Don't Copy--Write!

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What is Plagiarism?

Don't copy someone else's work; write it yourself!

By Michael Krigline, MA (September 2008), translation by Nico Chen --


            In China, as in English-speaking countries, there are laws against plagiarism, and the punishment for plagiarizing is severe. To “plagiarize” means to use a passage, sentence, outline, or even a group of phrases from the Internet, a book, or any other source, without telling where you “borrowed” from. Plagiarism is a crime because it violates the author’s intellectual property rights; many schools also seriously punish plagiarism because it “hurts honest students” by giving the cheater an unfair advantage over students who do not cheat. In America, university students who plagiarize often lose the right to continue working toward a college degree, and plagiarism brings great shame on the university, the student, and the student’s family. In China, major universities have also started to severely punish plagiarism. An article in the China Daily (Dec 25, 2007) illustrated the cost of plagiarism by reporting on a Fudan University post-graduate student who was expelled because his papers contained work copied from others; furthermore, his tutor was asked to resign from the post of deputy director of the school.[1] In the real world(outside university walls), plagiarism can cost you your job, and it could give your company huge fines and a tarnishedreputation.


            In spite of the severe consequences, plagiarism continues to be a world-wide problem. Sometimes, English-learners use other’s thoughts without documentationbecause they don’t have a high enough English level to express themselves clearly, and sometimes they simply don’t know that the practice is considered dishonest. Furthermore, most teachers praise students whose writing includes thoughts from great writers because it demonstrates a broad understanding of literature. But this practice is acceptable only if these quotations are enclosed in quotation marks with the original source clearly shown.


         A diligent teacher can often easily notice plagiarism. Signs include (1) seeing a passage that is clearly beyond a student’s ability to write, (2) seeing the same sentence in two or more essays, and (3) seeing a change in grammar patterns or word use. When students are supposed to create sentences with new vocabulary words, some plagiarize by copying sentences from a dictionary. I sometimes recognize essays from one of the many Chinese textbooks I’ve used. On more than one occasion, I have typed a particularly advanced phrase into a search enginelike, only to find the student’s text almost word for word. While it is sometimes OK to get ideas from on-line essays, your homework should not look like you “borrowed” an outline and numerous clauses or words that you don’t really understand. Using someone else’s sentence, changed a bit with synonyms, is also plagiarism (unless you add documentation).


         When one of my students plagiarizes, they get a zero on the essay’s draft, another zero for the paper’s revision, and 30 points taken from their final exam. Sometimes, I even tell them that they are not allowed to return to my class. I want the punishment to be severe so that students are not tempted to do this, no matter how much they have done it in the past. Your teacher can not help you write better in English if you do not turn in your own work, so plagiarizers are just slowing down their own academic improvement.


            I can’t stress this enough: Plagiarism is unacceptable behavior, especially when there is a much better alternative. Instead of claiming that you wrote everything yourself, use a direct quotation[2] or paraphrase the original passage,[3] and be sure to include a footnote pointing to the source material. Then the real author gets credit, and the reader has a source of additional information. Acceptable paraphrasing requires more effort than changing a word or two, but the result will be your work—and that is something you can be proud of![4]



Discussion questions:

1. When you write in Chinese, how do you include thoughts that come from others? Based on what you just read, discuss differences between “western” and “Chinese” practices of using things from come from other writers.

2. List reasons why English-learners sometimes copy things from others when they write in English (either with or without telling where it came from). What are some of the sources they use?

3. What can happen to a student or business person who plagiarizes? Can you tell us about something you read in the news, or saw at your undergraduate college?

For an interesting article on plagiarism, notably it's history and the idea that it is a "western concept," read

"A Different Perspective on Plagiarism" by Dahlia Syahrani Md. Yusof, Multimedia University (Cyberjaya, Malaysia)


[1] Wang Hongyi, "Fudan shames cheating scholars" (Beijing: China Daily Information Co, Dec 25, 2007, visited Jan 8, 2008)

[2] Direct quote: According to the China Daily, “Fudan University has publicly shamed nine teachers and students for their involvement in three separate cases of plagiarism…”

[3] Paraphrase (also called an “indirect quote”): An article in the China Daily illustrated the cost of plagiarism by reporting on a Fudan University post-graduate student who…

[4] This article was adapted from: DeWitt Scott and Michael Krigline, Successful Writing for the Real World 高级实用英语写作 (Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press 外语教学与研究出版社, 2008, ISBN 978-7-5600-7264-7) lesson two. This lesson also includes a section on how to paraphrase, and lesson four presents detailed information on how to document academic essays in English. (Click here for more info about the book)


This resource was created for our students under my understanding of "fair use" for educational resources.  

© 2008 Michael Krigline, all rights reserved. As far as I am concerned, people are allowed to print/copy/adapt it for personal or classroom use.

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