Tales of Plagiarism

The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. Recorded from the early 17th century, the word comes from Latin plagiarius ‘kidnapping’—Oxford online dictionary.

The eighth of God’s Ten Commandments is “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). The ninth is, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Lives well lived under God avoid theft and lies. Virtuous people honor others’ right to their property and strive for veracity over mendacity in their words. Plagiarism violates both the eighth and ninth commandments, as well as being driven by what the tenth commandment forbids as well—covetousness. Incidentally, the penalty for kidnapping, which is the Latin root for plagiarism, under the Mosaic law was death (Exodus 21:16).

God alone knows all the word kidnappings that have occurred under the sun, but professors and writers have their tales of plagiarism. So, I will tell of a few—none of which are tall, all of which are true, and all of which are told in my words. 

My school and many others use a technology for detecting plagiarism in student papers called Turnitin. Their motto is  “Education with Integrity. Your culture of academic integrity begins with Turnitin.” I thought it began with honesty, but we’ll let that go for now. This digital conscience arose with the opportunities for plagiarism in the online word. Plagiarism required more work before the Internet—reading books and copying by hand what they said. Now it is so simple: cut, paste, arrange. Thus, the technologies fight each other, as they often do. 

I don’t bother with Turnitin. I tell my students at Denver Seminary that they are Christian adults who should not cheat. And if they do, God will get them. I have not used it at other schools, but I did detect a blatant example a few year ago while at Metro State University teaching Introduction to Ethics (how fitting).

The paper began with barely intelligible prose. That was enough for an F. He said that he was a moral relativist because he was a Christian. That, too, was enough to merit an F, but it got better/worse. The next two pages defended relativism in clear (if unconvincing) philosophical prose. I entered a few of these oddly placed sentences into Google and found the material at an atheistic web page. Plagiarism merits an F as well, so this paper was an F-cubed. In other words, its failure was overdetermined. It was a kind of perverse achievement in academic ineptitude. Poor soul.

As I was reading a paper written for me at Denver Seminary, I thought, “This is good. I really agree with this….Oh, this is me!” The benighted student has copied two pages from my vastly ignored book, The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997) verbatim and without attribution. A tense discussion with the student followed. He uttered excuses, but no apologies.

Some books supposedly written by Christian celebrities are not written by them, but by unnamed authors. Ghost writing is common and not a few publishing houses are haunted. A man once confessed (although I don’t think he felt guilty) that he had written a book for a well-known Christian personality with no little social clout. I challenged his ethics. He was paid for his work, he said, and the practice was common. The same could be said for mercenaries and hit men.

I was once asked to write a book for a famous Christian “author.” Of course, this is, strictly speaking, impossible. You cannot author a book you do not write. The rationale was that the author was busy with other things and more people would read it with his or her name on the cover than with someone else’s name (the real author) on the cover. I was not enlisted to this cause, suffice to say, since I am not a utilitarian.

One could go on, but I give one more personal anecdote. I received an email from someone asking me to look over a manuscript which the author hoped I would co-write with him. Although the book was not under contract, the wily fellow had gotten (or pretended to get) several notable authors to endorse his writing. I wished the man well but declined since I was too busy with other projects to consider co-writing a book. He responded by assuring me that he did not expect me to write anything. I could simply add my name as an author! That would be good for me, for him, and the Kingdom of God, of course. I don’t know what happened to his manuscript.

I said that plagiarism breaks (at least) three of the Ten Commandments: not to steal, not to bear false witness, and not to covet. But can I plagiarize myself by reproducing my writing from one venue in another venue without saying so? I take it that I cannot steal from myself, since I have a right to dispose of my own property as I wish (within moral and legal limits). However, if I repeat writing done for one publication in another publication without mentioning this, I am, in a sense, lying, since the assumption by the reader is that this is new material. However, one might argue that if it was first published on your blog, it doesn’t count as being published or that you have reworked the material considerably, so the original source need not be mentioned. Well, maybe. While writing Walking through Twilight, my editor noted that some of what I wrote had appeared on my obscure blog years earlier. Apparently, they have Turnitin or something equivalent. Thus, a footnote was added. I get the point. (Now it would have been worse if I had cribbed something I wrote from a periodical that paid me for my work and which held the copyright.)

Other authors have been more egregious in self-plagiarizing. I know of an apologetics book that was lifted almost entirely from a book previously published by the author. (I don’t mean that the same ideas were rewritten. That is fine. I mean that they were copied word-for-word.) No mention was made of this. The implication is that someone—me in his case—could buy the derivative book without knowing of this duplication. If so, the buyer would be defrauded, since the presumption is that a book is made up of new material, unless otherwise stated.

Self-plagiarism, it seems, breaks the commands not to lie and not to covet. An author republishes himself without telling the reader because he wants more recognition, or more money, or both. By giving the wrong impression about the newness of the material, the author is lying. While breaking two of the Ten Commandments at once isn’t as bad as breaking three at once, it is still morally wrong in my book. And as James warns us, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). 

A question of identity remains, however. If I copy word-for-word from an unacknowledged source (my own or another’s), that is plagiarism. But what if I appeal more to the spirit of the original source, and not the word? If my source is not my own previous writing, it should be referenced (unless it is common knowledge). However, if I am reiterating my own ideas that have been previously published, I don’t take the standard to be quite as high. We all repeat ourselves, so we don’t have to say, “As I said before…” all the time.

God calls us all to be above reproach as truth tellers (Ephesians 4:15). That is the highest standard. May we not sink below it through plagiarism, no matter how popular or common it might be.