Is there such a thing as Asian plagiarism?

Is cultural background an extenuating circumstance?

Michiel Walrave

By Thomas Blondeau

Various academics claim that plagiarism is part of Asian culture, but how correct is the Ctrl+c stereotype? "They know very well that it’s not allowed."

A PhD student at the Humanities Faculty was recently expelled after submitting two versions of his thesis, both containing copied sections without any reference to sources. As Mare reported two weeks ago, the Doctorate Board was divided on the second version as "the PhD student’s cultural background could be regarded as an extenuating circumstance for plagiarism." The PhD student was allowed to hand in a second version because the Council of Deans sympathised with the "cultural background" plea. The Academic Integrity Commission was called in to clarify the issue but their recommendations reveal their doubts about plagiarism being determined by cultural opinion. And, they add, the student should observe the rules of Leiden University if he is attached to it. The Academic Integrity Commission’s recommendations were publicized without the student’s personal details so the precise background of the PhD student is not public knowledge.

However, academic journalist Frank van Kolfschooten, author of Ontspoorde wetenschap [Derailed Science], a study of fraud in the academic community, confirms that the PhD student is Asian. Van Kolfschooten is writing an article on this case. Chairman of the Commission Hans Nieuwenhuis does not want to reveal any personal details, but says "This idea of cultural background being to blame is something you hear more often; apparently certain cultures do not value originality very highly and the word of the forefathers is revered. But why you can’t mention your sources escapes me. It’s called the cultural defence plea in criminal law. It allows a suspect to plead an honour killing by saying it was his duty to murder. But by my estimate, the Court does not make allowances for it in the judgment."

Many people suspect that, in some cases regarding Asian scientists, academic practice in other countries does not always coincide with how the West views plagiarism. "The ethics of copyright differ. In the East, a good copy is something to be proud of. Uniqueness and credit where credit’s due is not as important there as they are here in the West", explains Pieter Jonker, Professor of Vision-based Robotics at Delft University of Technology, in Ontspoorde wetenschap. Jonker discovered his work - and no mention of the source - in an Indian publication. Van Kolfschooten suspects that plagiarism is prevalent in Asia, but "that it’s a problem you see in all non-Western nations where the numbers of universities are on the rise. Not everyone maintains the standards."

"We have noticed that plagiarism is committed relatively more often by Asian students" Vice Rector Tine Baelmans of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven said in the Flemish newspaper De Standaard earlier this academic year, while both Ghent and Brussels had similar experiences.

At the time, as now, explanations were sought in the more collective background of the Chinese in particular, to which both Confucianism and Communism have supposedly contributed. Nevertheless, in a study at an American University, 163 students were given a written assignment; it emerged that there was no difference between Asian and Western students. In fact, students who characterised themselves as independent committed plagiarism more often than subjects who regarded themselves as having a more collective mentality.

Remco Breuker, Professor of Korea Studies, does not agree with the "cultural background" plea and claims that plagiarism "definitely does not" occur more often in the East.

"It’s a familiar discussion full of Western prejudice founded on colonial experience and I have very little patience with it. Yes, sometimes my Chinese, Japanese and Korean students make mistakes in their references, but so do my Dutch students. And yes, there are differences in how people "do" science. If I write a paper in English, it will differ from a paper on the same subject in Korean. In Korea, you construct your argument more compactly, and make more mention of work done before you. And making your subject sexy, something I heard about during my doctoral studies, is certainly not done there."

Breuker also mentions Korean politicians who have resigned after it was discovered that they had committed fraud during their academic careers. "Scientific fraud is not tolerated in Asia either."

Xiaoshuang Xia, a student of Art History, concurs with that analysis. He is studying in Hong Kong but also attended lectures in Leiden, and says that he has never noticed any difference between Chinese and European students regarding plagiarism.

"I’ve always been taught that it’s part of the academic requirements to mark quotes clearly, including the page, title, date of issue, publisher – all very precisely. It’s not an issue for me or my classmates."

Frank Pieke, a Professor specialising in modern China, responds differently to Jonker’s remark. "More plagiarism in the East … the East, do you mean Japan, Korea, China? Well, let me talk about the country I know about, China. They know very well that it is not allowed, but in my personal experience – and I must stress that I have not done any research on the subject – plagiarism is rife among the Chinese. But that is not due to their culture but rather because of the educational climate. Maybe it’s because of the huge pressure put on exams and the fact that they don’t often write papers. They don’t pay much attention to plagiarism, so they can get away with copy-pasting. Or their English is quite poor and they think they can’t put it better or paraphrase it. They always say: "But I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed." Exactly like Dutch students in their first year. They’re always copying and pasting too, and they get their work back with highlighted passages and you tell them that you’ll knock points off next time. Let them find out the hard way that it’s not acceptable."

Pieke’s remark about the educational climate being more to blame than culture for the difference in views on plagiarism is substantiated by research results published in the anthropology journal Human Organization, from which it emerges that acculturalisation, not ethnicity, is regarded as the determining factor for plagiarist behaviour. According to the study held among 158 subjects, it has more to do with whether you grow accustomed to Western academic culture or not, than whether you are a Westerner or not.

Stressful adjustments to living abroad, when much is required of a student or scientist, could be the reason for quickly reverting to foreign research habits. If the curriculum for newcomers called attention to the issue and discussed it, the problem could be on its way to being solved. After all, the Commission noted, with reason, a possible lack of supervision by the doctoral thesis supervisor in the case of the reoffending PhD student. However, it is still striking that a member of the Doctorate Board resigned after plagiarism was established in the second version of the thesis. The Board’s division on the issue means that the "cultural background defence plea" can have far-reaching consequences.

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