Why do international students plagiarize?

Viewing Plagiarism through a Cross-cultural Perspective

Canadian academic institutions are becoming more culturally diverse with an increasing number of students from around the world coming to study in Canada. This trend has given rise to concerns about academic integrity in this student population as they may be at high risk of committing plagiarism1
There are several reasons why international students may plagiarize2:

  • Students may be unaware of definitions, policies, and procedures around plagiarism at Western universities.
  • Students from other cultures may not be familiar with the conventions governing attribution and plagiarism in [North] American colleges and universities.
  • Students may not know how to integrate the ideas of others and document the sources appropriately.
  • Students will make mistakes as they learn how to integrate others’ words or ideas into their own work because error is a natural part of learning.

Each of these points is described in further detail below.

The Western Concept of Plagiarism

Although plagiarism has been defined in a variety of ways, its general conception is to take the words or ideas of another source without giving sufficient attribution3. As the etymological source of plagiarism is the Latin word, plagiarius, meaning kidnapper4, it is believed that words can be kidnapped or misappropriated with legal recrimination5. Therefore, the issue of plagiarism is traditionally viewed through a moral lens6. This notion of plagiarism is believed to be “clear and direct”7 (p4), but it fails to take into account the perspective of international students who may have learned a way of communicating that is very different from Western norms8.  Moreover, learning to write in English as a second language is a complex process, and mistakes can lead to unintentional plagiarism.

Complex Interactions between Cultural Values and Plagiarism

Confucianism, a cultural value unique to Asian cultures such as China, Japan, and Korea, offers insight to help understand cultural context of plagiarism9. Whilst Western culture values individualism, self-expression, and creativity10, the Confucian heritage advocates collectivism and harmony, and believes that “an individual exists as related to others in hierarchical superior-subordinate relationship with the senior or superior having more authority”9 (p123). Respect for hierarchical societal structure is very apparent in writing.  Using masters’ words is believed to be a sign of appreciation and respect whereas modifying them is considered disrespectful or impolite9. The absence of references in one’s writing suggests that the content comes from highly respected or famous people11. The respect for the text and its authors may explain why some Asian students’ copy verbatim as they “could not presume to write it better than the master”12 (p96).

In collectivist societies, words are shared assets not personal belongings, and knowledge is believed to belong to society rather than individuals13; therefore, the Western perspective that ideas and words can be owned by individuals may seem strange to students from these cultural backgrounds14. These students may regard the rules of citation or quotation as being inappropriate and/or unnecessary15, and see their violation of attribution as a positive collaboration3.  Students in some non-Western countries may include copied chunks of text in their writing, which is “not seen as cheating or even sloppy writing practices”16 (p3). There is also less pressure to provide specific references in written work9. The publication date and page number need not be included in a citation when quoting from Chinese sources9 and attribution in Vietnam does not specify actual source17. Hence, plagiarism strictly based on the violation or lack of adherence to a particular citation style may not be relevant in non-Western education systems17.

The education practices in a Confucian heritage is also different from that of the Western education system18. Coming from an exam-focused and teacher-centred education system, some Asian students have developed academic skills based on rote learning19. For example, Chinese education values memorization, repetition, and imitation of authoritative texts as legitimate writing strategies20. These strategies, however, are in contrast with Western writing traditions, which honor a person’s divergent thinking ability, originality, and creativity21.

Furthermore, students’ embracing of memorization and copying9 during the learning process may make it difficult for them to recognize appropriate source usage1. Their lack of understanding of how to use proper techniques and format to credit sources in Western academic studies may be because they were not taught these skills explicitly or have not been given sufficient practice. Therefore, contrary to the portrait that depicts international students as “persistent plagiarizers”22 they may simply be unaware of or feel confused about the meaning of plagiarism and how to avoid it in the host learning environment23.

Writing as Second Language Learners

English academic writing emphasizes the ability to write in one’s own words13 but this can be a difficult task for some international students to accomplish because they have not yet mastered the language skills to write adequately in academic contexts24. Moreover, because learning to write in a new language is necessarily “a process of assimilating and reusing chunks of language”25 (p282), second language writers may “[take] a bit here and there [to help] with getting the meaning across”16 (p221). Often, this process results in performance that is not always appropriate26. Moving from copying words, phrases, or sentences from textual sources to a higher level writing that includes the use of creativity and innovation can be a lengthy process for international students, therefore, they require patience and support from instructors before they can eventually use English as a language of their own8.

The key to avoiding plagiarism often lies in the ability to identify one’s own voice in academic writing27. This may be problematic for international students for whom English is their second language for the reasons described above. “Language learning is to some extent a process of borrowing others’ words”25 (p227); thus, it may be difficult (at least in the early stages of language learning) for international students to find their own English words to construct sentences19. Second, international students may consider authorship as something that only belongs to masters or authorial figures, and they often lack the confidence to claim ownership over the English language19. As a result, their involvement in plagiarism may be associated with their failure to construct an authorial identity27.

What can Instructors Do to Support International Students?

Learning English academic writing as international students is much like participating in a new game without understanding all the rules. Some of the students may not realize that the rules are different from the ones they used to follow in their first language22. International students’ often struggle in their studies because of their limited language skills and the cultural factors related to writing norms, learning style, and authorial identity28.  Therefore, instructors may need to provide international students with additional support23
Here is a short list of support strategies that can help students improve language proficiency, develop referencing techniques, and build confidence in writing9.

List of support strategies

  • Provide students with information about writing centers and other writing supports at the university
  • Assign an brief assignment early on in the course that will allow you to assess your students writing and citing skills as early as possible
  • Assign many small assignments so that students can practice writing and citing skills often
  • Provide constructive feedback often and as soon as possible
  • Clarify your expectations for your assignments
  • Assess the difficulty of your tasks and provide appropriate level of guidance as the tasks become more complex
  • Offer a modification to the assessment method, for example, instead of marking the final product, instructors grade the writing process by having students submit outlines, drafts, and reflective journals29.
  • To “incorporate evidence appropriately” into academic writing, international students need to develop “critical reading and note-taking skills as well as summarizing and paraphrasing skills”22 (p14). Consider providing your students with handouts developed by the University of Manitoba’s Academic Learning Centre.
  • For additional resources, consult the text “Teaching International Students: Improving Learning for all” 30 (chapter 7).


Many international students face unique challenges when it comes to writing and the development of the skills that would help them to avoid academic misconduct.  Although students are largely responsible for their own learning, teachers and administrators should provide the best opportunities for learning and resources to help students understand plagiarism and to become better writers. Academic staff should also be more aware of how variations in knowledge, culture, language, and identity influence international students’ academic behaviors17.  With such an awareness, they can avoid stereotyping international students and provide them with the best possible conditions for academic success22.


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