I was called into the Dean’s office the first week after matriculating into the English program at my university. She was gentle and fierce at the same time. I admired her immediately and was terrified I was about to be ousted for some terrible mistake. “We have an immediate need for an English 101 TA and I was wondering if you’d be interested in taking it?” A what? When? What? She knew nothing about me, save for my entrance essay and my grades from my previous university. But, like any self-respecting starving student, I took the job.
I became an assistant to a teacher with a class full of the athletes he coached in what he considered to be his “real job.” By week three I’d reported two students for plagiarism and by semester’s end, I’d nearly given up trying to teach a class of jocks why you can’t just cut and paste your English 101 paper from some Internet site. I knew that I cared more about the integrity of word-smithing because I was one, but I thought anyone with any integrity at all should care about stealing in general. I was wrong.
Most of you aren’t here for writing lessons, but increasingly I note instances of plagiarism (most unknowingly, I’m sure) across social media, in sermons, blogs, and even books. So I thought perhaps a short lesson on what plagiarism is might be helpful. I’ve used a properly attributed quote which I’ll be using as the benchmark for the lesson:
“Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.”
―C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
It is not plagiarism to paraphrase the quote and still attribute the thought to Lewis, like this:
C.S. Lewis said something once like “Real love is more difficult and more profound than simply kindness.”
However, plagiarism often shows up by doing something like this. Note the difference. I don’t give a nod to Lewis for informing the line and only make tiny, almost imperceptible changes. But it's clearly still his thought. This is plagiarism:
Love is a thing more stern and more splendid than just kindness.
It's also plagiarism to omit the original author's name and leave off quotation marks, like this:
Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.
Plagiarism also comes in the form of emulated original work like:
I have been thinking and come to the conclusion that real love is more difficult and profound than simple kindness.
However, it is not plagiarism to think along the same lines as someone and discover a shared view, like this:
I've been thinking about love and kindness and the difference between them. How the former can sometimes come across as unbending and yet is so profound, and the latter is substanceless really. And today I found Lewis said something similar, that "Love is more stern and splendid than mere kindness."
Plagiarism comes in other forms too:
Stealing an image off the internet unless it was off a site that offers them for free (like unsplash.com).
Copying someone's original artwork, perhaps changing it in small ways, to use as or in your own work.
Using a quote in speaking or teaching, without attribution.
As I would tell the students in our class, there are easy ways to avoid plagiarism:
Love a thought you had or heard? Research it and see if where it shows up first. The Internet is a wild and deep place!
Always give the author's name if speaking or writing, and use quotation marks if writing. If you can find the original source, this is also great.
Be original. Things get famous or go viral because they're cool and original. When you co-opt ideas or art, even if you give them a shoutout, it weakens your message. It says you aren't brave enough to create or properly attribute the work.
. . .
Because we live in an Information Age, it’s easier and easier to read something and absorb the information without processing the author or source, and then regurgitate the information at a later date, patting yourself on the back for how brilliant you think you are for coming up with it. So while we need to be aware of clear instances of thievery, we also need to understand that plagiarism is NOT:
Shared similar ideas.
Shared vision or goals.
Overlapping messages or research.
Similar taste and aesthetic.
If you want to have any kind of integrity in publishing or speaking, the earlier you learn these things, the better. Don't believe for one minute that your "platform" makes you immune from paying attention to this stuff. Especially as your readership/following grows, you will encounter more and more people with shared ideas, vision, mission, aesthetic, etc. If you cry "plagiarism!" when you encounter that, word will get around that you're stingy, prideful, and arrogant.
The world of words is built upon shared ideas and goals, a constantly recycled and regurgitated rhythm of truth, beauty, and goodness. The more you write, the more you'll encounter this. Protect your heart from pride and arrogance by properly attributing in your work, not stealing the work of others, and sharing the load of the message you say you believe with other thinkers and writers. It's a win, win, win.
Plagiarism does happen. It takes humility to admit when you’ve done it and humility to swallow the possibility that someone might have done it to you. When it’s clearly word for word (as above), you should say something. I have. But if it’s just shared ideas, the more the merrier! The Kingdom of God is big and it’s going to take a lot of people taking seriously the call to discipleship. We’re all part of one family and of course we’re going to share ideas occasionally. That’s the beauty of having “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).