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Category: Research
Teaching and Learning Forum 2009 [ Refereed papers ]
Cultural influence on attitudes to plagiarism

Brad Stappenbelt, Chris Rowles and Eric May
School of Mechanical Engineering
The University of Western Australia

This paper discusses the issue of plagiarism in higher education. In particular, the cultural influences that contribute to student attitudes and abilities to avoid plagiarism were examined through a case study involving a number of postgraduate engineering students at UWA. These individuals were amongst a group of students who were caught plagiarising in an assignment and were permitted to resubmit their assignments following compulsory attendance at a writing skills workshop. The students mounted a defence of their actions based on educational cultural ignorance of the university's expectations regarding plagiarism. They claimed they did not grasp the university's expectations and had never learnt the skills required to avoid plagiarising. All students were from non-English speaking backgrounds and had acquired English as a second language. Student attitudes to plagiarism before and after the incident were determined as was their ability to recognise and rate the level of plagiarism in a series of writing samples. The results revealed that the students did appear to possess the necessary skills to successfully avoid plagiarising. There was however poor alignment of students' understanding of plagiarism and their perception of its impact compared to that stated in university academic conduct policy.


In the current competitive climate of Australian higher education, many universities are working to increase international student intake in order to reap the accompanying educational, cultural and economic benefits that this provides (Stappenbelt & Barrett-Lennard, 2008). These increasing numbers of international students are accompanied by a growing cultural diversity and range of educational backgrounds within this cohort. In light of these cultural, linguistic and educational differences, plagiarism in English as a second language (ESL) and international students has been raised repeatedly as a pressing academic concern (Deckert, 1993; Song-Turner, 2008; Rodan, 2008).

Plagiarism, broadly defined as "Passing off someone else's work, whether intentionally or unintentionally, as your own for your own benefit" (Carroll, 2002) is on the increase in higher education. The growth in information technology and accessibility has provided much material to fuel the observed increase in the incidence of plagiarism (Childs, 2001; McCabe, 2001; Maslen, 2003; Furedi, 2003). The behavioural issues associated with students' plagiarising are complex and have been examined in numerous prior studies such as those described in McGowan (2005), Marsden, Carroll and Neill (2005) and Park (2003). It is not the purpose of this paper to examine the behavioural basis of plagiarism in any detail.

A current teaching and learning initiative in the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics at the University of Western Australia, included the provision of online plagiarism detection software for student and staff use in evaluating written work. The intent was educational rather than punitive. The commercial product Turnitin was employed for this purpose. This plagiarism detection software produces originality reports by comparing the submitted written material to existing text in the Turnitin database, online texts and journals and information from the internet (Frazer, Allan & Roberts, 2004). The final judgment as to whether the submitted work contains plagiarised material is however the domain of the student or educator.

The present case study examined the attitudes and abilities of a group of thirteen ESL students who were caught plagiarising in a postgraduate engineering course at the University of Western Australia. The group consisted of mostly international students and a few domestic students who were recent immigrants to Australia. All had acquired English as a second language (ESL) and were from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB). Individually and as a group, these students defended their academic misconduct by adopting a cultural ignorance defence similar to that discussed in Song-Turner (2008). The argument put forth by the students and supported by some staff was that the universities from which these students had obtained their undergraduate degrees did not instil in them the need to avoid plagiarising and did not prepare them adequately with the requisite skills to achieve this.


The students caught plagiarising were permitted to resubmit their plagiarised assignments after attending a ninety minute workshop on plagiarism avoidance. Students were not given access to Turnitin to produce originality reports. All resubmitting students were asked to complete a questionnaire (see the Appendix) requesting information on their attitudes to plagiarism before commencing their studies at UWA and after attending the plagiarism workshop. Student perceptions regarding the effect of their plagiarism on various parties involved was also examined through the following seven statements adapted from the study by Deckert (1993) investigating the perspectives of ESL students attending the Hong Kong Baptist College:
  1. When I plagiarise, I'm unfair to myself because I'm not being myself. Rather, I'm pretending to be better than I am, and that makes me feel uncomfortable
  2. When I plagiarise, I'm unfair to the university because the educational goals of the university can never be reached if students just copy information
  3. When I plagiarise, I'm unfair to myself because the teacher might recognise what I did and punish or embarrass me in front of other students
  4. When I plagiarise, I'm unfair to the writer of the original passage because I'm taking the credit that he/she really deserves for the words and ideas
  5. When I plagiarise, I'm unfair to my classmates because most of them worked harder by writing in their own words, but I mainly copied and yet get the same or even better grade
  6. When I plagiarise, I'm unfair to myself because I'm not learning much when I just copy another person's writing
  7. When I plagiarise, I'm unfair to my teacher because he/she is trying to teach me to write well, but I'm not cooperating
The student responses to these statements were captured on a five point scale ranging from 'strongly disagree' to 'strongly agree'. The objects of the unfairness expressed in each statement cover the university, the teacher, classmates, the author of the plagiarised material and the student themselves. Three different reasons for unfairness were explored in looking at the effect of plagiarism on the student involved: the negative effect on self-image, the possibility of shame associated with punishment and the decreased educational value of the task to the student.

