Undergraduate students' perception of plagiarism in academic foreign-language writing in China

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Plagiarism, which is complex and difficult to eliminate, has been a topic under considerable discussion and recognized as a pervasive problem at all levels of study in higher education. Previous studies have revealed the severity of the problem in higher education worldwide, especially at the undergraduate level. However, relatively insufficient documented research has been undertaken in related fields in the Chinese contexts, including studies about Chinese EFL undergraduate students’ perception of plagiarism, their attitudes to it, as well as their participation in such activities. Therefore, conducting such a study here (as in the present study) is not only of great academic significance but is also of useful pedagogical insight for Chinese EFL instructors in China or instructors in other countries who have Chinese international students.<br><br>To address the research questions, multiple data collection methods were employed. 300 fourth-year English-major undergraduates who were randomly chosen from three universities in Southwest China participated in the study as questionnaire respondents. A total number of 284 valid copies of questionnaire were collected from them. Besides this, 4 student-supervisor pairs, i.e., 4 fourth-year English-major undergraduates working on their graduation theses and their supervisors, were also interviewed, and the graduation theses of the interviewed students were closely examined and discussed.<br><br>Data analysis revealed striking issues which suggest that the investigated students remained confused about the notion of plagiarism. They appeared to show a lack of knowledge of plagiarism and of agreement about what constituted plagiarism in general. They also had very limited knowledge of citation conventions. Great difficulty existed among them in recognizing both the obvious and the subtler forms of plagiarism.<br><br>In the present study, among the 9 forms of plagiarism investigated in the questionnaire (adapted from Maxwell et al’s (2006) and Marshall & Garry’s study (2006)), buying an assignment was regarded as the most serious form of plagiarism while the inappropriate use of secondary citations, the least serious form.<br><br>The epidemic nature of plagiarism among those Chinese undergraduates in the EFL writing was revealed by the analysis of data collected from the questionnaire, the paired interviews and the sample writings, with Internet plagiarism reported as the most widespread. Howard’s (1995) notion of “patchwriting” was supported by evidence found in the students’ writing samples. Besides, unattributed borrowed/translated information and incorrect use of secondary citations were found to be salient features, according to the data gathered from the students’ theses and from the interviews with the students’ academic supervisors. Differential levels of writing performance in the students’ writing arising from borrowed/translated material and patchwriting were observed to be a function of the students’ language proficiency levels.<br><br>Based on the major findings, this study explored the attendant pedagogical implications and offered some suggestions for EFL instructors and institutions of higher learning. In particular, the systematic training in academic writing conventions for University students was advised for incorporation into EFL teaching, and Howard’s (1995) proposed policy of classifying plagiarism into three forms, i.e., cheating, non-attribution of sources and patchwriting was also recommended to Chinese institutions of higher learning. Finally, several possible future research areas were recommended for further investigation into academic plagiarism among EFL undergraduates in China.