Never get into a land war in Asia…

…or argue with dudebros on Twitter. I made that mistake yesterday.

First problem: they were arguing with me about plagiarism. It’s not so bad, they said.

Have you ever noticed that they tend to focus on trivial interpretations of real problems? They all think that they’re like little cut-rate Malcolm Gladwells, the twerps, and that picking some bit of common knowledge and taking a counter-intuitive perspective makes them brilliant. No, it doesn’t. Most often it makes them wrong.

So they’re yammering at me that it isn’t even a crime — it’s not stealing, because the original creator of the idea hasn’t lost anything, so why should anyone complain about it? Except, of course, that the creator has had credit taken from them, and try telling a writer that they lose nothing if someone else copies their work without attribution. But hey, they were on a roll.

Then, predictable as clockwork, the second problem: stereotyping. You know who else plagiarizes a lot? Asians! Their culture encourages copying. Then, the trump card, gloriously played with a triumphant smirk: When I say plagiarism is bad, I’m accusing all Asians of theft.

Yeah. All Asia. All Asian culture thinks plagiarism is just fine.


That’s where I threw up my hands and blocked them all. There is stupid, and there is impenetrable ignorance.

Here’s where they were completely missing the point. They were conflating plagiarism with rote memorization.

I’m a college professor, and I run into this problem a lot. There are some things that have to be learned by rote: you did this when you learned the alphabet and the times table. You have to learn this hard, boring core of knowledge before you can play with it creatively. You master the alphabet, spelling, basic grammar, and vocabulary, and then you get to expand that knowledge in creative ways. We run into difficulties with plagiarism when students miss the transition from “here’s a list you have to memorize” to “Now explain to me in your own words what the theme of that list was.”

That shift happens all the time. I’m going to be doing it to my students today.

I’ve been lecturing at them all week about glycolysis and the citric acid cycle. I’ve been showing them diagrams, leading them step by step through the pathways, occasionally digressing to explain how this one step is regulatory, or how the products from this step can be shunted to an alternative pathway, etc., etc., etc. I gave them a handout with a list of the things — enzymes, reactants, structures — that I expected them to have memorized for the exam. If I ask them to tell me what molecule is split by aldolase and what two products result, there is a straightforward answer. If they copy my lecture notes and say “aldolase breaks fructose 1,6-bisphosphate into dihydroxyacetone phosphate and glyceraldehyde phosphate”, this is not plagiarism. They get a cookie. They know part of the sequence.

I might ask them a few questions like that on the exam, because knowing the basics is essential, but it doesn’t tell me anything about their understanding. Anyone can sit down memorize a random collection of facts — it becomes a game of trivia.

But I’ll also ask a few short essay questions. Tell me something about how glycolysis follows the laws of thermodynamics; why does glycolysis reduce NAD only to oxidize it again in fermentation; how does the cell ‘know’ when to stop burning sugar, summarize all the regulatory steps? I’m going to expect them to be able to summarize and integrate and succinctly summarize ideas that were spread out over several lectures. Rote memorization won’t help.

So today I don’t lecture at all. I’m going to hand out big sheets of butcher paper and sharpies and ask the students to illustrate and explain to each other the stuff they learned this week. Just recreating a list won’t count — they have to provide some insight into the concepts, and they have to be able to teach each other.

That’s why plagiarism is bad (in addition to the fact that it steals from others). It’s the difference between being a user, someone who takes ideas and repeats them, and a maker, someone who creates and shares new perspectives, and opens the door to novel insights. The purpose of a college education is to create makers. We don’t need a generation of parrots.

As for the stereotype of “Asians” — it’s not true. It is a general problem that many students don’t quite get the idea of avoiding plagiarism, but it’s not restricted to “Asians”. Here’s my list of problem students:

  • First year students who got a poor education. You know the type: they mastered the 5-paragraph essay, they know how to look stuff up on wikipedia, and they never had to exercise their minds in 13 years of public education. We try to shake them up, but sometimes they continue their bad habits for a few years. They tend to wither in the upper level courses…or they learn.

