hard.  It’s very challenging for us to understand what is and what isn’t plagiarizing.

Today, I’d like to share with you reasons why some international students might  unintentionally plagiarize due to opposite educational backgrounds, language limitations, and different, culturally speaking, point of views.

Let’s start by examining the educational systems.

Welcome to the life of the collegiate international student.

I’d like to start by providing some background.  In many educational systems, like in Taiwan and Panama, students are taught to learn by memory. While living in both countries, I noticed my friends studied by memorizing lists and definitions because that’s how their teachers tested us.  Therefore, it’s foreign for us to read a long text in English, and paraphrase it; we aren’t used to applying critical thinking or deduce implications.

Barrier #1: Memorizing vs. applying

According to Hayes and Introna, in many Asian countries, learning and testing is focused on what’s written in the textbook, as in word-by-word text.  So then, it’s not a surprise it’s hard for international students to “be critical about an author and state their own opinions.”  As you can see, it’s not what the information implies or why the author wrote this, but what’s textually there.  Let me explain. Dawn Amsberry under Library Learning Services at Penn State, stated that students coming from countries where learning assessment and grading is based on tests instead of writing assignments are much less familiar with proper essay and research construction.  This makes them more inclined to plagiarize.

And worse, McDonell says that in countries like China and Italy, for subjects like science and history, it’s sufficient to research for the sources, find the texts that apply, and place them in the assignment without further edition.

McDonell further referenced a study where the Italian students stated that by doing so, they are “showing respect for the original author.”  So as you can see, Teachers condition us to think its best to memorize, not to apply.

They raise us to fill in the blanks, instead of exploring.  And they teach us to paste experts’ opinions, instead of voicing our own. But the issue doesn’t finish here.

Barrier #2: Getting lost in translation

For many of us, English is perhaps not our second language, but our third or even fourth. We’re not nearly as verbose or eloquent in English as we are in your native language.

So when we come to FSU, we have trouble coming up with words and ways to express ideas. It’s harder to write up explanations and concepts as nicely as those on those “smart” Journal reports we base our essays and papers on.  But we do try, and by doing so, many of us fall into patchwriting.  According to Howard, assistant professor at Col-gate University,  patchwriting occurs when a portion of a text is taken and minimally edited, like replacing specific words with synonyms, or changing the grammatical structure.

Then, erroneously, we think, “it’s different enough, it’s ours.” Now, you might be thinking, well, that’s why we need to teach them the correct way of doing it and to paraphrase.  Yes, I agree, it is very important everybody learn these skills. Yet, ­as I mentioned, some aren’t used to paraphrasing.  Some international students are not used to applying others’ opinions and making our own, not only because of our educational background, but also because we might not have the language skills necessary to process internally the information and use it.

Some experts like Howard go on and even expand on this.  Howard states that practicing patchwriting might actually represent a learning tool specifically for those with lower level English skills.  Lankamp, an English professor in the University of Leiden, says students with poor reading skills can learn the conventions and phrases of academic writing.  By editing the text with a patchwriting approach, students can learn to “manipulate “big language” until they can do it on their own.”

Barrier # 3: Perceiving knowledge as communal

But the biggest of the problems might be cultural background.  Even if students are trained through their two mandatory Liberal Studies English courses how to properly cite, even if we improve our English or already come to the US with higher reading skills, for many of us it’s still an elusive concept due to our cultural backgrounds.

According to Yusof, who teaches at Multimedia University in Malaysia and wrote in The Internet Teaching English as a Second Language Journal, copying information from well respected sources can actually be honoring, instead of disrespectful.   He further adds, “altering and changing even a bit of the authority’s word is a sign of disrespect and bad intellectual judgement.”

In addition, according to Norris , who taught English composition at the University of Fukuoka, Japan, published in The East Asian Learner, referring to Hu (2001:54), saying in many Asian, MiddleEastern, and African cultures,  knowledge is communal, belonging “to society as a whole, rather an an individual.”

Knowledge is communal, belonging “to society as a whole, rather an an individual.”     

