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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 1; January 2004

Major Article

EAP writing: the Chinese challenge; new Ideas on Plagiarism

Upper secondary adult

John Lake, SOAS, London, UK

Over the last six years, the number of Chinese studying abroad has risen dramatically owing to factors such as the Hong Kong hand-over and the trade liberalisation of the People's Republic. At the International Foundation Courses and English Language Studies department (IFCELS) of London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, about half of our students now come from mainland China. Chinese students stand at the forefront of the globalisation of education, and the use of English as the primary language of international research, commerce, travel and computer software (Bowers, 1996) has made the learning environment of English-speaking countries most attractive to them. Western academic institutions follow western academic conventions though, and facilitating an accommodation of these conventions has become the province of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). In this respect, Chinese students present unique problems that need to be addressed by the EAP community; and I would argue that the most urgent of these is academic plagiarism, since it can lead to their hard work being disqualified.

EAP in Britain is typically taught on university pre-sessional, in-sessional and foundation courses and covers a wide remit (see Jordan, 1997), but as the chief vehicle of essay- and exam-based assessment, academic writing has become the focus of much of the interest from EAP pedagogues and researchers. White (2000) defines two approaches to such writing as 'process', concerned with the writer's self-expression, and 'genre', concerned with the reader's expectations, and elsewhere (1988) points out that EAP writing is largely of the genre, or 'product-oriented', approach as its organisation and expression are governed by strict conventions. Moreover, since process writing generally involves multiple drafts, the advent of word-processing, with its emphasis on instant editing and cut-and-paste, may have influenced its eventual demise (see Scott, 2000).

Taylor (1997a) details ways in which the rhetorical conventions of writing in English are very different to those even in other parts of Europe, let alone Arabic, Semitic or Oriental cultures. It may go without saying that EAP teachers need to be aware of this. Their awareness can be greatly enhanced, though, by learning something of their students' own educational background and rhetorical traditions, as well as their previous experience of Anglo-American academic conventions (Braine, 2002). In my own attempts to do this, I have looked at observations on Chinese attitudes to learning; at research at IFCELS (Sayer and Weakley, 1999) into lecturers' expectations of students' essays in the fields of Business Studies, Economics and Development Studies; and at my own findings regarding Chinese students' experience of academic writing previous to arriving in Britain.

The problems that Chinese students have with plagiarism are not signs of dishonesty, it has to be stated. Copyright laws in China are not the same as in the west owing to a long tradition of a wide public domain. Culturally, the concept of words and ideas as someone's property is strange to them, because studying classic texts from Confucius to Mao meant memorising them; thus they were universally recognised when recited, making citation unnecessary. Indeed, in such a culture, citation becomes an insult. (Wang et al, 2000). The problems this creates for their academic writing generally appear as sections of text copied from a source word-for-word into their essays and either not cited at all or cited but not put in quotation marks to show that it is verbatim. Cases of the latter type, which openly signpost the transgression, indicate that this does not stem, or not always, from a wish to deceive.

The next question was how unacceptable this was to assessors, and whether they were prepared to make any accommodation of this cultural discrepancy. Across the disciplines outlined above, Sayer and Weakley (op. cit.) showed that all eight lecturers, when asked if a student's mark should be lowered for an essay being partly plagiarised, said yes. One added the proviso of it being more than one paragraph, while another, on the other hand, chose to emphasis it as a 'major issue'.

Additionally, seven of them said they would penalise a student for having too many direct quotes. This might seem to present a Catch-22 situation to students whose cultural mindset, fledgling grasp of academic style and lack of sufficient linguistic resources combine to make it very difficult for them to paraphrase, summarise, synthesise and critique the theories of the authorities in their field. On top of that, as Taylor (1997b) points out, 'The western academic paper is full of critical analysis and evaluation, whereas in many cultures students are taught to respect established wisdom and not to question or judge.' In defence of the lecturers, though, it would be all too easy for the less scrupulous student to deliberately take advantage of the situation were a more lenient view to be taken.

From my own survey of students' previous experiences of a variety of the conventions of academic writing, it emerged that almost half of the Chinese claimed to have given citations of authors' works in essays that they had written in English before, and one third claimed to have done so in essays written in their own language. A further breakdown of how the work was incorporated found negligible numbers admitting to copying without quoting in essays in English, but surprisingly, the same numbers claiming to have done the same in Chinese (6 per cent). Unless the majority of the students were second-guessing a charge of plagiarism on the horizon, this seems very low given the observations of the nature of Chinese educational traditions. Perhaps more in line with those observations, however, not one single student claimed to have put a bibliography to an essay written in Chinese (compared with a fifth of them in English). These numbers provide an admittedly blurred snapshot, but the bigger picture may be clearer: more than half had no previous experience of acknowledging an author in a piece of academic writing. The next step, not yet taken, would be to record the number for whom plagiarism raises a problem and see if the figures equate.