In addition, the questionnaire contained a short exercise testing each student's ability to recognise cases of plagiarism (section four of the questionnaire) and to rate the level of plagiarism present. The exercise contained six writing samples drawing on an excerpt from a newspaper article. Students had to rate the level of plagiarism as 'none', 'some' or 'much'. At the conclusion of this section of the questionnaire, the students were to provide an indication which sample they believed was the worst case of plagiarism from the samples provided.

Attitudes to plagiarism were also investigated by an adjective selection exercise. Twenty adjectives were presented and students were to select three that best represented students who had committed plagiarism. This part of the questionnaire administered was also adapted from the study by Deckert (1993). In the present study, thirteen of the sixteen students resubmitting assignments completed the questionnaire. This represents a response rate of over 81%.

Results and discussion

As expected, in light of the claims of cultural ignorance, the questionnaire revealed that the students in the present case study believed they had not been taught about plagiarism and referencing prior to commencing their postgraduate degrees (see Table 1). Nor did theses students feel that they had been taught the skills required to successfully avoid plagiarism in their work. The majority (although there was a fair degree of variance in the responses) of these students however, believed that it was wrong to plagiarise and that engaging in plagiarism would result in academic misconduct penalties. The mean for the latter item was the neutral response indicating perhaps that the severity of the academic misconduct associated with plagiarism was not fully understood.

Table 1: Prior understanding and instruction regarding plagiarism

ItemStatement MeanModeSD
1In my studies prior to coming to UWA I was taught about plagiarism2.111.4
2In my studies prior to coming to UWA I was taught about referencing1.811.0
3In my studies prior to coming to UWA I was taught other skills to avoid plagiarism1.610.8
4Before commencing my studies at UWA I understood that engaging in plagiarism would result in academic misconduct penalties3.041.5
5Before commencing my studies at UWA, I believed that it was wrong to plagiarise43.51.4

After the compulsory plagiarism workshop, most of the students surveyed strongly believed that they understood what constituted plagiarism (Table 2). This perception was in agreement with their demonstrated abilities in the plagiarism recognition and rating exercise part of the questionnaire where the majority of students successfully recognised and rated all but one of the writing samples provided. The students also indicated that they felt confident of their ability to avoid unintentionally plagiarising in future work. Again, this was in agreement with the quality of the re-submitted assignments produced. The mean plagiarism report percentage for the original assignment, as reported by the online plagiarism detection tool Turnitin and verified by inspection, was 52%. The mean plagiarism percentage for the re-submitted assignments was 7%. Half of the students resubmitting had plagiarism percentages below 5%. In light of the previously submitted reports, which yielded plagiarism percentages between 46% and 64%, the resubmitted reports demonstrated significant improvement in adherence to proper referencing and citation and paraphrasing of source material.

Table 2: Understanding regarding plagiarism after the plagiarism workshop

ItemStatement MeanModeSD
6Currently, I believe that I understand what plagiarism is4.550.5
7Currently, I feel confident that I have the skills to avoid unintentionally plagiarising in future work4.140.6
8Currently, I believe it is wrong to plagiarise4.550.7

By examining Table 3, it may be seen that the most common word that students selected to describe student who plagiarise was 'inexperienced' followed closely by the adjective 'unsure'. This aligns well with the students' argument that educational cultural deficits were responsible for the plagiarism that was detected in their work. It is interesting to note that few students chose adjectives indicating deceitful or dishonest behaviour. As one student stated on the written response part of the questionnaire: "From my experience regarding the plagiarise assignment, at no stage or moment we even dream of being deceitful, or to cheat [sic]".

