Questioning author(ity): ESL/EFL, science, and teaching about plagiarism

Vol. 3. No. 2 A-2 March 1998
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Questioning author(ity): ESL/EFL, science, and teaching about plagiarism

Sharon Myers
Texas Tech University


This article describes plagiarism as it is commonly understood in the United States and is defined for young researchers by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. It also applies these ideas to three cases of plagiarism by Chinese scientists reported in the journal Science. The author uses this framework to argue that ESL/EFL professionals need to question the relevance of some traditional notions about plagiarism and examine their effect on the ability of their students to publish and take part in the mainstream of discourse in the sciences. The author includes pertinent information from literature in language politics, studies in second language acquisition and second language writing, culture studies, and contemporary literature concerning the effects of technology on traditional Western concepts of intellectual property.

The journal Science recently published "Scientific Misconduct: Chinese Researchers Debate Rash of Plagiarism Cases" (Xiguang & Lei, 1996). The title On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research was embedded as an illustration in the columns of print running across the first page of the article. That title (reproduced in Science from its cover page) was the title of a pamphlet first produced in 1989 by the U.S. National Academy of Science. It was subsequently revised and reissued in 1995 by an NAS joint committee of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. This pamphlet (over 200,000 copies of which were distributed to U.S. science students in its first edition alone[1]), according to its preface, "is aimed primarily at graduate students and beginning researchers," but, it advises, "its lessons apply to all scientists at all stages of their scientific careers."

The authors of the Science article described three cases of plagiarism that had come to light in China since 1993. They announced that in response to Chinese concerns about awareness (or lack thereof) of scientific misconduct in that country, On Being a Scientist was going to be published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences for distribution in China. For the last two years, I have been including this pamphlet as a required text in the composition classes of the university academic English program I direct. While [-1-] it was gratifying that the Chinese Academy of Sciences also planned to employ it for their science students, I wondered how it would be presented in China. According to the Science article, copies in China will sell for a modest 80 cents apiece. Will students be asked to buy them and interpret the text on their own? Will Chinese teachers be asked to interpret the text for their students? Translating the text into the languages of China will surely be much easier than translating the Western concepts of knowledge, science, and ethics found in On Being a Scientist (OBS ).

The interpretation and presentation of the text to international students here in the U.S. is equally problematic. There is no question that the pamphlet is an elegant and concise compendium of the values underlying science in the West and of the behavioral expectations those values entail. Similarly, there is no question that university departments of science and engineering agree with the schema for practicing science laid out in the pamphlet. Training in the expressed principles, with regard to the treatment of data, allocation of credit, authorship practices, and scientific misconduct has been fundamental to the education of Western researchers, explicitly or implicitly, for over a century. However, because of the weakness of some of these traditions--or the difficulty of enforcing them in the exploding context of the globalization of science and communications--the National Academy of Sciences has found it necessary to explicitly formulate and disseminate these "rules of the game".

Lafollette (1992), in her book investigating scientific publishing, notes that while scientific conduct may have been considered a matter of "personal moral conduct" during the 1970s, it came into focus as a public policy issue in the U.S. during the 1980s in the wake of scandals involving federally funded projects. Plagiarism especially was a problem. "Both the NSF and NIH now report that they investigate substantially more allegations involving plagiarism and stolen ideas than allegations involving falsified or altered data," she reports (pp. 48-49). Mawdsley (1994), concurs, "The debate concerning the definition of plagiarism has intensified now that reputable scholars and academics have been charged with the offense" (p. 12).

Defining Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a frequent issue in ESL academic writing classes. It does not have one definition, and it exists, not in law based on constitutional statute, as copyright does, but as institutional rules and regulations. These are based on Western academic conventions that are formulated and interpreted somewhat differently across institutions. For example, one university may include some notion of "intent" as part of the definition of plagiarism while others do not. Since OBS is published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, has been distributed to hundreds of thousands of young [-2-] scientists in the United States, has gone into a second edition, and is being disseminated now in China, it is safe to assume that the definition of plagiarism found in it is considered valid by the elite scientific institutions in the United States. OBS clearly distinguishes plagiarism from "honest errors and errors caused through negligence," classifying it as an error of "deception." It defines plagiarism as "using the ideas or words of another person without giving appropriate credit" (p. 16). In a hypothetical case study, OBS describes a graduate school whose regulations define plagiarism as "the failure in a dissertation, essay, or other written exercise to acknowledge ideas, research, or language taken from others." Mawdsley (p. 14) points out that "The effectiveness of such definitions depends on agreement between the author and the evaluator concerning both the nature of the subject matter (e.g., areas of general knowledge) and the nature of the use (e.g., verbatim reproduction, paraphrase)."

