A few years ago, I had an interesting interaction with a colleague. She described the lay of the academic terrain in the following manner: “Asian students are more likely to plagiarize than White students.” When asked why, my colleague explained that this was a basic truism of academia, based on her many years of experience.
This was an issue that lent itself to empirical analysis. For several years, high schools, colleges, and universities have been using software that enables faculty to establish the proportion of papers that have been turned in by then copied from databases previous papers and the Internet. Accordingly, I asked my students to submit work through the system my university provides, set what I would call plagiarism to about 30 consecutive words in a row without citation (zounds!). I found in fact there was no statistically significant difference between my Asian and Caucasian students (though at 62 percent of the class plagiarizing, the majority was within the realm of an F!).
Importantly, as a social psychologist (and Bay Area denizen), I recognized that cultural background might have played a role in my colleague’s misattribution. I had collected acculturation data in a survey, linked the students to the plagiarism data, and found that those Asian students who identified with their home cultures and had spent less time in the United States were significantly more prone to plagiarize. My colleague had been using race as a proxy for “illegal” behavior. The culture of educational systems varies, but the system in the United States is often called Socratic, when emphasis is to take information and facts and use them in an innovative or creative fashion. Conversely, Asian countries’ educational expectations are usually perceived as Confucian, with an emphasis on the memorization and reiteration of factual knowledge with respect for established expertise.
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