One of the tasks that I perform in China is to proofread and correct science paper drafts that are being submitted for journal publication. Therefore I was alarmed when I read a manuscript that began "please note the sections in red are plagiarized." Upon further discussion with the research student, I discover that these words were taken from her earlier lab write-ups and were all her original words. But because plagiarism is defined in China to include use of words from prior work, students across China have come to understand this as plagiarism too.
In Western journals, we do not consider this plagiarism (although it is sometimes called "self-plagiarism"). Teachers must tell their students if they cannot submit work that they have done before in another class. And if the same material is published in two journals, it is "double publication" and a definite no-no. But this was not stealing words or ideas from others without attribution.
An American student would never have said what the Chinese student said above—and it shows a difference in culture. To understand people’s attitudes today, you have to understand where they are coming from.What is their history leading to this moment? And in doing so, you gain a new appreciation for your own history.
Throughout Asia, from India through China to Japan, large classrooms of students (often 60 or more) sit in front of a teacher. The teacher is master and they are apprentices assigned to learn what is in the textbook and what is said by the teacher. Recitation— "everyone repeat after me in unison" —is the widespread method of teaching. And being able to repeat back the exact words on tests is rewarded. That is what being a good K-12 student in Asia has been about.
Contrast that with the U.S. classroom that has the luxury of fewer than 30 students per class. The good teacher asks students to read items A and B, then put it all together in their own words and even argue the points. But our students are not led to claim the original ideas or words as their own.
This contrast between memorization and applied thinking is the contrast between our two past educational cultures. It is the reason the U.S. has hundreds of Nobel Prizes in science and China has none—yet. They know they have to change their system away from memorization. Meanwhile, the U.S. is stupidly continuing the No Child Left Behind teach-to-the test memorization system and destroying that critical thinking.
Before we get feeling unjustly superior about plagiarism, I will translate another p-word that is commonly posted on the doors of schools, industries, and government offices here in China: "propaganda."
To Westerners, this word has nothing but bad connotations: false information commanded by oppressive governments. Why in the world would any office translate its function as "propaganda"?
Here it is China that has the upper hand. We use the term “public relations.” The product of their offices is no different from all of our promotional materials that are produced to convince customers that they must have this worthless product or that some diploma mill’s online course is just as good as a bonafide class with a real professor.
When our public health departments try to convince citizens to get annual flu shots, China sees that as "propaganda" that is good. I consider the fraudulent claims by storefront "schools" in America—that spend more money on propaganda than on faculty—to be far more harmful than any “propaganda” I see here in China.
In America, there are good schools and bad schools. And there are schools that promote themselves and schools that do not. The good and bad schools that promote themselves will survive. The good and bad schools that do not promote themselves will go under. So we cannot avoid "propaganda" either.
If we limit "propaganda" to only the disinformation used in political and commercial society, then our recent elections and our daily bombardment by media and online make the United States the propaganda capital of the world. America is awash in it. But because of the same-word, different-meaning confusion represented by my "plagiarizing" student, we do not recognize it.
Feel free to pass on this propaganda (hopefully it is not disinformation). However, I would appreciate the credit.