Plagiarism may violate copyright law, but not necessarily. Many teachers teach about plagiarism as though it represents law, but as a concept it is both broader and weaker than copyright. An author may plagiarize from government documents, which are not copyrightable, from work with expired copyright, or from work in the domain of "fair use" without breaking the law. Both plagiarism and copyright are closely related concepts that emerge out of cultural values that have formed attitudes and beliefs about intellectual property in the West. For the most part, those of us born and educated in the West have been taught to see these concepts as benign. We see the legal enforcement of copyright law and the institutional enforcement of rules concerning plagiarism as ways to ensure that individuals are rewarded for their work, or at least that their work is not stolen from them. We see our conventions of scholarly attribution as measures to ensure the integrity needed to form and uphold the scholarly consensus necessary for the production of knowledge. Cherished notions of Individual Rights and the Truth are at stake. It is no wonder that we respond to violations of these conventions with some emotion. Nevertheless, it is important to go beyond simplistic assertions about plagiarism as a moral issue, and examine it from other perspectives. It is an increasingly complex notion in the West, due to technological developments in writing and publishing. In the context of EFL/ESL, it is even more complex for political, psycholinguistic, and pedagogical reasons.

My examination of plagiarism has been provoked by the attitudes, frustrations, and questions of international students who do not perceive all the "rules of the game" formulated by our traditions as the only ones feasible or even sensible. It is important to realize that it is not only international students who question these conventions, but many scholars of law, language, technology and science within U.S. culture. It is also important to point out that despite the stereotype of foreign students who plagiarize, plagiarizing goes on among U.S. students as well. Moreover, while [-3-] students may be expelled or temporarily suspended for infractions of rules concerning plagiarism, faculty members are far less likely to be punished. "If the paucity of case law is any indication," Mawdsley writes, "higher education institutions are only now beginning to address the problem of faculty plagiarism" (p. 13). (For a well-documented example, see Mallon's ((1989)) "Quiet Goes the Don," a chapter describing the lengths to which an academic department went to avoid handling a case of faculty plagiarism.).

Setting aside the field-specific questions of what may be considered general knowledge and written about as such, setting aside questions of intent, and even setting aside the notion of appropriating someone else's ideas, it is important to consider plagiarism as second language teaching professionals. What does it look like from the perspective of what we know about the "words" part of the "words and ideas" in the OBS definition of plagiarism--that is, what we know about language? Viewed from the perspective of our own studies of language politics, second language acquisition, second language writing, and culture studies, what we are required to teach about plagiarism is problematic. We should also be aware that traditional ideas about plagiarism and authorship are controversial among our colleagues who teach first language English composition. Finally, technological realities are fast overriding many traditional notions about intellectual property, including plagiarism. We need to be aware of the effects on our students of the expectations about language embedded in our teaching.

Political Factors: the "language on which the sun does not set" (Quirk, 1985, p. 1).

