What is the cause of plagiarism? The usual causes that come to mind are ignorance or laziness. Sometimes deviousness comes into the picture. It seems hard to imagine committing this cardinal academic sin of plagiarism to some of us because it is so obvious. Don’t copy. When you do, enclose the copy in quotes and cite it. Paraphrase. What could be easier? After all, there are nearly limitless ways to express any single thought in English.
It doesn’t take a long trip down memory lane to remember my own experiences as a fourth grader, struggling to re-write the encyclopedia entry on narwhals into my own words. My own words? What is that supposed to mean? No words are my own—they are all taught to me by others. Besides, that book said it perfectly—I don’t know how else to say it that doesn’t sound stupid. I have another clear memory of the same thing in writing a report about an island in seventh grade. Even three years later, the skill of putting things in my own words was not nearly as simple and automatic as it is now.
This is why Yamada’s article (2003) was so on-point. English language learner (ELL) writers are not as much stealing, as they are lacking the inferential skills necessary to successfully incorporate reference material into an original framework. They should be seen as being at that developmental stage I had to go through as well, and given appropriate assistance in how to develop the skills of deductive and analogic inference.
As a teacher of EFL academic writing, I need to revise my curriculum in order to include these two skills with at least one lesson on each of them, in addition to my lessons on citation and quotation. When students feel confident integrating and maneuvering the content in their own creative structure, plagiarism from this source should become a previous developmental stage rather than a current problem.
Determining the places in my own experience where my students’ plagiarism comes from lack of inferential skills, and evaluating the effectiveness of the lessons and tasks I create to instill these skills, is a place where the Critical Incident Protocol (CIP) of reflective practice can be an invaluable tool (Hole & McEntee 1999). Working together with a group of peers to analyze isolated events, place them in a larger context, and look at paths for change, can bring fresh perspective to persistent problems.
One problem with using the CIP is finding a group of reflective practitioners with whom you can be vulnerable enough to admit your areas of greatest struggle. Teachers can be an insular lot, treating the classroom as an island, or even a fortress. The Daejeon chapter of KOTESOL has a reflective practice special interest group (SIG) that might be a good place to start.
Students can also be asked to engage in reflective practice as a form of consciousness-raising peer evaluation, where they look at their own experiences of writing, share them together, examine what they have done, why they have done it, and the meanings and implications of these experiences on their own future experiences of academic literacy.
The practice of writing takes all kinds of forms, including those we might not automatically think of as writing. Just as emails, blog posts, and grocery lists are writing of a sorts, so can writing up a CIP develop our own comfort delving into words and paragraphs, and our own frameworks of thinking. Our developed voice becomes confident enough to invite other authors into the conversation, dialoguing with them in quotation and paraphrase, seeing this interaction as part of discourse, not as a threat of plagiarism to be feared and avoided.
Yamada, K . (2003). What prevents ESL/EFL writers from avoiding plagiarism: Analyses of 10 North-American college websites. System, 31, 247–258.
Hole, S. & McEntee, G. (1999). Reflection is at the Heart of Practice. Educational Leadership, 56(8), 34-37.