Asian Students, Plagiarism Stereotypes and Compassion

  • May 18, 2013

By Daniel E. Martin

A few years ago, I had an interesting interaction with a colleague. She described the lay of the academic terrain in the following manner: "Asian students are more likely to plagiarize than White students." When asked why, my colleague explained that this was a basic truism of academia, based on her many years of experience.

This was an issue that lent itself to empirical analysis. For several years, high schools, colleges, and universities have been using software that enables faculty to establish the proportion of papers that have been turned in by then copied from databases previous papers and the Internet. Accordingly, I asked my students to submit work through the system my university provides, set what I would call plagiarism to about 30 consecutive words in a row without citation (zounds!). I found in fact there was no statistically significant difference between my Asian and Caucasian students (though at 62 percent of the class plagiarizing, the majority was within the realm of an F!).

Importantly, as a social psychologist (and Bay Area denizen), I recognized that cultural background might have played a role in my colleague's misattribution. I had collected acculturation data in a survey, linked the students to the plagiarism data, and found that those Asian students who identified with their home cultures and had spent less time in the United States were significantly more prone to plagiarize. My colleague had been using race as a proxy for "illegal" behavior. The culture of educational systems varies, but the system in the United States is often called Socratic, when emphasis is to take information and facts and use them in an innovative or creative fashion. Conversely, Asian countries' educational expectations are usually perceived as Confucian, with an emphasis on the memorization and reiteration of factual knowledge with respect for established expertise.

This is a bigger problem than it seems, as vague Western definitions of plagiarism lead to problems across all student populations (though by their own disclosure in self report research, business students admit to being aware and plagiarizing more than other disciplines). Subsequent surveys of 50 random faculty members at my university lead to definitions of plagiarism that ranged from "a page or two without citation" to "one word." What one word could be plagiarized? Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? The "experts" seem to have no clear definition or opperationalization.

Given that Asians are a racially-visible minority (or majority, depending on the university), cases of plagiarism by a few Asian students are potentially more salient than that by the majority. An understanding of stereotypes and the research evidence to the contrary will help faculty steer clear of bias wherein Asian students are often required to prove their integrity to faculty. When I presented the findings at a premier management conference, I was surprised to note that educators continued to give examples of Asians plagiarizing, despite the statistical evidence provided to the contrary. My school is extremely diverse, with a large local and international Asian population. How many Asian students have been held to a different standard due to faculty stereotypes? Our students that represent Confusion educational cultures represent more than 20 percent of the world's population. Is the Socratic approach better at a much smaller proportion of population? Obviously more research is needed, but the ramifications for faculty training, international student training and orientations are clear. Assumptions by faculty regarding their students have the potential to create stereotypes that must be better understood and addressed.

Every quarter I ask my students (in the opening context of instruction in job analysis), "What competencies are most important to being an excellent faculty member?" Unsurprisingly, compassion is inevitably the third or fourth answer. Compassion in instruction is the identification of our students' needs, ameliorating the lack of knowledge and facilitation of positive change in our students (though it takes many other forms as well) through appropriate pedagogy. While faculty across universities are clearly human, when we do not consider the impact of our own biases on the very people we desire to help, we potentially short change them. This bias can lead to 1) holding perceived Asian students to a higher standard, 2) being suspicious of their work, 3) potentially grading them with different standards, and 4) promoting falsehoods among others who may have a substantial impact on students education.

Maybe the bridge between the two educational cultures is compassion. Compassion can manifest itself in individual agency and action taking, based on specific needs. Taking a compassionate perspective, considering the potential limiting impact of bias in ourselves, seeing individuals instead of group members and identifying areas to strengthen as opposed to prejudge are critical in providing a quality education. Importantly, using self-compassion to recognize or own fallibility, learning from our mistakes and moving forward are critical elements of learning on the job, and facilitating the positive change we aspire to with each new group of students.

Daniel E. Martin, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, CSU East Bay
Department of Management

Visiting Associate Professor
Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education
Stanford University

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