The global politics of English language teaching have been explored by Phillipson (1992), who scrutinizes the history of the spread of English and the often consequent devaluation of other languages and their cultures. He points out that a contributing factor to this is a belief of many English language teaching professionals that their work is not political. This "serves to disconnect culture from structure [emphasis his]. It assumes that educational concerns can be divorced from social, political, and economic realities" (p. 67). The languages of the world's former colonial powers have long been instruments of socialization. Teaching the conventions of writing in English is also a form of social instruction; and the conventions surrounding the notions of plagiarism and intellectual property have especially powerful economic and political ramifications. Ploman (1985) refers to copyright, for example, as "a legal mechanism for ordering socioeconomic and cultural life and a method to link the world of ideas to the world of commerce" (p. 25). Linguistic imperialism is present, writes Phillipson, "wherever English plays a major role in the education system of an underdeveloped country and transmits social values" (p. 54). The political struggle to maintain influence continues today in neo and post-colonialist contexts. The politics of teaching about plagiarism in ESL contexts in particular [-4-] has also been analyzed by other English language professionals, notably Pennycook (1994; 1996), and Scollon (1994; 1995). Scollon has pointed out how the idea of textual ownership clashes with the cultural construction of self among Chinese writers. Both authors point out, in Pennycook's words, "the cultural and historical specificity of notions of ownership and authorship," embodied in Western concepts defining plagiarism and question "the implications of these concepts' being increasingly promoted as international norms" (1996, p. 203). It is important to note that none of these authors perceives a conspiracy among English language teachers to denigrate the cultures or languages of their students. The processes they describe are historical and structural ones in which we too are caught up. The world of science our students will enter has changed immensely, even within the last decade. Not only the scale of science has changed, but research processes as well. How are our students positioned in relation to the centers of research? How are they positioned to work on behalf of their own institutions and countries? How can we help them? One way is to present the conventions we teach as artifacts of changing systems, rather than as immutable moral laws. We need better rules relevant to new realities in science communication, and the young scientists we teach should be among those who help and create them, not simply be told what to do. Consonant with Phillipson's description of educational imperialism, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences presumes to teach "all" scientists at "all stages of their scientific careers" through OBS. It is "meant to apply to all forms of research--whether in academic, industrial, or governmental settings--and to all scientific disciplines" (preface). Modern science, it is explained, was born "in the latter half of the seventeenth century" (p. 9), clearly in Europe. This fact should be of interest to the Chinese. It wasn't recorded in any of the 22,900 volumes of the world's first encyclopedia, which they compiled early in the fifteenth century (Houshu, 1985). Thoughtfully, however, the Chinese had invented paper in A.D. 105, in plenty of time for the Europeans to publish the works giving birth to modern science.

The Business of the Science Business

The cultural devaluation overt and covert in this kind of propaganda serves to pose Western--particularly, U.S.--definitions of how science should be done as the unquestioned and clearly enlightened international standards. "Research institutions and federal agencies have developed important new policies for dealing with the behaviors that violate the ethical standards of science" huffs OBS (preface). In the interest of world peace, we can only hope that scientists in India, Latin America, and Russia are alert enough to publish their national editions of OBS before our research institutions and federal agencies have to deal with them.

These matters signify more than the facilitating of smooth channels along which scientists can sail their communications with each other [-5-] in the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Publication conventions, attribution of credit, authorship practices, and the ensuing web of copyright and patent restrictions deeply influence the already lopsided distribution of knowledge in favor of the western industrialized nations (Altbach, 1987; Altbach, Arboleda, and Gopinathan, 1985; Barlow, 1997; Gibbs, 1995; Hamilton, 1997; Hansen, 1997; Ploman,1985). The development of science and technology has become synonymous with economic prosperity.

Our composition textbooks and guides such as OBS emphasize the importance of individual text ownership in the Romantic context of protecting the individual author. However, European notions about intellectual property were not originally driven by concern for individuals, but by concerns for the economic interests of publishers, following the rise of printing (Altbach, 1987; Feather, 1994). Today, while some individuals still benefit from copyright law, most actual copyright is owned by publishers and other corporate entities (Jaszi, 1994). The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, which prepared OBS, is staffed with academic heads of departments and institutes from MIT, Harvard, and other universities. However, the financial support for dissemination of the pamphlet came, not only from disciplinary societies, but from money provided to the Basic Science Fund of the NAS by IBM, Dow Chemical Company, Glaxo, SmithKline Beecham, Squibb, AT&T Foundation, Atlantic Richfield Foundation, BP America, Shell Oil Foundation, E.I. duPont de Nemours & Co., Merck and Company, Inc., and Monsanto Company, all of whom have profound interests in internationalizing the rules of the game as they presently exist.