The perceived effect by students of their plagiarism on the university and the original author of the work were ranked highest in the present case study (Table 4). These two objects of unfairness also showed least variation in responses across the group. The students also felt that plagiarising was unfair to themselves because they were not being truthful about their own abilities and because of the decreased educational value of the work. The study by Deckert (1993) where all participants were of Chinese origin (n=170), is in general agreement with this result. This study however demonstrated a stronger egocentric perception of the object of unfairness by the students. The perceived effect on the teacher in the present study rated relatively low. Interestingly, the shame or embarrassment associated with punitive consequences was not regarded as a strong reason for the unfairness associated with committing plagiarism. In fact, most students rated their response to the corresponding statement as neutral. Deckert (1993) also reported this item as the least significant effect of plagiarism as perceived by the students.

Table 3: Description of students committing plagiarism


Table 4: Perceived effect of plagiarism on various parties

ItemObject of unfairnessReason for unfairnessMeanModeSD
9MyselfNegative self-image4.040.9
10UniversityEducational goals not reached4.440.5
11MyselfShame related to punishment3.531.2
12Original authorTaking credit for their work4.540.5
13ClassmatesAcademic advantage4.140.9
14MyselfDecreased educational value4.140.9
15TeacherDecreased effectiveness of education effort3.630.8

The students were unanimous in their positive response to the survey question regarding the effectiveness of plagiarism software as a deterrent to plagiarising (Table 5). All but one student responded that it was reasonable for the university to use plagiarism detection software after informing students. This is a somewhat perplexing set of responses given the present plagiarism academic misconduct case. All students were informed on several occasions prior to submission of their assignments of the use of Turnitin to ascertain the originality of their work and were reminded regularly of the university policies regarding plagiarism. These actions clearly did not have the desired deterrent effect. The student support for such a plagiarism detection method was also conspicuously absent when they were faced with academic misconduct charges.

Of most interest in the present case study were the results of the plagiarism recognition and rating exercise contained in the questionnaire administered. The former study by Deckert (1993) concluded that the ESL students in his study (n=170) had little ability to detect plagiarism and were unable to rate the level of plagiarism present in the writing samples. With the exception of writing sample F, the majority of students in the present study correctly identified the presence and severity of plagiarism. The misuse of source material in writing sample F was somewhat deceptive. This writing sample contained a quote which was paraphrased from the original source. If the quoted section was not read carefully it may readily have been assumed to be a direct quotation. All students in the present study were able to identify the most severe cases of plagiarism from the samples provided, with the majority correctly determining what coul d reasonably be judged as the worst case.

Table 5: Attitudes regarding the institutional use of plagiarism detection software

ItemStatement MeanModeSD
16It is reasonable for the university to use electronic plagiarism detection tools if students are informed before submission4.250.9
17Knowing that my submitted work will be run through an electronic plagiarism detection tool will deter me from plagiarising4.440.6

Table 6: Recognition and rating of plagiarism in samples of student work

Level of
MeanModeSDStudent ratings
wrong use
wrong use
wrong use
ASome plagiarism/misuse1.5 20.546.1%53.9%0.0%0.0%
BMuch plagiarism/misuse2.5 30.77.7%38.5%53.8%46.1%
CMuch plagiarism/misuse2.6 30.67.7%23.1%69.2%53.8%
DNo plagiarism/misuse1.4 10.561.5%38.5%0.0%0.0%
ENo plagiarism/misuse1.1 10.392.3%7.7%0.0%0.0%
FSome plagiarism/misuse1.3 10.676.9%15.4%7.7%0.0%

The only assistance provided prior to resubmission of the plagiarised assignments was a ninety minute workshop on writing skills provided by the Learning, Language and Research Skills (LL&RS) team at UWA. Students were permitted only two weeks to resubmit their assignments. It was stated by the LL&RS team prior to these workshops that one short session could not possibly remedy such deeply entrenched cultural beliefs and equip students with the skills required to paraphrase and reference adequately (Barrett-Lennard, 2003, pers. comm. 17 September). It was therefore expected that student resubmissions would show difficulty by the students to properly paraphrase and reference source material. This was not what was observed. All of the work resubmitted was entirely free from plagiarism with adequate referencing and citation throughout.

Given the rate and degree of improvement in student work in light of the very limited instruction provided, it is likely that most of these students already possessed most of the necessary skills and knowledge to avoid plagiarism prior to the initial submission of their assignment. What they did not appear to possess was a clear understanding of the university's expectations with regard to the implementation of these skills. As one student put it: "After attending the plagiarism workshop I can see now the stakes are very high on both students, the lecturer and anyone involved. I did not had a proper comprehension [sic]". This position would explain the dissonance between the students' academic misconduct and the later support for the use of detection software at university as a deterrent to plagiarism as discussed previously. Many students requested that the material covered in the plagiarism workshop, dealing with the expectations of the university and the effect of plagiarism on the parties involved, should form part of the orientation program for the postgraduate degree.

