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Plagiarism in education and what we can do about it

Oct 03. 2012
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By Kuldeep Nagi
Special to The N

Plagiarism in academia is in the news every day. The mere thought of plagiarism makes Thai students and instructors very nervous. English language teachers are especially concerned with the issue.

However, there is a fundamental flaw in applying strict US and UK standards to English-language students in this part of the world. Doing so ignores the fact that English is not the mother tongue of students in Thailand and Asean. Furthermore, it is not taught outside schools in the big cities. 

Hence, the preoccupation with plagiarism does little to help answer the fundamental question: recognising that English is not students’ native language, what can academia do about it? 
In Thailand plagiarism is becoming an important issue in assessments, especially in higher education. In spite of incoherent government policies, students in Asean continue to work on developing proficiency in English. The question is: should they be judged by the same criteria for plagiarism as students whose native language is English? Although limited in its scope, this article is aimed at aiding English-language instructors and administrators as they work to ensure fairness and legitimacy in assessing students whose first language is not English. 
Research indicates that although performance-based assessment has become the method of choice in judging writing ability in English language, variability in the scores in English compositions (project reports, term papers and dissertations) remains a concern for validation studies. 
Based on my own experience I can safely say that instructors’ own cultural experiences and expectations play a large part in the criteria they use to judge what constitutes plagiarism. Consequently, it becomes important for instructors and examiners to understand how their expectations are rooted in their own cultural background and professional experience, and how they translate plagiarism into specific criteria during the assessment process. 
Also, the widespread acceptance of plagiarism and piracy in wider society always leads to an ignoring of the rules and laws. Hence there is a variety of reasons for plagiarism to continue to exist. 
This year, Turnitin, ( an online plagiarism-checking service based in California, conducted a survey of 879 educators in order to understand what kinds of plagiarism are common among US students. It listed 10 different types of plagiarism, given below in descending order of severity. The number one on the list is Cloning (verbatim copying without additions or subtractions). Next is CTL+C (largely verbatim copying from a single source with minor changes), followed by Find-Replace (verbatim copying with key words or phrases changed, often automatically). 
Then come Remix (paraphrasing content so that it flows seamlessly with other work), Recycle (plagiarising from older works of your own – self plagiarism), Hybrid (combining correctly cited material with non-cited material in the same passage), Mashup (a mix of copied and original content from various sources without attribution), 404 Error (including citations that do not exist or are inaccurate), Aggregator (properly cited material that contains little original content) and, last on the list, Re-Tweet (includes proper citation but uses too much of the original wording, content that should have been quoted but was paraphrased). 
It should be emphasised that the data collected and analysed by Turnitin is solely based on the survey conducted in the US. It should also be remembered that English is the native language of Americans and is taught at all levels. 
In Thailand plagiarism is so widely practised that few involved seem to think it is wrong. But although there is no denying that cheating is a pervasive problem in schools and universities here, it will not be resolved merely by focusing on plagiarism-detection tools. 
It seems that most instances of plagiarism among Thai students occur because of lack of training in writing and citation practices. If we properly educate students about how and when to cite the work of others in their own papers, the issue of plagiarism will not be so threatening. Plagiarism also raises questions about how English is taught in Thai schools and colleges. 
Several studies have reported that using plagiarism-checking tools such as Turnitin in academia is effective in reducing the problem. Many institutions in the US, however, prefer to use Turnitin as an instructional rather than as a crime-detection tool. Students are made aware that instructors will use plagiarism-checking tools in class, and told of the type of issues they detect and, of course, the consequences of deliberate plagiarism. This provides instructors with an opportunity to discuss acceptable citation practices. 
However, the use of such plagiarism-detection tools in Thailand and Asean, where English is not the first language, should be carefully considered. They may not be effective in improving the overall quality of English language use among students.
 For this, a more fundamental shift in educational policies is required.
First and foremost, the educational system must concentrate on training its own people, rather than foreigners, to become excellent teachers of English. Thai teachers of English have to be good; they have to be an inspiration to their students. “If my teacher can speak good English, I can do it too,” should be a common thought among students. If a school or college really wants to employ a foreigner, then he/she must be a qualified language teacher, not just a native speaker. To qualify, the foreign candidate must have a good degree in language or linguistics and have mastered at least one or more foreign languages. 
Rather than wasting time on deciding what to call English – English as a Foreign Language (EFL) or English as Second Language (ESL) – educational establishments should really be focused on improving the quality of English teachers and of English teaching in Thailand. This is the only way to tackle the problem of plagiarism. 
Kuldeep Nagi is a Fulbright Fellow from Seattle, working as a faculty member at the Graduate School of eLearning (GSeL) at Assumption University. He can be contacted via

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