  • Pre-meds. Oh, they’re capable of thinking, but when they feel that their entire future career rests on getting an “A” on every exam, they don’t want creative. They want the certainty of rote regurgitation.

  • Entitled white guys. Dudebros. It happens every year. They paid their tuition. For that fee, they expect that they have bought the right answers to every question, if you haven’t given them the precise answers expected for every problem, you have broken the contract, and it’s all your fault that they didn’t know the answer.

“Asians” don’t even make the list. If anything, they’re just a subset of my first item, and a few of them might fall into the second group, but it’s not because they have Asian Culture, whatever the hell that is.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    …why does glycolysis reduce NAD only to oxidize it again in fermentation…

    Because it wants to. Because its Creator made it that way!

    The purpose of a college education is to create makers.

    So let’s skip directly to The Fountainhead!

  2. cartomancer says

    Actually a generation of parrots would be quite good. Particularly the heavily endangered parrots like the Kakapo. Breeding programmes would help preserve these species…

  3. borax says

    I didn’t know that the five paragraph essay was still taught. I’m having a flashback to 9th grade.

  4. Rey Fox says

    Man, that map is weirdly colored. I was trying to figure out if the fleshy-colored countries were meant to be Asia. Then why not Russia? Why not Pakistan?

  5. fmitchell says

    P.S. Also, copyright law (or disregard for it) says nothing about plagiarism which is claiming someone else’s work as your own. Bootlegs always keep the original authors’ names, even if that author never sees a dime from the sale. Stuff like Japanese doujinshi and “Chinese Star Wars” comics may use the likenesses of others’ characters beyond Western ideas of “fair use”, but I don’t think the artists lay claim to having created those characters. So it’s ultimately a sophomoric argument to defend the indefensible.

  6. frog says

    Rey Fox@5: I found some clearer versions of the map using TinEye. There are 4 different colors in the map:

    1. A beige-y “band-aid” color (e.g. India)

    2. A green-tinged beige (e.g. China)

    3. A medium-pale orange color (e.g. Mongolia)

    4. A vivid green that stands out a lot (e.g. Russia)

    The first three are moderately close in hue and color. I’m trained to see fine distinctions of color, but I had to take a second look and adjust my perception (now they all look very distinct to me).

    I think this map was made by someone who hates red/green color blind people.

  7. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re map color scheme @5
    as I recall (probably mistakenly) Russia as a whole is defined as Europe (Asia is south of Russia). The argument being that it would be so confusing to have one country spanning two continents, so we (USSR) picked the continent Moscow resided on, so QED Russia is Europe, China etc are Asia.:

  8. says

    I think the lands in the scheme are not coloured by any particular key, except that no two adjacent countries have the same color.

  9. blf says

    slithey tove@8, Wow, I haven’t heard that “all of Russia is in Europe” for, well, decades, now (back in the days of the USSR)…
    If my recollection isn’t too far off, the justification was something along the lines that Serbia wasn’t really “Russia”, and hence “Russia” was essentially only land West of the Urals, which is a commonly-used boundary for what is/isn’t “Europe”. What I don’t recall is why Serbia wasn’t considered part of Russia.
    I suspect I am mis-remembering or omitting something about this trivia.

  10. Anton Mates says

    Then, the trump card, gloriously played with a triumphant smirk: When I say plagiarism is bad, I’m accusing all Asians of theft.

    Sounds like the creationist who told me that evolutionary theory was racist against black people, because it implied that some humans were closer to apes than others, and obviously the most apish people would have to be Africans, because, well, just look at them.

    I agreed that her chain of reasoning was definitely racist, but I was pretty sure the racism didn’t come from the evolution part.

  11. numerobis says

    Serbia is a long way from Russia.

    Russia is on both continents; I’ve literally never heard otherwise. Turkey is as well, and Egypt is both Africa and Asia.

