Monday, January 14, 2008

Is There a Cultural Perspective in Plagiarism?

The popular post of Professor Stearns' open letter continues to receive active comments. They are all appreciated. In one of them, anonymous asked:

Has anyone looked at this issue from a cultural perspective? I mean, have you spoken with experts in the academic expectations in countries that might do things differently than done in the US?

Why do Americans always come across so arrogantly - as if the way we do things is the only way... As an ESL instructor, I have come across this issue many times before. One explanation is to consider the differences between assignment expectations - In the US, there is heavy focus put on individual ideas and contributions along with assigning credit to ideas in papers of others. In other cultures, this emphasis on the individual and individual ideas is not as stressed. For students, the goal may be to simply integrate the ideas of others to show professors that there is an understanding of the ideas in a certain field. There is no need to cite where all the ideas come from because the goal of the assignment is not to show individual achievement (look at all these great ideas I thought of or was able to explain) but, I have a good general understanding of the important points of a topic. It is understood that the ideas are not the student's ideas, simply because he/she is a student. Students are not saying that the ideas in the paper are their own ideas... again a Western perspective - the promotion of th eindividual.. Now this would be very different when later in their careers, as they publish in journals, scientists are putting in work that is not their own... but if I understand correctly, you are talking about students... Take a moment to consider that perhaps the circumstances and goals of an assignment may be very culturally different from the Western view..
Nowadays, we are taught to respect other cultures, so much so that we see things we don't approve being done by people that are not "us", we have to tell us to be nice and regard that as their "culture". There must be a culture perspective for them to do such things! But really, this is not the way to respect other cultures. Quite the opposite, this kind of thinking diminishes other cultures as the refuge of immoral behaviors.

It is therefore very fortunate for us to have Fang Zhouzi spearheading this fraud busting campaign. He is as "Chinese-cultured" as anyone I am aware of. Apart of his work in fraud-busting and populating science, he is also (or have been) a proficient writer of poems and essays on Chinese history and culture. In fact, New Thread was originally founded as a ivory-tower-ish refuge for Chinese literature, history, and philosophy discussions.

In this sense, Fang and his supporters are not only defending the integrity of the academic China, but also the integrity of Chinese culture.

As we continue to see in this Blog, plagiarism is certainly not limited to a few students who did not know better. But far from it, it involves numerous professors, some of which had achieved remarkable status as Academicians. We would certainly hope that they did not represent Chinese culture for the rest of us.

In Professor Stearns' particular case, he did not jump out and accuse his students of plagiarism the first time he saw it either. He had lectured his class on this particular issue. He had given his students second and third chances to correct their "mistakes". It was only after such repeated efforts and warnings, when he still received blatant plagiarized papers, he wrote the open letter. His students may have other excuses, but ignorance of the issue is not one of them.

Far from being arrogant, Professor Stearns was courageous enough to see through any perceived culture veils and tell things as they are. This blog, for one, is glad that he did.

Together, Fang Zhouzi and Steve Stearns are showing the world that there are indeed universal values and norms, not just Western or Eastern views. We are all humans, after all.


Rich Kuslan, Editor, Asiabizblog said...

This has little to do with "cultural difference," whatever that may mean. Certainly Chinese understand and agree that theft is theft when what is theirs is poached.

The far greater problem is the woeful deficiency of what Chinese have traditionally called 公德心. Who in Chinese academia today, or in the everyday lives of Chinese youth, propounds on the value of this, or any other, virtue?

The concept of virtue has been totally absent for more than 50 years, crushed and removed from Chinese life, except for a handful of pocket-sized oases of more traditional thought, such as overseas Chinese communities. It was replaced with its political expedient, now alive only in its lifeless mimicking.

The result being that China now plainly exhibits its worst face to the world in all its dreadfulness -- counterfeit products, accounting fraud, massive corruption, plagiarism, etc. -- for all to see. They stand at center stage -- what we have learned to change our understanding of modern China over the past 25 years!

Whereas this virtue was and should now be a focus of the education of youth -- without it, there is nothing upon which a young Chinese can rely that has any lasting moral value to guide his conduct.

Anonymous said...

I thank you all for enlightening me. I posted the comments about cultural difference - because this is what I was taught - So this is very interesting and I appreciate your taking time to explain things from a closer perspective!
On the one hand, it is important to know the reality, on the other hand it is sad that this is the reality.