I'm an enthusiastic contributor to one or two sites that help learners of English. I've noticed a problem that crops up again and again.

Many non-native speakers of English make efforts to disguise a quotation that they haven't understood when asking for help with its meaning.

I suspect this is because they have had it drilled into them that plagiarism is a deadly sin (which it is of course).

What they don't appear to realise is that a correct quotation with a proper attribution to the original author is good practice.

Perhaps none of this would matter but for the fact that their attempt to rewrite a sentence that they already don't understand, usually ends up so mangled as to be incomprehensible. (I don't want to single anyone out but if it's vital to the discussion I could provide a link to such a question)

In my experience this practice is common amongst students of whatever discipline who haven't understood a particular phrase when reading a text-book or academic paper.


I can't imagine I'm the only one to have noticed this. Is it a phenomenon that is recognised by teachers in general? If so what do you do about it? Better still, is there a way to propagate the distinction between copying and quoting so that teachers world-wide are not misleading their students?


I have invented an example for the sake of clarity.

The student submits the following question to English Language Stack Exchange:

How can I use the expression "distant type"?

I saw a friend write the sentence, "X got bigger because of distant type Y"

What does this mean? How can I use it?

On investigation it turns out that the original was

"... obtained results suggesting a totally unexpected acceleration in the expansion of the universe by using distant type Ia supernovae as standard candles..."

Accelerating universe From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

If you think this example is exaggerated, I can assure you it is not. I see this sort of thing all the time.


I raised this issue on English Language Meta. The difference is that there I was explicitly asking about ways to deal with the phenomenon on Stack Exchange. Here I am asking if there is a solution (or even a problem) with regard to academic students when pursuing formal courses. I see this as sufficiently different to justify both questions.

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    That's very funny. Maybe if "plagiarism" wasn't a word, things would be better. A word like "plagiarism" is repeated as an evil, and listeners internalize it even if they do not fully understand it. They make up their own definition pieced together from context. Happens to a lot of "big" words. If we just taught people to 1) not lie about having thought of something and 2) use cites to help readers find information, then I think there would be a lot less confusion. Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 17:28

4 Answers 4


I must agree with chasly.

I have come from the backgrounds of monastic education in Burma. They have a very different perspective on plagiarism. For these people, quoting an authority on the subject matter is for the sake of learned readers who will not believe an author on his or her own words. Therefore:

1) Even though the quoted text is in Pali, an ancient Buddhist language, translations are usually not provided. For, if you are a learned reader, you are expected to already know Pali.

2) The text is quoted only by title, or sometimes with the chapter title, but page numbers are never given. It means: if you are not learned enough to find out the quoted text on your own, you are not qualified to question the author's words.

See also the pages (611-617) of the following paper Intellectual Property in Early Buddhism.

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    An interesting point. I am wondering what westerners say about the Bible.
    – Nobody
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 3:27

I can't imagine I'm the only one to have noticed this.

You're not alone, bro. I'm an enthusiastic contributor to a technical forum (about electronics, physics and maths) and I observe this phenomenon for every single question which refers to a book, article, webpage etc. of whatever subject. Moreover, when asked to provide a reference, most users seem unable to provide a complete reference (questions come frequently from university students at the undergraduate level and the misbehaviour is common also between the more experienced ones).

is there a way to propagate the distinction between copying and quoting so that teachers world-wide are not misleading their students?

Your question makes two tacit assumptions which are not generally true. The first assumption is that students all over the world receive a sound and complete education on how to write an essay (and about plagiarism); the second is that students are able to recognize that many rules that apply to a long piece of writing also apply to short writings like questions asked on the internet.

In other words: you think that the problem lies in the distinction between copying and quoting, but I think that the problem is actually much deeper and tougher, that is, there is more to do from the teachers around the world.

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    Thank goodness - I was having an existential crisis for a while! The part that puzzled me most was why they should go to all the effort of changing the original phrase (and thereby making it incomprehensible) when they could simply give the original, even if they didn't realise they should mention the source. I think I've found a clue and I'm going to answer my own question (in part)- Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 21:47
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    @chaslyfromUK: in fact, there are really two different issues: i) inability to understand that not only is a correct quotation good practice, but also necessary to answer their question; ii) inability to provide a citation. Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 22:00
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    Yes, I'm afraid you're right. Looking on the bright side, I suppose that's what education is for. They'll get it eventually. Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 22:41

Since posing the question I've found a related one that I think may provide a partial explanation.

Can authors from certain origins really not know about the gravity of plagiarism?

The paragraph from there that caught my eye was this:

In some traditional cultures in Asia and the Middle East, for example, college students are expected to quote or paraphrase the best known political or religious authorities without attribution because readers, especially professors, are expected to know what texts are being circulated. Indeed, it might be a serious insult to the teacher if the student writer formally cites the text being borrowed.

Cultural Perspectives on Plagiarism

I have to say, I've noticed that the problem I have been describing tends to come from people of Asian origin. I hesitated to voice that as I wondered if there was any statistical reality to my observation.

My answer now is that it's likely a case of culture clash. Maybe it will sort itself out eventually.

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    I think the half sentence that follows the "In some traditional cultures ..." statement as an exaplanation is essential to understand the sentence. At least, for readers of your post, it can change the first impression of the sentence from "Those cultures encourage blindly believing in widely circulated statements without knowing the source." to "Those cultures encourage being so aware of important authors that explicit attribution is not seen as necessary." Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 22:10
  • @O.R.Mapper, very good. Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 22:46
  • @O.R.Mapper - I've extended the quote. Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 23:02

I think that when being taught about plagiarism (and that it should be avoided), students should also learn how to cite and how to quote.

They should learn

  • how to quote a sentence or two
  • how to quote a block text
  • how to paraphrase
  • how to cite a reference

By the way, paraphrasing does not lift the obligation to cite the source of the original text.

  • You say, "By the way, paraphrasing does not lift the obligation to cite the source of the original text". I wholeheartedly agree. I suspect that the perpetrators have become paranoid about being discovered as a plagiarist in an online search by their tutors. Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 10:26
  • Thanks for your reply but it doesn't quite address my question. I agree that students should be taught in the way you suggest. What I'm looking for is a way to spread awareness among the teachers - especially those in countries where Westernised norms of essay writing are relatively new. Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 10:29

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