  12. consciousness razor says

    I’m sure frog is right. It’s just a normal four-color map, for people who hate colors, maps, people, etc.

    slithey tove:

    as I recall (probably mistakenly) Russia as a whole is defined as Europe (Asia is south of Russia).

    Uh… that’s ridiculous. No idea where you could be recalling that from, but part of Russia is in Europe and part is in Asia. It’s a transcontinental country and not the only one. If you’re not already confusing social/historical terms with geographical ones, this is not a problem.

    Where the Europe/Asia boundary should be is I guess a little vague/disputed among geographers, but it certainly doesn’t go anywhere near the Pacific.

  13. Saad says

    slithey tove, #8

    You realize that would make Africa, not Asia, the largest continent?

    First Pluto, now this.


  14. Johnny Vector says

    I remember drawing out the Krebs cycle (and hey, I remember enough to still know that citric acid cycle is another name for it) in high school chem class, on like a C size sheet of paper. Definitely the cool part about it is the thermodynamics of how it works. Not that I remember any details at this point.

  15. consciousness razor says

    Hmm…… yeah, Saad, so Asia should be a subcontinent like India (maybe get rid of India? seems redundant). But don’t panic. Some day in the distant future, they might clear their orbit. Then they’ll get to sit at the grownup’s table.

  16. says

    Then, the trump card, gloriously played with a triumphant smirk: When I say plagiarism is bad, I’m accusing all Asians of theft.

    Wow, that rates right up there with “you can’t voice disagreement with this one anti-feminist woman because disagreeing with women is misogyny!” and “you have to agree with me that saying the n word is ok because some black people told me they were ok with it, and disagreeing with black people is racism!”. (I’ve personally encountered both of trollish responses, by the way)


    The comment on “Asians” was probably alluding to rampant music/video piracy in China and Japan’s idiosyncratic copyright laws

    I would have guessed it had something to do with brand imitation, like these knock-off McDonald’s stores.

  17. Al Dente says

    You master the alphabet, spelling, basic grammar, and vocabulary

    Professor, will any of these be on the test?

  18. numerobis says

    blf@13: OH! Russia and Serbia do have close cultural ties, so what you said almost made sense :)

  19. Mobius says

    My last semester as an undergrad I took a course in ethics. The professor informed us that as long as our essays were well reasoned they would receive a good grade. Well, on the first exam I discovered that unless your conclusions matched the professor’s, they weren’t “well reasoned”. After all, he had a PhD and you were only a student.

    Fine. If he wanted regurgitation, I could give him regurgitation.

  20. rrhain says

    @5, Rey Fox: I’m pretty sure it’s colored that way because of the Four-Color Theorem:

    On the plane, no map can be drawn the requires more than four colors such that no two adjacent territories have the same color.

    In this particular instance, there are some constraints because certain territories need to be colored blue because they’re water and certain other territories cannot be colored blue because they’re land, but the rest of the map holds to this. You can see this with the arrangement of China, Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan.

    Choose a color for Russia. It doesn’t matter what so long as it isn’t blue. China borders it on the east, so China needs to have a different color. But, Mongolia touches both China and Russia, so it cannot have the same color as either of those. And then Kazakhstan also borders China and Russia so it cannot have the same color as both of those, but it also borders Mongolia, so it needs a fourth color.

    And now that you’ve defined your four colors, you can continue coloring in the map.

    Thus, there is no grand scheme for why Russia is green and Kazakhstan is dark orange. It’s just what is needed to make sure the countries have no connecting parts the same color and without having too many colors on screen.

  21. Karen Locke says

    I hang out with faculty; somehow most of my friends turn out to be college teachers. Those from ethnically diverse areas report another group of people who struggle with plagiarism: those who speak English, not all that well, as a second language. When their plagiarism is pointed out to them (often easy to spot because of the good English) they argue, well, the author writes better than I do! Why shouldn’t I use his/her words? Now, one could argue that these students should be studying English at the moment instead of their chosen science/engineering/business major, but they’ve often overcome huge hurdles to get so far already; life is complicated and a college education needs funding — one can’t just take forever to finish it. So my friends explain, and explain, and explain again, until most such students finally get it. The others fail.