Stealing Science

Of the three cases of plagiarism reported in the Science article mentioned in the introduction, two concerned the wholesale appropriation of manuscripts. In one, a Chinese physicist sent an entire article that had been published by a Turkish scientist and an Italian scientist in an Italian journal to a Swiss journal, under his name. In the other, a Chinese physicist copied six papers written and published by a Chinese physicist in a different university in China, and submitted them to a U.S. journal under his own name. Both these cases of plagiarism come under the "ideas" part of the "words and ideas" in the "OBS definition of plagiarism. Both are unambiguous cases of unethical behavior in the perception of members of any culture, even if the degree to which they are considered serious, and the degree of pressure motivating them, vary. It is the third case described in the Science article that is less clearcut and which represents an example of the "words" part of the definition that is problematic. [-6-]

Psycholinguistic Factors: A sequestering protein is a sequestering protein is a sequestering protein

Pan Aihua, the Chinese principal author in the third case involved in the plagiarism investigations reported in Science, was from Peking University. Like many international students in U.S. classes, he defended the copying of short sections of text from an author's published research in genetics in another journal, saying that it had been due to his lack of English proficiency, not to a lack of ethics. An investigation by the editor of the Dutch journal which published Pan Aihua's work showed that his published data came from a long period of original work done in the Chinese laboratory, so that it was indeed a question of wording, not of plagiarized science. Nevertheless, the Dutch editor is quoted as saying "it is not acceptable practice to copy text--not even small passages--from published materials without reference." He told Science that "Some Chinese scientists think that they can't compete equally in Western journals because of a problem with English.... So they copy what others have done and then fill in what is new." They do not feel this is unethical, he said, as long as the scientific work is original.

In fact, the Chinese scientists are correct in their assessment of the criteria for publishing in Western journals. Floyd E. Bloom, the editor of Science itself, is quoted in the Scientific American (Gibbs, 1995, p. 96) as saying "If you see people making multiple mistakes in spelling, syntax and semantics, you have to wonder whether when they did their science they weren't also making similar errors of inattention." One component of what happens is something composition teachers observe all the time. Irrationally, some errors have a greater psychological effect on native speakers than others. If you have not mastered the spelling, syntax or semantics of another language you may indeed sound babyish or stupid or "inattentive." The Chinese scientists are aware of this. Even if we ignore the blatant arrogance ("linguicism," according to Phillipson) of equating the ability to use English with the ability to do science[2] , what are the Chinese supposed to do in a country in which there are few authentic English texts or fluent speakers of English? This conundrum is akin to the one described by Pennycook in which second language teachers reverse the usual criteria used in composition classes. They do this by "looking either for language that is 'too good' in order to incriminate the student, or...looking for evidence of errors in order to exonerate the student" (1996, p. 203). And how many ways are there, we might ask, of writing about "conferring heavy metal tolerance by a stable integration and expression of a single gene coding for a heavy metal binding and/or sequestering protein"?

Prejudice based on language makes it difficult for non-Anglophone scientists to publish. The less published, the fewer opportunities [-7-] there are to be published and recognized. This is a process directly mirroring Merton's "Matthew effect" (1968; 1988) which refers to the cumulative advantage of frequently published scientists, who accrue "large increments of peer contrast to the minimizing or withholding of such recognition for scientists who have not yet made their mark" (1988, p. 609). Or, the more you are published, the more you are likely to publish:

The concept of cumulative advantage directs our attention to the ways in which initial comparative advantages of trained capacity, structural location, and available resources make for successive increments of advantage such that the gaps between the haves and the have-nots in science (as in other domains of social life) widen... (p. 606).

A screw by any other name is...a helical nail

The use of wording in a scientific paper--or cases which revolve solely around the use of language and not the misuse of science--pose contradictions for writing teachers familiar with the cognitive aspects of second language acquisition. Silva (1993), reviewing 72 empirical studies comparing L1 and L2 writing, concluded that there was "doubt on the reasonableness of the expectations that L2 writers (even those with advanced levels of L2 proficiency)...will be able to meet standards developed for L1 writers (p. 670). He cited studies repeatedly showing that compared to first language writers, people trying to write in a second language are less fluent, make more errors, do not have an "ear" for what "sounds" good, are less able to paraphrase, have more difficulty reading background text, and receive lower holistic scores from native English speakers. Silva used his findings to argue the importance of providing second language writing instruction by instructors sensitive to the needs of L2 learners, but they could be used as well to underscore the unreasonableness of demands made on scientists trying to publish their work in English.

