Plagiarism and International Students


Plagiarism is the copying of other people’s words and ideas without giving proper credit.

As the chair of a university department, I see more cases of plagiarism from international students than from native English speakers.

I don’t believe the instructors who catch ESL students cheating are necessarily prejudiced or racist. There is plenty of research that shows that international students do plagiarize in greater numbers.

Why is that? Do international students lack a moral code? Of course not. Instead, they are faced with challenges that make plagiarism a more tempting option.

This lesson functions as a supplement to our introduction to plagiarism. Below you will find some extra advice geared to ESL students.


It is important for teachers and students alike to recognize why international students are more likely to plagiarize. Here are the key factors:

  • ESL students are often under enormous financial and family pressures. They may need to earn a degree so they and their loved ones can immigrate to Europe or North America.
  • The language barrier makes it very difficult to “use your own words.” How can you paraphrase an idea when you can’t easily think of different words to use?
  • International students often work in groups to help each other succeed. This often leads to copied work and similar answers.
  • Students are hesitant to ask for help.
  • Cultural attitudes to knowledge and instruction are different in non-Western countries.

Understanding these obstacles goes a long way to solving the problem. For instance, instructors may need to spend more time teaching proper paraphrasing and may want to be more lenient when students have a limited vocabulary.


It is worth expanding on the problem of cultural difference. In Western countries, instructors often have very different research expectations. They want students to think for themselves and come up with original ideas.

To international students that may come as a surprise. After all, in other cultures the student often strives to become like the teacher. The pupil is a copy of the master.

For instance, many students from India mistakenly think that their professors would be pleased if their essay states exactly what the teacher said in class. Isn’t the professor the authority on the subject, so why not copy his or her ideas? Or what if your essay argued something different than what the professor said? Wouldn’t you get a lower mark for criticizing the expert?

However, in the West you can dispute your professor’s ideas or present a different perspective. You can also explore an issue that was not discussed in class. In fact, most instructors assign topics and projects that were not fully explored and require the student to do independent research.

This is not to say that you can never use the instructor’s ideas. That would defeat the point of teaching. You can definitely use some class material in an essay, but make sure you explain the ideas using your own words. If in doubt, cite the specific lecture.

In sum, it’s not good if you present no original perspective, if you do not go beyond what you picked up in class. Even if your argument is roughly the same as your teacher’s, you need to find new examples and test cases. In that case, your instructor will be watching for how you apply the ideas in new and interesting ways.


Education is the first step to plagiarism prevention. Instructors should spend time explaining the value of research, as well as teaching paraphrasing and citation skills. We also recommend that international students complete our plagiarism quizzes to ensure they fully understand the concept.