Adventures in Ethics and Science

In a post months and months ago, I wrote the following*:

I’ve heard vague claims that there are some cultures in which “plagiarism” as defined by U.S. standards is not viewed as an ethical breach at all, and that this may explain some instances of plagiarism among scientists and science students working in the U.S. after receiving their foundational educational experiences in such cultures. To my readers oversees: Is there any truth to these claims? (I’m suspicious, at least in part because of an incident I know of at my school where a student from country X, caught plagiarising, asserted, “But, in country X, where I’m from, this is how everyone does it. Sorry, I didn’t know the norms were different here.” Unfortunately for this student, the Dean was also from country X and was able to say, with authority, “‘Fraid not.”)

Since then, I’ve found some slightly-less-vague claims from the pages of Chemical & Engineering News. However, these are still almost second-hand, “word on the street” kind of claims that some cultures involved in the practice of science think plagiarism is just fine. Have a look at the relevant passage:

Many of the journal editors C&EN spoke with for this article singled out authors from some Asian countries as a source of concern when it comes to serious ethical violations concerning plagiarism, multiple submissions, and coauthorship. All acknowledge that scientific traditions in those places and differing ideas about the seriousness of such offenses as plagiarism play a role.

“There are cultural differences in the international community,” says C. Dale Poulter, chemistry professor at the University of Utah and editor of the Journal of Organic Chemistry (JOC).

When it comes to copying boilerplate-type text for an article, “for many Chinese authors, it’s nonoffensive,” says Richard Eisenberg, editor-in-chief of Inorganic Chemistry and professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester.

To help Asian authors, Tamara Nameroff, ACS director of international activities, says ACS is working with chemically related organizations in China to hold two half-day workshops this year on the scientific-publishing process. “It’s a step in helping Chinese researchers build appreciation of what it takes to publish in a high-quality journal,” Nameroff says. “By 2008 or so, China will be the number two producer of chemistry articles in the world. There’s a real opportunity here for mentoring, for building a capacity to self-monitor.”

What we have here are U.S. editors asserting that there seems to be a problem with submissions they get from authors in Asian countries containing plagiarism (although there’s no indication of the relative rates of plagiarism identified in papers from Asian authors versus those from U.S. authors, or authors from anywhere else), and that these higher rates of plagiarism can be attributed to “cultural differences” as to whether plagiarism is “offensive” or dishonest (rather than to something else).

This is where I’d really like some first-hand information from people who have grown up in these culture and/or have received scientific training in these cultures. What, specifically, are science students and scientists-in-training taught about “proper” use of the words, ideas, techniques, and results of others in a scientific paper? What are the models of the “right way of doing things” that are presented to students, and do these differ significantly on use of the words, ideas, techniques, and results of others from the standards U.S. journal editors are inclined to impose?

My concern, of course, is whether we’re looking at a situation like the one where the student from country X, upon getting caught plagiarising, tried to weasel out of responsibility by claiming that it was not an offense in the culture of country X — which turned out to be a lie! So before we get caught up in reconciling conflicting norms from various scientific communities around the globe, first it would be good to get some reliable information on what those norms actually are. Getting all that data from people you catch plagiarising might not be the most accurate approach.

But maybe there really is a cultural difference of opinion here. I’m hoping some of my readers from Asia can give me their insights on this.

Given the not-insignificant number of scientists in Asia who receive at least some of their scientific training in the U.S., is there any noticable effect on “scientific traditions” in places like China and India? Is the desire to be part of an international community of science making any difference in how non-U.S. scientist think about use of the words, ideas, techniques, and results of others in their own scientific work?

For the departments and lab groups in the U.S. with not-insignificant numbers of science students and scientists-in-training from Asia, is there more attention to or discussion of the use of the words, ideas, techniques, and results of others in one’s own work? In other words, is there any attempt to actually transmit the prevailing norms of science in the U.S., or is there an assumption that everyone doing science just knows what the rules are here?