One such demand is described by Scollon (1994), writing about the position a writer takes vis-a-vis quoted information. Taking a position requires the use of words such as "'find', 'report', 'claim', and 'allege'" a practice Scollon labels "lamination," a term coined by Goffman (1974; 1981). "In each case the choice of words suggests the stance being taken by the author of the text with regard to the facts being presented," Scollon writes, attributing to White (1993) the opinion that, "It is quite likely that the subtle control of this variety of resources is not fully within the competence of most non-native users of English" (p.38). In a 1981 study, Jordan found that overseas postgraduates studying in university writing classes in the UK reported that their greatest difficulty was in vocabulary (cited in Jordan, 1997, p. 46). This is echoed in a more recent survey by Leki and Carson (1994). Struggles exist not only at the morphosyntactic level--for example, one of my students bravely circumlocutes [-8-]"screw," which is not in his vocabulary, with "helical nail"--but at the rhetorical level as well (McKay, 1993; Brock, 1993).

English writing textbooks and research manuals are explicit about how to avoid plagiarism. You can quote or paraphrase. Paraphrasing is arguably the highest and most synthetic language skill of all. Not only does the student have to possess a large and sophisticated vocabulary, but must also recognize (so as not to repeat) sometimes very subtle stylistic features of writing. One of these concerns the criteria by which the decision to quote or paraphrase an original is made in the first place. How does the L2 writer decide which is appropriate? The Bedford Guide (Kennedy, Kennedy, & Holladay (1993), suggests that writers should choose to paraphrase rather than quote "when the language of another writer isn't particularly vivid and memorable," that is, when "the writer's ideas look valuable but the words seem not worth preserving in the original" (p. 617). Such decisions are largely native speaker judgments, and perhaps even irrelevant in the context of "A serial analysis of gene expression (SAGE) approach can be used to simultaneously assess mRNA expression of multiple transcripts," or, "Relaxing the constraint of radial symmetry results in an elongation, in the direction of the rotation axis, of the central zone of higher P wave velocities parallel to the rotation axis."

At another level, it would seem natural that, insofar as their thoughts are formulated in language, scientists would think in their mother tongue, that the deepest apprehension of physical realities would be most naturally conceptualized and manipulated through the mother tongue. Although "we are still a far cry from the development of concrete and specific models of the cognitive systems and mechanisms relating language and conceptual structures" (Pederson and Nuyts, 1997, p. 5), there is indirect evidence of some relationship between the two. Language-specific differences in spatial conceptualizations have been found by Levinson (1997) and Carroll (1997). Becker and Carrolls' (1997) European Science Foundation project, "Second language acquisition by adult immigrants" found that a major factor in adult second language acquisition of spatial relations was "The degree of overlap between the source and the target language in the way concepts are used to structure space (p. 193). McKay (1993) observes that "Part of learning a language is learning how that language divides up reality....English may not have categories that exist in their native language or...the native language has items that do not exist in English" (p. 4). These categories are not only simple nouns with direct translations, but relationships webbed into other relationships, metaphors embedded in culturally specific contexts. Pennington and Zhang (1993) in a survey of writing attitudes and activities among Chinese graduate students at a U.S. university, found that "the majority of the subjects admitted to thinking in Chinese to some extent while writing in English" (p. 84), a practice echoed by most [-9-] of my students as well. We know that language is socially constructed. As Bialystok and Hakuta (1994) observe,

When we speak our first language, we are constantly...drawing on vocabulary from a wide variety of contexts....When we learn a new language, we invariably gain exposure to that language in a more limited range of contexts than those in...our first language. Furthermore, our opportunities to use that language will likely be limited in the same ways. Therefore, the aspects of language proficiency that we need to master or even have the opportunity to learn depend on the particulars of these circumstances. (p. 206)

The results of Friedlander's 1990 study of 28 Chinese-speaking university students supported his hypothesis that ESL writers "plan more effectively and produce texts with better content" when they write using the language in which they learned about a topic. If the topic knowledge was codified in a first language, his study suggests, it may be easier to access via that language. Deprived of the rich schemata provided through acquisition of knowledge via the first language, it is understandable that second language writers are tempted to resort to harvesting needed words and expressions from second language text.

