Understanding Plagiarism From an International Perspective

Many international students at UMass have described the challenges they face coming to a U.S. university and adjusting to the sometimes unfamiliar understandings of plagiarism accepted here. In an effort to address their concerns, we offer these notes. We realize that similar standards concerning plagiarism apply in other countries, and that even within the U.S. context, academics do not always speak with one voice on all these matters. But there are generally accepted standards for using and acknowledging the intellectual property of others in the U.S., and we try to articulate those here as best we can. We write with the full recognition that no single body of advice will be applicable to every student, international or otherwise.

Plagiarism is a complex issue made more so by the rapid, ongoing changes in our intellectual world. As international collaboration increases, academics across the globe are struggling to arrive at common understandings of ethical research and communication practices, and our colleagues in many countries have adopted standards similar to the ones we embrace in the U.S. At the same time, new challenges continue to emerge here and abroad. With the increased availability of digital resources, and with practices like "sampling" becoming an ever-greater part of our cultural context, we find it necessary to be more explicit about how we define plagiarism and what specific standards we expect professors and students to uphold. Meanwhile, digital technologies have created an intellectual environment that allows for closer scrutiny and has raised the stakes of plagiarism higher than ever before.

In the U.S., as in many other countries, written work (everything from a published book to a scribble on a napkin) is typically referred to as the "property" of the writer. Documented ideas and their written expression function much like commodities: they can be owned, sold, and help a person accrue capital. For this reason, U.S. Copyright Law is very strict about writers using the words of others as their own. It is completely appropriate to quote another author as long as that work is acknowledged, through proper citation, as someone else’s. Using the words of another can be a compliment, a sign of respect for that person’s work. However, the status of writing as property in the U.S. can make that use an act of theft or, at the very least, an indication of unethical behavior if the proper rules of acknowledgment, quotation, and citation are not followed. The consequences for plagiarism can be quite severe: loss of credibility, loss of professional status, and frequently loss of a job in the “real” world outside of schooling.