There’s a parallel discussion we could have about how well departments and lab groups in the U.S. are transitting the prevailing norms of science to their students from the U.S., but we’ll save that for another day.
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*Notice the care with which I strive here to avoid self-plagiarism.

Comments

  1. #1 John J. McKay
    October 9, 2006

    When I was a history grad student I had officemates from India and China and asked them about this. Their explanation was this: the school systems that they grew up in placed far less value on individual expression and more value on mastering the sources. When students were asked to write an essay on something, they were expected to find the “right” answer among the writings of the approved authorities. This often led students fresh out of the old country to turn in essays that consisted of little other than strings of quotes mined out of our texbooks and reading lists. We had to be very careful to distinguish between genuine plagiarism and sloppy source citing.

    That said, I never had the impression that they didn’t understand the idea of plagiarism. What they didn’t understand was that academia might be an acceptable environment to express their own opinions. Of course, this was undergraduate writing in the humanities. I can’t believe that the same confusion would be as much of a problem in the sciences or among grad students and professionals.

  2. #2 Mike Peel
    October 9, 2006

    I haven’t heard anything first-hand about this, but I’ve heard a story second-hand that came from a reputable source (the head of my faculty – engineering and physical sciences, in the UK). He didn’t go into too much detail, for obvious reasons, but the gist of it was that someone handed in a PhD thesis to the university which contained paragraphs taken verbatim from papers written by experts in the field. Apparently this was his country’s way of paying respect to the experts by saying that their work was as good as it could be, and no rewriting or paraphrasing could better it. Unfortunately, he only found out that this counted as plagiarism after he had handed his thesis in, and was literally in tears when the faculty refused to award him a PhD. I should add that this was a good student – sufficiently good to get a paper published in Nature.

  3. #3 Phil
    October 10, 2006

    Well, let me say this.
    I was in an exam where the teacher felt we could be left alone. We were to leave our papers on the desk after we were finished. I was appalled to see one of the Filipino students go through the other papers and fix his answers. After this incident, we had to be babysat for the rest of the year.
    You may also like to know the highest incident of cheating in public schools was in in Fairfax County, Virginia. Who goes there? Not poor black kids. It’s one of the richest counties in the country. It’s where all the people who work in D.C. live. Guess what ethnic background they may be. They were also in the news again lately, because the students are objecting to their papers being put through the internet to check for plaigarism.

    So you tell me which culture is worse.

  4. #4 Lab Lemming
    October 10, 2006

    A good friend of mine recently wrote a song about this very topic. It is entirely his original work. You can find the lyrics here:
    http://www.casualhacker.net/tom.lehrer/revisited.html#lobachevsky

  5. #5 Heidi
    October 10, 2006

    I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland, and plagiarism and cheating were rampant at the high school level, and to some extent at the university level. Such practices were “officially” prohibited, but the strongest censure of the behavior from instructors that I saw was limited to taking the “cheat sheet” from the students or telling them not to do it again. I was told two main reasons for this:

    (a) Poland has a strong culture of encouraging (a small amount) of subversiveness. They are very proud of their history of going “underground” (sometimes literally) during wars to conduct surprise attacks and daring escapes. The teachers treat cheating a bit like an indulgent parent going “aw..the little rascal *chuckle*, and see it positively, even though they officially discourage it. In fact, I had a case in a high school where I taught, where there was a student who was a “teacher’s pet”/”Hermione from Harry Potter” sort. When the time came for her teachers to assign what her “behavior grade” would be (1=terrible, 5=excellent, no behavior problems), they chose to mark her as “3”, despite having no history of behavior problems. When I asked about this, they said that although she never did anything wrong, she didn’t let other students copy her work, and therefore didn’t foster a community spirit in her class, and so couldn’t get a “5”.
    (b) The second reason I saw was, as someone else mentioned, that “sources” are seen as dogma, and not something a “mere student” at the high school or university level has the authority to question. I had a university student, studying a wetlands area at the confluence of the Warta and Odra rivers for his PhD, write about the geography of the area, which he knew extremely well. Although he used the name “Warta River” in one section, his description of the river was quite obviously the Odra (which runs N-S, as opposed to the Warta which runs E-W at that point, among other differences). His source was a high-school geography textbook. We consulted it, and it had quite obviously gotten the two rivers mixed up. When I questioned him, he said he HAD realized that the book appeared to have erred, but couldn’t bring himself to question the authors. He just assumed that he must be ignorant of the geography of the area (despite having done field research in the area for a number of years). He was aghast that I suggested a textbook could be wrong. (Of course, using a high school textbook as a source for a PhD thesis was another issue altogether…).

