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Multiple Perspectives on Plagiarism?

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Beyond Good and Evil?
Teaching About Plagiarism Should Reflect Modern Contexts

Recently on the TESL-L listserv there was a very heated series of exchanges regarding the teaching of plagiarism principles to ESL/EFL students. Charles Nelson, of Kean University, in Union, New Jersey, posted the following perspective on the issue, and has graciously allowed ESL MiniConference to reprint his comments.

Charles NelsonSome of the postings on plagiarism have treated it as a moral issue instead of as a cultural norm, a perspective that in the age of Internet "public domainness" can diminish the credibility of and respect for the teacher, especially when doing so contradicts the every day life experiences of our students, not to mention their awareness of teachers' borrowing activities from other teachers without giving them credit or, as it has been noted, photocopying copyrighted material.

To earn respect, we can model the learning behavior we want our students to acquire. One such behavior is that of examining biases. Rather than treating plagiarism simply as a question of morality, we might compare and contrast the warrants and values that accompany an individualistic approach to authorship to those of other perspectives, for instance, a social constructionist perspective, in which ideas are created socially and collectively, thus eliminating individual ownership of ideas.

Another writing behavior to model is exploring the complexity of issues, such as the situatedness of plagiarism. University presidents, politicians, and others regularly present speeches written by others without giving them credit. Academics have been known to self- plagiarize and use, without citing, words they've published earlier in a source that they do not own the copyright to. And everyone "plagiarizes" after new ideas have become common knowledge. Rather than laying down the law of plagiarism, the spirit of learning might create an activity in which students analyze which situations of using others' words and ideas are designated plagiarism, which aren't, which are borderline, and to infer the cultural norms governing these designations.

Story by Charles Nelson, Kean University, NEW JERSEY

2003 ESL MiniConference Online