Further expanding on this notion, Norris, an interesting quote by a Chinese teacher:  “Knowledge belongs to society, not to ourselves. If you have knowledge, it is your duty to give it to others. Students (…) cannot view their talent as private property.”   Taking this premise, with knowledge being a communal resource,   I’d like to introduce you to an interesting insight by Rebecca Moore Howard, assistant professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Writing at Col-gate University .

If  to them, knowledge is communal, it means it belongs to no body in particular. Nobody can claim originality.  She says, “to assert priority is to assert originality…If there is no originality, there is no basis for literary property.”


To illustrate how impervious culture can be, and how does it interact with educational background, I’d like to quote a conversation Wilkinson, an instructor at Saint Louis Community College, who had extensively covered the topic of plagiarism, and still a Syrian student called Loha gave in an assignment that had portions copied directly from the book.  This is the conversation they had:

Loha: “You mean I am supposed to put this part in my own words?”
Wilkinson:     “Yes”, laughing, “You know because it is plagiarism if you just copy it’s plagiarism.”
Loha: “Oh” looking puzzled
Wilkinson: So why do you think you did this when we’ve talked so much about not plagiarizing?
Loha: “Well in my engineering major we didn’t write that much, but in grade school the more it like (sic) book or teacher… that is good… that is better.”
Wilkinson: “But how could you do that on papers and tests in class?”
Loha: “We study hard …”
Wilkinson: “Like memorize?”
Loha: “Yes, not exactly, but the more like book (sic)– higher grade”


So as you can see, culture plays an important part.  Some of us grew up thinking copying an author was being respectful, or that there is no point in plagiarism because ideas shouldn’t be independently owned, or that the more we stick to what the book says, the best chance we had at getting an A.

Now, I’m not suggesting you should ignore it if a student plagiarizes,  but I wanted to give some insight into what are reasons why it happens.  If for local students it’s challenging to correctly cite everything, it is more so for us.

Today we covered factors that influence unintentional plagiarism in international students.  These are based on our educational background, our limited English skills, and our culture.  So be patient with us, and help us learn to think critically.  I’d like to finish with a quote from TS Eliot.

“Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal, bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make something better or at least something different.”

Please continue teaching us how to make something different.



Amsberry, D.  (2009).  Deconstructing Plagiarism: International Students and Textual Borrowing Practices.  The Reference Librarian 51(1).  Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02763870903362183

Hayes, N. & Introna, L. (2005). Cultural Values, Plagiarism, and Fairness. Ethics and Behavior 15(3).  Lauren Erlbaum Associates.  Retrieved from http://lancs.academia.edu/LucasIntrona/Papers/1405772/Cultural_values_plagiarism_and_fairness_When_plagiarism_gets_in_the_way_of_learning

Howard, R.M. (1995)  Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty.  College English 57(7).   National Council of Teachers of English.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/378403

Hu, J. (2001). An alternative perspective of language reuse: Insights from textual and

learning theories and L2 academic writing. English Quarterly, 33 (1), 5262

Lankamp, R.  (2004) ESL Student Plagiarism:  Ignorance of Rules or Authorial Identity Problem?  Journal of Education and Human Development 3(1).  University of Leiden.  Retrieved from www.scientificjournals.org/journals2009/articles/1448.pdf

McDonnell, K.  Academic Plagiarism Rules and ESL Learning – Mutually Exclusive Concepts?   Pennsylvania State University. ­ Retrieved from citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=


Norris, R.  (2007). Dealing with Plagiarism at a Japanese University:  A Foreign Teacher’s Perspective.  East Asian Learner.  Fukuoka International University.  Retrieved from www.brookes.ac.uk/schools/education/…/vol3-1-norris.html


Yusof, D. S., (2009).  A Different Perspective on Plagiarism.  The Internet TESL Journal.  Retrieved from http://iteslj.org/Articles/Wilkinson-Plagiarism.html

Wilkinson, L. (2008).  ESL Academic Writing and Plagiarism.  The Internet TESL Journal.  Retrieved from http://iteslj.org/Articles/Yusof-Plagiarism.html

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