Borrowing Others' Words: Text, Ownership, Memory, and Plagiarism



    1. University of Melbourne
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    • Alastair Pennycook teaches Critical Applied Linguistics and other subjects at Melbourne University. His book, The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language (London: Longman, 1994), won the BAAL Book Award for 1995. His interests include cultural and political implications of the global spread of English, critical applied linguistics, and English language teaching and colonialism.


In this article, I attempt to deal with some of the complexities of text, ownership, memorization, and plagiarism. Arguing that plagiarism cannot be cast as a simple black-and-white issue, the prevention of which can be achieved via threats, warnings, and admonitions, I suggest that it needs to be understood in terms of complex relationships between text, memory, and learning. This is part of an attempt to explore more generally different relationships between learning, literacy, and cultural difference. I look first at the background to the notion of authorship and ownership of text, arguing that the way ownership and creativity are understood within European and U.S. contexts needs to be seen as a very particular cultural and historical development. By looking at shifting premodern, modern, and postmodern understandings of text and authorship, I show how the dominant modernist paradigm has always been filled with tensions and ambiguities. Then I discuss how these confusions around plagiarism lead to difficulties and hypocrisies in how textual borrowing is understood. I follow this examination of the development of the Western notion of textual ownership with a consideration of what it means to impose this view in a context where understandings of texts, ownership, and learning may be very different. By looking at learning in a Chinese context and also at the particularities of studying in Hong Kong, I show why we need much more subtle appreciations of the relationships between different approaches to texts. Finally, I discuss some general implications for understanding text, ownership, and learning.