In an age of cut-and-paste and essays for sale on the internet, the problem of intentional plagiarism is one which may ultimately force academics to alter their attitudes and policies or see their institutions be pushed to the wall by the global competition of piracy and liberalisation. There is already talk in staff-rooms of 'creative plagiarism', whereby a student is felt to have skilfully synthesised and reshaped chunks of copied text from multiple sources into a new and intellectually coherent whole, and deserves some credit for it. The point remains that this will not help them in exams. The question may then become one of how long exams remain a part of the assessment process. On the other hand, many institutions rely financially on their reputation for high standards; allowing them to be lowered might also prove ruinous. And all of this, of course, is leaving aside the legal issues, which, for international students, could involve visa rights to stay in the country.

In the meantime, Chinese students' unintentional plagiarism continues to further complicate the issue. Clearly, the gravity with which plagiarism is regarded in the west needs not just to to be emphasised but also justified with an explanation of its own cultural rationale. Further to this, the study of corpora to illustrate the variety of citation techniques has been promoted by Thompson and Tribble (2001). At the level of students' linguistic manipulation, exercises in transformational grammar and lexical substitution are a start to the art of paraphrasing, and the importance of summarising should not be overlooked. For my own part, I am building up a bank of suitable short texts that can be drip-fed to classes regularly for homework assignments.

Perhap the best way to try to address the problem holistically would be through frequent one-to-one consultations between students and EAP teachers. This does happen particularly on in-sessional courses, once the student has been accepted by their undergraduate faculty; it would be welcome more on the foundation and pre-sessional courses that play their part earlier down the line in getting them accepted. Unfortunately, the insitutional funding for this is usually as unavailable as the time in the students' busy timetables. Students could additionally seek the path of self-help from the advice and plagiarism-avoiding exercises to be found at websites such as www.uefap.co.uk/writing/writcon.htm.

One of the more recent suggestions to solving academic-writing problems including plagiarism is the use of 'patchwork text assignments', as proposed by Prof. Richard Winter of Anglia Polytechnic University (see Guardian Education, 10th June 2003, p.15). His comments about undergraduates as a body, both non-native and native writers properly underline the facts that the genre approach requires control of a difficult style and pattern of organisation, and that it expects the student to adopt the false position of being a master of the topic. The solution put forward, however, 'a carefully structured series of short pieces of writing, carried out at regular intervals throughout the course', incorporating brainstorming, discussion and peer evaluation, appears to (a) require a lot of staffing, (b) be something that EAP teachers are doing already in the classes between longer essay assignments, and (c) represent little more than a return to the process approach already being abandoned because it has failed to meet the desire for an increasingly product-oriented market.

As maybe the biggest single-nation market sector at present, Chinese students present a significant challenge to EAP, responses to which are only just beginning to be mounted. Because of the possible changes presented, and some would say threatened, to western academia by information technology, these responses and others that may follow must be built upon and, if worthy, incorporated into EAP strategies quickly, because the Chinese economy is dynamic right now and many students are in a hurry to get qualified and back while it is all still happening.


Bowers, R. 1996. 'English in the world'. In English in China. British Council.

Braine, G. 2002. ''Academic literacy and the nonnative speaker graduate student'. Journal of English for Academic Purposes 1/1: 59-68.

Jordan, R.R. 1997. English for Academic Purposes. Cambridge: CUP.

Sayer, D. and S. Weakley. 1999. 'Asessors' expectations of students' essays'. Unpublished.

Scott, M. 2000. 'From screen to print-out: written English, the word-processor and student writing'. In P. Thompson (ed.). Patterns and Perspectives: Insights into EAP writing practice. University of Reading: Centre for Applied Language Studies.

Taylor, L. 1997a. 'Teaching writing - teaching culture 1'. English Teaching Professional 3: 14-15.

Taylor, L. 1997b. 'Teaching writing - teaching culture 2'. English Teaching Professional 5: 12.

Thompson, P. and C. Tribble. 2001. 'Looking at citations: using corpora in English for Academic Purposes'. Language Learning and Technology 5/3: 91-105.

Wang, M. et al. 2000. Turning Bricks into Jade: critical incidents for mutual misunderstanding among Chinese and Americans. Maine: Intercultural Press.

White, R. 1988. 'Academic writing: process and product'. In P. Robinson (ed.). Academic writing: process and product. ELT Documents 129.

White, R. 2000. 'From there to here: writing'. In P. Thompson (ed.). Patterns and Perspectives: Insights into EAP writing practice. University of Reading: Centre for Applied Language Studies.

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