    I haven’t met a Polish student working the US yet, but I imagine that the cultural issues in Poland are not of the sort that would prevent them KNOWING that cheating and plagiarism are wrong here in the US (indeed, they are “wrong” in Poland, at least officially). However, their history of education in a system that is tolerant of these techniques, would probably mean they would need a lot of help at first learning about efficient library use and developing critical writing skills. I can easily see a scenario where a Polish student, newly arrived in the US, would write a paper just like s/he had always written in Poland, quoting heavily from various sources, and therefore subsequently be accused of plagiarism. They would then, in honest surprise, claim that that’s how they “did it in Poland”. The US administration would then be correct and saying that it is NOT acceptable in Poland either, and punishing the student. However, the student was, at some level, correct by Polish standards. Hopefully the official orientation for international students or just personal contact with other students and professors would minimize the risk of this happening, but I imagine it happens more often than not.

  6. #6 Rich
    October 10, 2006

    Janet,

    The short answer is, it’s a genuine phenomenon, it’s a topic of substantial discussion and research in applied linguistics, and it’s often explicitly addressed by ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers at universities both within the U.S. and abroad. Unfortunately, the research rarely gets communicated to working scientists and science educators unfamiliar with language teaching, for systemic
    reasons (entrenched disciplinary boundaries) as well as insufficient outreach by the applied linguists. If your university has an ELI (English Language Institute), the instructors there probably would be a good resource for information, as would faculty members who teach MA TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) programs. All universities with a substantial population of international graduate students will have an ELI or its equivalent, and many universities offer an MA TESOL as well.

    I personally have only somewhat peripheral familiarity with the plagiarism issue — enough to know there’s a body of research, but not enough to have a few articles handy to point you to off the top of my head. I’m finishing up my PhD in applied linguistics at City University of Hong Kong, and my former office mate recently wrote an article discussing plagiarism in relation to her studies of mainland Chinese PhD candidates writing for publication in English. I’ll see if I can get some references for you. I’m a bit swamped with work right now, so I might be a little slow, but if you email me, I will follow up and get you some useful information.

    If you feel like doing a little digging for articles rather than waiting on my vague promises, the following journals would be good places to look:

    English for Specific Purposes

    ELT Journal

    The Journal of Second Language Writing

    Applied Linguistics

    TESOL Quarterly

  7. #7 a little night musing
    October 10, 2006

    First observation: two aspects of “plagiarism” or “cheating” seem to be mentioned in these comments, which may or may not not be connected in practice. One is the incorporation of the words of “authorities” without citation; the other is copying or correcting one’s work (on a test, for instance) by referring to forbidden sources (a cheat sheet or one’s neighbor).

    The first sort, it seems to me, should be easily address by pointing out that a reasonable amount of incorporation is OK as long as the source is cited. I’m sure that someone else has mentioned this somewhere, but the first sort is even familiar to us (well, to me) in some contexts: words which are assumed to be sufficiently familiar to the audience are quoted without citation all the time. If I add that above all, to thine own self be true, I do not think that many people (from an education similar to my own) reading this would think that I was taking credit for inventing that line.

