Plagiarism or differing ways of representing knowledge?


  • Je Kan Adler-Collins MA, PhD, Associate Editor

At the heart of today's plagiarism debate are quite different ways, based on culture and tradition, of understanding knowledge. In the West, plagiarism is usually defined as the act of deliberating copying another's work, or borrowing someone else's original ideas without citing the owner of the work and/or the source of the material. This definition may not make sense in the cultures and traditions of many of the 135 member countries of the International Council of Nursing (ICN). For scholars and authors who have non-Western conceptualisations of knowledge, the very idea of plagiarism can be an alien concept that is difficult to understand.

Two questions must be asked: who owns knowledge? And what drives such ownership?

Tarnas (2000) described the development of how the West now views ownership of knowledge, and the influences that shaped its core concepts from the classical, medieval and modern periods. In the West knowledge is seen as a commodity with a monitory and social value and is under the direct power of the few who control and police knowledge (Apple 1997). Ownership of knowledge is clearly a commercial and power driven issue. These influences still dominate publishing in an international context and, it could be argued, also support the colonisation of values and knowledge in a post-modern world on a global scale.

Many cultures, such as Samoan and those of other countries in Asia and Africa, have traditions of oral storytelling. Knowledge was not owned but rather was a living part of the whole culture. Without the written word, ownership was not a problem. Other cultures, including India, and Iran, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East, have a long tradition of written scholarship, yet knowledge did not belong to an individual. Knowledge was under the leadership and guidance of the reigning class and evolved over time in response to cultural influences.

Like many other publications, the International Nursing Review (INR) is in a difficult position on this issue. In order to give voice to authors from a wide range of countries, INR adheres to the international Anglo-American traditions of writing and publication standards. English is not the first language for many INR authors, yet they are obliged to write in English for international publication and to adhere to Western views of ownership and control of knowledge.

Nursing is a global profession. Nursing research and publication needs global solutions that embrace traditional and cultural differences in the understanding of knowledge. The domination of the Western definition of plagiarism may be harming the heritage of many non-Western countries.

The question for us today is how to create a social and cultural change in publishing that brings Western and non-Western ideas of knowing to a common space of mutual understanding and respect. Part of the solution lies in developing a new scholarship with transparency, trust and reliability (Schon 1995). Such scholarship has to explore new forms of knowledge representation such as multimedia. It must also embrace traditional narratives as a data archive of knowledge, and integrate them into a modern context in which the scholars find themselves connected to an existing cultural framework. This in turn encourages trustworthiness of the evidence. Transparency requires authors to make clear to the reader the social context of how their knowledge is generated and where it came from, and involves rigorous challenging of what is thinkable and unthinkable (Bernstein 2000). Such knowledge needs to be respected as being equal to Western forms of knowing.

In South African understanding, the word umbutu means: I am what I am because of who we all are. If we can find a way to celebrate our different ways of knowing, plagiarism will cease to be a divisive and destructive issue.