Alternately, as suggested by Song-Turner (2008), international students, under immense pressure faced with additional burdens such as economic hardship, cultural differences, housing difficulties and familial expectations, are not as careful or thorough in avoiding plagiarism as is expected. As Song-Turner (2008) stated of the students in her study: "Plagiarism was often used as a means of completing a task - moving on - submitting work - getting through rather than a deliberate and planned act of deception and poor behaviour". Both of these positions are congruent with the lack of dishonesty related adjectives the group selected to describe students who plagiarised.


Students were permitted to resubmit their plagiarised assignments based largely on the students' position that cultural differences in attitudes, expectations and prior instruction placed them at a significant disadvantage. This is certainly the case put forward in the studies reported by Deckert (1993). Song-Turner (2008) concluded that skill deficiencies and language issues were the two leading issues in explaining the incidence of plagiarism with overseas students. In the present study this does not appear to be the case. Rather, the additional issue identified that "the very definition of plagiarism was actually not very clear for the students" (Song-Turner, 2008) appears to be the primary contributor in this case. Giving the students a clearer understanding of plagiarism and a sense of the negative impact of plagiarism on various stakeholders would appear to be an essential component of future plagiarism prevention strategy. The university's current policy on plagiarism and the corresponding severity of academic misconduct penalties appears to be congruent with this student-based perspective on the issue of plagiarism.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the Learning, Language and Research Skills staff at Student Services UWA for their continued involvement in the communication skills education of engineering students. In particular, the authors would like to thank, Ms Siri Barrett-Lennard and Dr Liana Christensen for the plagiarism workshops they conducted for postgraduate students.


Carroll, J. (2002). A handbook for deterring plagiarism in higher education. Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, Oxford.

Childs, S. (2001). Editorial: Web dependency-plagiarism. Health Information on the Internet, The Royal Society of Medicine Press Ltd. No. 21, June, pp. 1-2.

Deckert, G., D. (1993). Perspectives on plagiarism from ESL students in Hong Kong. Journal of Second Language Writing, 2(2), 131-148.

Frazer, J., Allan, G. & Roberts, R. (2004). Implementing Turnitin/ originality verification software at RMIT University in the context of academic integrity. http://www.rmit.edu.au/academicintegrity/

Furedi, F. (2003). Shortcut to success. Times Higher Education Supplement, 25 July, p. 16.

Marsden, H., Carroll, M. & Neill, J. (2005). Who cheats at university? A self-report study of dishonest academic behaviours in a sample of Australian university students. Australian Journal of Psychology, 57(1), 1-10.

Maslen, G. (2003). 80% admit to cheating. Times Higher Education Supplement, 24 January, p. 17.

McCabe, D. (2001). Student cheating in American high schools. Educause, September/October.

McGowan, U. (2005. Does educational integrity mean teaching students NOT to 'use their own words'?, International Journal for Educational Integrity, 1(1).

Park, C. (2003). In other (people's) words: plagiarism by university students - literature and lessons. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 28(5), 471-488.

Rodan, P. (2008). Dilemmas of dissent. Australian Universities' Review, 50(2), 33-38.

Song-Turner, H. (2008). Plagiarism: Academic dishonesty or blind spot of multicultural education? Australian Universities' Review, 50(2), 39-50.

Stappenbelt, B. & Barret-Lennard, S. (2008). Teaching smarter to improve the English communication proficiency of international engineering students - collaborations between content and language specialists at UWA. Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, 14(2).

Appendix - Plagiarism Survey

Appendix, part 1

Appendix, part 2

Appendix, part 3

Authors: Brad Stappenbelt, Chris Rowles and Eric May
School of Mechanical Engineering, The University of Western Australia
Email: brad.stappenbelt@uwa.edu.au, chrisr@mech.uwa.edu.au, eric.may@uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Stappenbelt, B., Rowles, C. & May, E. (2009). Cultural influence on attitudes to plagiarism. In Teaching and learning for global graduates. Proceedings of the 18th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 29-30 January 2009. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2009/refereed/stappenbelt.html

Copyright 2009 Brad Stappenbelt, Chris Rowles and Eric May. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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