    On the other hand, as for the second type I do have some experience to report:

    In one of my early teaching jobs I taught at a college which had a majority of bilingual (English-Spanish) students, many of whom had grown up in Latin America.

    In one class, when I gave them their first test, I was kind of shocked to see one of the students openly holding his test paper up and moving it around so that the students near him could see his answers. My usual way of dealing with copiers during tests is just to give them the evil eye, and I tried this, but he continued. At that time I had not much experience under my belt so I waited until the test was over and then took the problem to my chair. He called the student in for a meeting with me, at which he asked the student about what had happened in the test. The student said merely, “I was helping them.” It was very clear from the student’s tone that he thought there was nothing exceptional about this. My chair explained to him that in this country, students are expected to do their own work without looking at another paper. The student listened gravely and agreed not to do this in the future. I should add that he and even the students to whom he was showing his paper were very serious students who worked diligently, whom I would have expected to do fairly well without any copying at all.

    Several of my colleagues explained to me afterward that they had heard that in some Latin American countries, having a degree was so much the only pathway out of poverty that a certain amount of this kind of “helping” was tolerated. I also occasionally would pass by a classroom in which a test was being administered by a colleague who happened to come from Latin America, and would see that faculty member’s face was covered by a newspaper or the like. I also heard some reports from students that certain faculty members (again, from Latin America) would bury their faces or even walk out of the room while tests were on, so that the students felt free to copy from each other.

    Whether this all is true or not I cannot say. I am even a little reluctant to share the anecdotes, fearing to contribute to some kind of stereotype. The first student I spoke of did seem to have the idea that copying was OK and had no shame about my having caught him sharing his answers, and he was in every respect a decent sort. I had no sense at all that this was other than it appeared: a student encountering a different set of expectations than he was used to.

  8. #8 Greco
    October 10, 2006

    I also heard some reports from students that certain faculty members (again, from Latin America) would bury their faces or even walk out of the room while tests were on, so that the students felt free to copy from each other.

    I can tell from personal experience that this is true: my immunology professor spent a lot of time during one of our tests standing in the door chatting with another teacher with his back turned to us. Three of my classmates took the chance to insist that I give the answer to a question, and although I never cheated for myself, I have never been able to say “no” to requests for help – especially from pretty colleagues I was interested in…

    But attitudes vary with circumstances. Although at the undergraduate level most teachers I knew were quite lenient, cheating on university entrance exams is a serious crime and there’s hardly a year when a few dozens of people don’t get arrested for the latest creative scheme and the exam organizers make security measures even more strict. At primary and secondary school, cheaters are punished by having their tests taken away and receiving an automatic zero, suspension or expulsion – I had a few classmates suspended and I knew a few that were expelled when I was in what would be the equivalent of grade 7 or 8.
    There was recently in the news a report of a PhD candidate in Law that was arrested when he turned up for his thesis defence because one of the examiners – a public attorney – discovered he had plagiarized books and internet sources. I don’t know how long he was in jail, but he surely didn’t get his degree.

  9. #9 WiseWoman
    October 10, 2006

    There is indeed a cultural difference in what constitutes plagiarism. Lena Henningsen at the University of Heidelberg in Germany is currently doing her dissertation on the topic of plagiarism in China. She has kindly given me a copy of her literature list and will surely share it with anyone else who is interested in the topic.

    I myself have done a lot of research about the history of plagiarism for my E-Learning module. Our notion of plagiarism is rather new, even if the term was coined by Martialis, angered by another poet stealing his words=his children. The term means theft-of-children.

    Plagiarism seems to be similar to pornography in that we can’t define it exactly, but we “know it when we see it”. I liken it to determining the point at which we call a man “bald-headed”. It is clear when he is, and it is clear when he is not, but where exactly is the borderline?

    There are so many kinds of plagiarism, from out-and-out copy-and-paste to translations to structural plagiarism. And it is actually a teaching method for -as-a-second-language! By copying masters you learn what good writing is all about.