Theoretical Re(Visions)...

First language English composition teachers and rhetoricians grounded in philosophy and literary theory have been questioning the conceptual bases of plagiarism for some time now on yet other grounds. Jaszi (1994, p. 29) points in particular to Foucault's (1979) article, "What is an Author?" and a (1967) book by Kaplan, An Unhurried View of Copyright, as important influences on modern examinations of "authorship." Both question the genesis of intellectual property as historical and cultural constructs subject to criticism. In their (1994) examination of contemporary writing practices, Lunsford and Ede report:

After a lengthy research project and eight years of study, we feel confident in saying that the traditional model of solitary authorship is more myth than reality, that much or most of the writing produced in professional settings in America is done collaboratively, and that, in fact, much of what we call "creative" writing is collaborative as well, though it almost always flies under the banner of single authorship. (p. 418)

Rebecca Moore Howard, author with Sandra Jamieson of the (1995) Bedford Guide to Teaching Writing in the Disciplines: An Instructor's Desk Reference, comments on the lack of consensus [-10-] among members of university communities, noting that "composition studies, like contemporary criticism, presents anything but a unified front on issues of plagiarism and authorship," and suggests that "Given the contested notions of authorship in the academy today, the Romantic originator can no longer be the sole model of the author on which colleges' plagiarism policies draw" (p. 795).

Non-western Perspectives

Most ESL/EFL writing teachers do not have to turn to Western rhetoricians to confront the cultural relativity of notions about intellectual property: they confront it daily among their students, notably their Asian students. Heidi Ross, whose thoughtful (1993) study of language teaching and social change in mainland China has documented the Chinese struggle to preserve linguistic and cultural identity while opening communication to the West, quotes a Chinese homeroom teacher in the language institute her study focused on: " ...knowledge belongs to society, not to ourselves. If you have knowledge, it is your duty to give it to others. Students...cannot view their talent as private property. You don't lose any of your knowledge if you share it with others" (p. 145). This is what Chinese students are taught. Scollon (1995) suggests that what may seem to western composition teachers careless or immorally heedless about the way some students persist in ignoring western attribution conventions may be "unconscious resistance," "...reflecting a different ideological base" (p. 6). Indeed it reflects a different moral stance transcending the usual stereotypes relating to collectivism/individualism usually trotted out to explain Asian students' attitudes. Dellios (1997) explains these attitudes as expressions of the central Confucian concept of "jen," or "human- heartedness," referring to behavior sympathetic to others. She writes:

To the Chinese, self-cultivation is more meaningful than individualism. In this way it is not a question of subsuming one's entire identity for the greater good of the group, but of cultivating oneself in order [that] ...state, society, family, and self are well served (p. 208).

This is a perspective grounded in deep historical experience. As Sampson wrote in her advice to ESL teachers in 1990, this outlook leads students to believe that "high achievement is a duty, rather than a sign of personal success" (p. 129). Nevertheless, as Pennycook (1994) points out, when Chinese differences in attitudes about authorship are acknowledged, they are usually defined as deviant; that is, while it is true that the "other" culture (the Chinese), hold these ideas, it is the "others" who need to change their ideas, not Westerners who need to change theirs. A Chinese engineer interviewed by English- Lueck (1997) spoke eloquently of his expectations: "I think as scientific work becomes more and more complicated, we sink [-11-] deeper into the nature of reality. At that point the philosophy of China is more appropriate for complex systems, more than the simple, practical, analytical philosophies of the West" (p. 83). Howard, author of "Plagiarisms, authorships, and the academic death penalty" (1995) is especially concerned with punitive policies against the student practice of "patchwriting," referring to "Writing passages that are not copied exactly but that have nevertheless been borrowed from another source, with some changes" (p. 799). She thinks writers most often do this in the context of unfamiliar discourse.

Second language writing is certainly done in the domain of "unfamiliar discourse." "Patchwriting" is what Pan Aihua did and it is arguably what most scientists who are forced to publish in English rather than their mother tongue do, to a greater or lesser extent. St. John's (1987) study of the writing processes of Spanish scientists forced to write in English found that it was routine practice. As one of the scientists in her study said, "I use a previous description and just add my own bit." When they wrote introductions, she reports, they would gather the English articles on the topic and would then engage in "'lifting' expressions from the papers and combining them and adding some of their own" (p. 118).