  22. Infophile says

    @10 blf, @15 Saad:

    Perhaps what @8 slithely tove was getting at was how it’s colloquially referred to (the “we” implies as spoken by Russians). For instance, although Americans see the UK as part of Europe and it’s technically defined as such, when most people within the UK talk about “Europe” they mean continental Europe – that is, Europe except for the UK, Ireland, and Iceland. Similarly, people who live in Brooklyn often say “New York” when they mean “Manhattan”, despite the fact that Brooklyn is in both New York the city and New York the state.

    So here, when Russians talk about Europe, they’re including Russia, but when they talk about Asia, they’re excluding Russia. (Of course, Slithely Tove is free to correct me on their meaning if I got it wrong.)

  23. karmacat says

    Ugh. I had to memorize the citric acid cycle at least 3 times in my life. I was one of those pre-med students who was trying to get through all the “boring” stuff so I could dissect human beings. That being said, I wish my professors had us working in groups teaching each other. Physics lab was fun for that reason. Sitting and passively listening to a lecturer can make the subject less interesting.

  24. cartomancer says

    The argument for treating “Russia” as just the European (i.e. west of the Urals) bit of the country currently under that name is a historical one. For most of its history “Russia” was just that bit – the Kievan Rus – and the huge tracts of Asian territory it now controls were added in the 19th century to form the “Russian Empire” (and, hence, the term “Kievan Rus” was invented around then to differentiate the two). So from the end of the 10th Century, when it coalesced from various Byzantine, Slavic and Varangian territories, to the Imperial expansions of the 19th Century, Russia was just the European bit.

    Culturally it makes a certain amount of sense to treat Russia proper (i.e. the bit that has had a thoroughly Russian cultural base for nearly a millennium) as different from the recently added territories with their own histories and native cultures. Indeed, I suspect that for many people living in what we today call Russia, being called Russian is probably as offensive as calling a Scot or Welshman “English” or a Canadian “American”.

  25. Owlmirror says

    Huh. I am reminded of yet another old incident; A baffling failure of peer review.

    One of the commenters on a followup thread wrote:

    It wouldn’t be a problem at all to write the paper in Korean, with plagiarized passages in appropriate places in English. Which would fit with the way some East Asian cultures handle paraphrasing: they don’t. My SLA class looked at Chinese tendencies to wholesale copy from other articles because who are they to alter an elder’s words. The elder must know more than they did, therefore they’re honoring them by copying their work. It puts plagiarism in a whole new light. Doesn’t make it right in the Western journal method, but there you go. (East Asians will probably want to kill me by now, lumping them all together, but some general tendencies are extractable)

    I found this baffling at the time, and responded:

    That looks like a case of bending over backwards to excuse bad behavior.

    Is it “honouring” their elders to copy their work and not reference who it was that originally wrote it?

    In the West, “honouring your elders” means that if you copy their words directly, you follow the basic citation standard of saying who the elder is. This so-called Chinese style certainly sounds much less respectful of their elders.

    In fact, I’d be interested in seeing comments from Chinese who have had their work directly copied this way without being mentioned; do they indeed say themselves that they feel “honoured”?

    I still have not seen anything that answers my final question from there.

  26. po8crg says

    “Asia” (and “Asian”) are slippery concepts.

    While Israel is in Asia, I doubt that Binyamin Netanyahu matches most people’s prototype of an Asian.

    Culturo-politico-geographically, the Middle East (which we don’t call South-West Asia because it includes bits of North-East Africa), South Asia, Central Asia, East Asia and South-East Asia are all distinct regions. Russia is distinct again, and also includes a chunk of Europe.