    What we need to do is to teach our beginning students what we consider to be good scholarship. We need to be very clear on the details, pick up on instances of plagiarism and, use the discovery and consequences as an educational tool. This might mean having to repeat a course because you received zero points on account of plagiarism or other forms of cheating.

    And we have to “police” ourselves, foster a community of scholarship in which plagiarism, in whatever form, is just not tolerated.

    We just held a conference in Dresden in Germany on this topic – there are so many facets of the question, my mind is spinning. The important thing is, is that we talk about it – amongst ourselves and with our students.

  10. #10 Schlupp
    October 14, 2006

    Some notes on Heidi’s remarks on Poland:
    I’m Austrian and we are very similar to the Polish in this regard. (We don’t offer that “being subversive” and “going underground” argument, however.) Cheating in high school is, of course, forbidden, but copying from the student next to you is not considered “very bad” and there are practically no consequences. Refusing to “help” your neighbor is considered bad manners. I can offer two explanations:
    1) Students are not ranked (as in “best of class”, “second best”, ….), and it therefore doesn’t hurt me, if you get a better grade. It is different for competitions (like mathematics olympics), where the unfair advantage would actually hurt other students.
    2) It’s often seen as a game: It’s the students’ part to try cheating and it’s the teachers’ part to try stopping them. It is “played” in teams (students vs. teacher(s)), so not helping a class mate means “letting your team down”.

    So, for Austrian students, it might be a good idea to clearly tell them that cheating is NOT considered fun and that they have to expect very serious consequences if they do it. Otherwise, they might be genuinely surprised.

    It’s different for creative writing and research papers, though. Here, people should know perfectly well that stealing someone’s work is wrong.

    Another thing – not specific to Austia – is scientists: Some seem to believe that only numbers (like measurements) are important and that you may copy-paste words, e.g., in an introduction to a paper. I heard this opinion expressed from Germans, but I do not know whether they were just a few weirdos or whether it is more general.

  11. #11 gp1
    October 15, 2006

    I believe that plagiarism is a cultural phenomenon. Plagiarism exists only in the academia. Outside the culture of academia there is no plagiarism. If you look at the problem in terms of adding to human knowledge, sharing of knowledge is good. Hording knowledge, i.e. by calling it plagiarism, is not good. In other words, sharing knowledge increases, not decreases, knowledge. Let your students copy and use knowledge freely. Can you deny the contribution to human knowledge of open source movement? Please, copy what I write and use it. This would only be flattering. Thanks.

  12. #12 James
    October 17, 2006

    My question would be, how is it supposed to be done?

    Do you read all the material, set it aside, then write up what you remember from that material? (Then do you go back to the original to make sure you remembered it all correctly?) Do you copy the material, then rearrange some of the words, delete some clauses, change an adjective here and there, then figure it’s no longer an exact copy, so it’s okay? How about if I pull a phrase here, and a phrase there, so I have created a chimerical text?

    In exactly what ways are these better than just copying the text? I’ll stipulate that attribution is better than no attibution, though I’ll draw the line at self-attribution, which seems pointless.

    The original article used the word “boilerplate.” In proposals, the boilerplate is always the same. Are we making a fetish of changing boilerplate in small ways each time to avoid the charge of plagerism? Does that actually increase the amount of integrity in the world?

  13. #13 Monimonika
    October 20, 2006

    When I was told to write term papers for high school classes (whether History or English) I was told the difference between when to cite something or not is to figure out whether the information was “common knowledge” or not. For instance, if it could be found in an encyclopedia or dictionary, it was “common knowledge” and therefore need not be cited.

    For me, if I was unfamiliar with the subject, I tended to quote and paraphase with citations all over the place with little that I could call my own words (since I literally had no knowledge of my own on the subject). If I had to prove an argument from sources that didn’t explicitely have the argument as their topic, I can write my own words. But when I’m given an argument that has been written to death about in several sources, I have to struggle to come up with words of my own that aren’t identical to how the sources present the argument.

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