And Technological Collisions

Finally, old notions of authorship and plagiarism have been overwhelmed by the technological context in which writing now evolves. Computers and the Internet have made collaborative writing both possible and convenient in ways previously unknown. The speed of transmission of writing and the speed and ease of its reproduction have dissolved traditional barriers to use, both temporal and physical. Ploman writes "...all the new media share one central characteristic: they involve the use of protected works on a scale and in a manner that preclude the possibility of individual control" (1985, p. 33). Work can be downloaded anytime, anywhere in the world. Where does ownership reside in hypermedia? What about the work of "collaboratories?" LaFollette questions the concept of plagiarism in the context of research groups who use computers to revise reports. "As participants move on and off projects, or as their participation in the writing stage changes, the boundaries of creation shift continually; a single paragraph in a technical report may have been revised by dozens of people over the course of months " (p. 207). Stix (1994) writes, "...scientific communication is becoming less a historical account and more a live record of how thinking on a research problem evolves."

There is no consensus among scientists themselves how collaboration should be handled. Some think that all authors' contributions should "be baldly and briefly stated" (White, 1997), but what about projects that occupy hundreds of co-authors, as in particle physics? It is conceivable that [-12-] the list of contributors and their roles could be longer than the paper. Sometimes authors are listed alphabetically, but that gives the advantage to people with names occurring early in the alphabet. Sometimes a lab will use alphabetical listing, but rotate it. The increasingly interdisciplinary nature of science compounds the difficulty of assigning responsibility. How can one author, familiar only with the literature of one field or subfield be sure of the origins of what an author in an unfamiliar specialty writes? Referencing is problematic, too. Attribution not only assumes an authorial identity, but a physical location where publications remain in their original form available for access. Yet electronic texts may exist nowhere but in cyberspace where they may be easily manipulated. Conventions for the storage and protection of such information have yet to be standardized. Both the hardware and the software change so quickly that what is readable one year may be obsolete the next (See Rothenberg, 1995 and Kahle, 1997).

The Need For Order In The New Order

To some extent, the meaning of plagiarism splinters on close examination, be it political, psycholinguistic, rhetorical or technological. What is needed is not anarchy, but appropriate changes. In the case of scientists forced to write in a foreign language, it would seem reasonable to relax the expectation that each one should present his or her material in entirely new phrases at each juncture of research. Howard's plea for her students, that definitions of plagiarism should be revised to acknowledge "intentions of writers other than poets and writers of fiction" (p. 796) can be made as well for scientists writing in a second language. We should recognize that science is not organized to produce original works of literature--that there is a difference between stealing science and "stealing" syntax. Just as there is a blurry area of attribution that calls for decisions about what is or is not common knowledge, there will be a gray area where science and literature blend. But most science expressed in writing does not take the form of the literature of Carl Sagan, Lewis Thomas, Oliver Sacks or the notebooks of Loren Eiseley. Most of it is formed for precision of expression, not art, and most of it is aimed at transmitting factual information to other specialists. What harm is done, even in molecular biology, if Pan Aihua and his Chinese colleagues use some of the wording in the discussion section of the article written by two Canadian researchers "Heavy metal tolerant transgenic Brassica napus L. and Nicotinana tabacum L. plants" (Misra and Gedamu, 1989) in their article "Expression of mouse metallothionein-l gene confers cadmium resistance in transgenic tobacco plants"? Writing conventions should facilitate communication and promote the values that assign reward to good work in science as well as literature, even if the scientists are not profoundly bilingual. Why not ease the language barriers in science in any way possible? In the global context of writing about science, the problem of protecting [-13-]the work of an author and giving credit where credit is due can transcend by far the problems that rules about plagiarism are supposed to address. One painful example is that of the Japanese chemist, Eiji Osawa, who described the possibility of a certain kind of geodesically structured carbon molecule in 1970, publishing his prediction in Japanese (Swinbanks, 1996). The group that "discovered" and named it the "buckminsterfullerene" collected a Nobel prize for it fifteen years afterwards, ignorant of Osawa's work. Osawa "was devastated" (Sanberg, Borlongan, and Nishino, 1996).

