Plagio: A View of Plagiarism from Abroad
By Mehmet Kucukozer, Writing Fellow, Queens College, CUNY
Upon completing a Masters in Translation and Interpretation at a well-known university in Guadalajara, Mexico, I got hired on as an instructor there. I taught English as a foreign language to students majoring in professional programs such as tourism, accounting, finance, business administration, and marketing.
Although most of the course levels emphasized informal styles of writing, in level six Business English I assigned a short, more formal expository essay on the history of a successful company of the students" choosing. In preparing for the assignment, I spoke about the proper forms of citation and about plagiarism . I discovered the students did not know what the term ¡§plagiarism¡¨ (plagio in Spanish) was, nor why copying was a problem and why sources of information and ideas had to be cited. This lack of shared knowledge particularly surprised me, considering that level six consisted of mainly upper-classmen.
I could understand that perhaps schools failed to teach the term ¡§plagiarism,¡¨ but why were the students apparently unaware of and unmoved by the concept¡Xthat is, seeing the transgression in copying and appropriating other people's ideas and work, when they didn't signal their citations with some shared convention for doing so? My curiosity led me to the fourth floor of the Humanities Building to speak with friends in the Linguistics and Language Education Department. They were a group of five who often hung out there in between taking classes and teaching Spanish to exchange students from the US, Canada, Europe, and East Asia. I figured they might have some answers for me. Upon broaching the subject, brainstorming and discussion quickly ensued. Effectively, I had a small focus group on my hands.
They were all in agreement in seeing that attitudes towards the use of information began in childhood and elementary school. Paula explained that, in the first place, it has to do with a lack of resources, both in terms of the disposable income of rural, working, and lower middle-class families (the majority of the population) and what public schools and communities can provide. Books are expensive relative to income. Few households have books and public libraries are a rarity. When students have to write about, for example, an important historical figure, there is only one source to which students can turn to get any detail beyond the little found in the state-allocated textbooks. This source was a laminated information card available at the local stationary store for about 1.5 cents (15 centavos). Kids copy verbatim the information provided on the card and then, because of the nice illustration on the cards, paste it on to their homework sheet. Ultimately, teachers willingly accept this, and even promote it, because it is a way of guaranteeing that students are reading. In the process, however, children learn to transmit knowledge rather than reflect on it by looking up information in books and determining what is important for their homework¡Xthe latter practice being one of the essential elements of what Paula called a ¡§book culture.¡¨
At this point, Araceli chimed in. She had some familiarity with the US because of family and noted that ¡§over there¡¨ kids connect famous children"s stories with their authors, for example Dr. Seuss. In Mexico, children are mainly raised¡Xin part due to the limited access to books, but also due to the importance of religion in the family, the ongoing presence of the extended family, the strong linkages between the city and the small town, and the greater communal quality of social life¡Xon stories from the Bible, or from legends and anecdotal oral histories that grandparents and relatives tell about life in the village or pueblo.
Lulu then tied things together. Because people do not have a sense of a book culture, they tend to view information as communal property that can be appropriated freely without rules. The Bible belongs to everyone; oral histories and legends are retold in the same exact manner for generations, and the school system, for political reasons, also contributes to this informal attitude towards the ownership of information. Government-published textbooks, from elementary school through high school, present an official history of Mexico, one of fact that cannot be challenged. Excluding the possibility of differing interpretations and ideas means that the state"s version of history is everyone"s to be retold communally. Since divergent views do not exist, there is no one to attribute them to. This then translates into a general attitude towards the content of books.
My friends" comments made a lot of sense. Mexico, similar to other countries that experienced nationalist revolutions in the twentieth century, instituted a corporatist-style state emphasizing a particular nationalist identity in the name of social control, and the schools were one of the primary organs by which to carry this out. Moreover, high degrees of social inequality and recent urbanization (within living generations) have meant limited access to books and the continuity of oral histories for many. Together, these structure how the public perceives information and utilizes it. In Mexico"s case, the dissemination of various kinds of knowledge tends to be less rule-driven and thus more informal. In the final analysis, if we are to effectively deal with the matter of plagiarism, we cannot simply moralize the issue and disembed it from the social, cultural, and political context from which people originate. In order to connect with our students, we must speak to their realities. Our realities, after all, determine how we use language. Only then, can a genuine cognitive shift occur.
Interestingly, I recently spoke with my friend Lulu who finished her Masters in intercultural communication from a major public university here in the US last spring. She told me that upon entering her program she was given an information booklet on citation and plagiarism. She described the American attitude on the subject embodied in the packet as ¡§muy exagerado¡¨ (¡§overly-exaggerated¡¨). In other words, I believe she sees the American approach to citation as an overzealous adherence to rules, the reasons for which were never made completely clear to her. Somehow, her reaction did not surprise me.