There is no question that scientists and their institutions should be rewarded for their work (although the ways in which they are recognized may have to change in the future) or that it is unethical to misrepresent oneself as responsible for the scientific work of others. But it makes no sense to punish scientists for reasons solely linguistic. Pan Aihua, who considered himself a scrupulous scientist and unquestionably contributed to his field, was forced to leave his position in Peking University. Jane Sherman, who found English notions of plagiarism alien to her Italian students, notes that

We no longer feel teach students about beefeaters... and the cost of British postage stamps, but as Anglo-Saxon ethnocentricity recedes from course books, it seems that it may expose deeper and much more widely-based cultural formations--such as these elaborated thought-patterns and attitudes to the status and purpose of the written word" (p. 197).

She rightly calls this a "cultural syllabus," and wonders whether the work her students do to learn such conventions is worth the trouble: clearly she has doubts about whether the conventions will survive.

I observe my ESL composition students, most of them graduate students in the sciences, crushed between the demands of learning their specialties and the demands of mastering a high level of proficiency in a language remote from their own. What if Einstein had had to spend years learning Mandarin instead of devoting his thought and his limited time to physics? John Swales (1990) mentions this "extra burden," in his look at the role of English in research and wonders if there is anything we can do to change attitudes of English speaking scholars and institutions (p. 107).

In fact, some of us who are in a position to perceive these problems can communicate them to our students' advisors (often scholars with little understanding of learning or writing in a foreign language). We can discuss these problems with our colleagues, and communicate them to professional societies both in and outside of our own specialties. We can also open dialogue with our students about the [-14-] construct of plagiarism, to give them a sense of its history and purposes, as well as its problematic nature. We can acknowledge and discuss writing problems they will face, especially those who are writing on the periphery of mainstream science in less developed countries[3] .

This year I gave the Science article concerning the cases of plagiarism in China to 40 students in several sections of an academic ESL composition class, most of them international graduate students in the sciences. All of them were familiar with the publication OBS and the ethos of science it presents. Without exception, they objected to the two cases in which researchers had taken the research of others and sent it to journals under their own names. But the case of Pan Aihua brought different responses. Typical is this one from a Chinese chemist:

In developing countries, such as China and India, basic researchers encounter more difficulties than those in developed countries. Because of the shortage of funds they cannot buy many modern instruments and must work harder. Many scientists are not good at English. In order to publish their articles in foreign journals they have to translate their journals from Chinese to English. So they usually borrow some words from foreign articles. I don't know if this is a kind of plagiarism.

A Taiwanese computer scientist wrote:
Most of important science researchers in Taiwan are trained in the western countries, especially, in the United States. As a consequence, the contribution of a research paper is judged by whether the paper can be published in journals of the Western countries, especially, in those of the United States. This criterion is very unfair for locally trained researchers. After working hard in research, locally trained researchers with poor English writing skill still need to struggle very hard for translating their research findings into English. It is even more disappointing when their papers are probably rejected simply because of writing problems. As a result, imitating the "sentence structures" from well-written papers seems a good way to escape from the writing problems.
This response was from a frustrated Korean engineer:
I have learned English since I was in junior high school until now. This is 15 years after I started to learn English. Whenever I have a problem in English, I felt the same feelings as the slaves in the ancient period might did. The slaves [-15-] might have an idea that if I were born in royal family, what would happen to me?


[1.] The text of the second edition of OBS is available online at < >

[2.] This familiar arrogance may be based on race as much as language, as attested by the example of the civil engineer Fu Hua Chen. Chen was the chief engineer of the Burma Road and the Tibet Highway during WWII, organizing thousands of workers and achieving astounding feats of engineering under conditions of extreme hardship. The only surviving member of his engineering command following a direct attack by the Japanese, he managed to flee to Hong Kong, where the British engineering company with which he found a job assigned him to hold an umbrella over the head of a young, inexperienced British engineer (Chen, 1996, p. 112).

[3.] Scientists in less developed countries face many nondiscursive barriers as well, including limited libraries, variable access to computers and copying machines, poor transportation and communication infrastructure and in some cases, even good paper. See Canagarajah, 1996, for a detailed description and analysis of trying to publish research without such resources.


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