Anatomy of Plagiarism

Sharing Options

Introduction
One of the things God expects us to do with His gifts is to turn a profit. We live as stewards of His bounty, and everything we have has been left to us in trust. When the master returns, he asks for a report from his servants. One made five talents off of five, another two from two, and one hid his talent in the ground (Matt. 25:15).

Not only so, but the resources He gives us include our trials, blunders, and controversies. A wise man draws a profit from his mistakes as well as his wise choices. “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” (Prov. 12:1, ESV). There is a reason coaches have their team view the game film.

File this under "I wish I had thought of that."
File this one under “I wish I had thought of that.”

In the aftermath of the most recent round of accusations, one of the things I realized is that many pastors — who must speak and teach regularly, and who have many resources dedicated to helping them do so — need to have a clear set of definitions and guidelines in mind. This is an area that needs attention, in other words. What we want to do is work through this subject to cultivate a spirit of honesty, which is quite distinct from a spirit of accusation.

Which Commandment?
At the center, plagiarism is a simple problem to identify, and the solution is to “not do that.” But the edges can be complicated, and if you treat the edges as simple you are actually going to wind up complicating the center. What I would like to do is (from time to time) publish a series of posts on the topic that may provide some help and guidance to writers, and to pastors in particular.

So here is a statement of the problem. This is not done in order to slide off the point, but rather to make the real point sharp and defined.

Plagiarism is a sin, and sometimes, depending on the state of copyright law, a crime. But as a sin, what sin would it be? It is usually thought of as a subcategory of stealing, which is sometimes the case. But not always, and that is why we have to be careful to define our terms.

If a man breaks into his neighbor’s garage and steals a hammer, we know that a sin has been committed because he now has the hammer and his neighbor doesn’t. There is one hammer, two men, and the wrong man now has the hammer.

But intellectual property is slipperier. Suppose the man snaps a photo of his neighbor’s hammer, emails it to a high-tech 3D printer, which prints him a hammer of his own. Now what? The first owner of the hammer still has his hammer. Can you steal an object by reproducing it? Perhaps so, but now that would have to be because you are stealing a sale from the original manufacturer that spent a lot of time and money on that design.

Words can be trickier still. Suppose a pastor is going through his great-grandfather’s attic before the estate sale, and comes across a huge box of unpublished sermons (his great-grandfather’s father was also a pastor). Suppose the descendant starts to lift heavily, and sometimes wholesale, from these old sermons. He presents the insights as his own, the study as his own, the learnedness as his own, and so on. He is plainly sinning. But by every conceivable definition, the original sermons are in the public domain so the sin cannot be the sin of stealing. The man who discovered the sermons would have every right to publish them under his ancestor’s name, and to collect all the profits. He cannot steal what he himself owns.

So in this case, his sin would be the sin of lying — seeking to create the impression that he is cleverer than he actually is. He is implicitly telling the congregation “I did the work necessary for this sermon,” when in fact he did not do that work. If he is stealing, he is stealing an intangible thing, something like honor.

But this can be blurry at the edges also. I just said that the problem is that he was trying to appear more clever than he actually is, but this is a constant problem for pastors, whether plagiarism is in the picture or not. When a man includes in his sermon the fact that “Cambyses II reigned from 530 to 522,” and he only knows this because he looked it up during sermon prep, and he is going to forget it as rapidly as everybody else will, he is also creating the impression that he is more clever than he is. If he got that out of a Bible dictionary, the thing that will make him look clever is the knowledge itself, and not the fact that he wrote a pedestrian sentence that may or may not have sounded a lot like the Bible dictionary. In other words, the Bible dictionary might have had it “Cambyses II (530-522 B.C.)” and he just supplied the verb.

So according to our current conventions, he may stuff his sermon as full of somebody else’s research as he likes, just so long as he rearranges the words, or supplies verbs, or add adjectives. But how many? What are the rules?

Say the original is #1:

1. Cambyses II ruled from 530 B.C. to 522 B.C.
2. Cambyses II reigned from 530 B.C. to 522 B.C.
3. Cambyses II reigned from 530-522 B.C.
4. Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, ruled from 530 B.C. to 522 B.C.
5. The rule of Cambyses II was eighteen years in length (530-522 B.C.)
6. The administration of Cambyses immediately followed that of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Draw a line between the two entries that you believe separate plagiarism from honest use and citation. The only one we could definitively say is fully original work would be the last one. No possible plagiarism there. Shy of that is there room for honest disagreement? If so, where?

So let us consider some of the ways in which the exact boundaries of intellectual work might be more complicated than some might want it to be. But make no mistake — if we are pursuing scrupulous honesty, we will get to a point where this issue is not complicated at all.

Paraphrase and Summary:
This is what we have just been discussing. A small industry (dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc.) is dedicated to the hope that people will look up and use the information found in them. The expectation is that they will not lift the definition verbatim in order to pass it off as something of their own devising, but the expectation is also that, however much they recast it into their own words, they will stay close to the meaning that they cite.

Let us say that we want to define tablecloth. One definition is this: “a cloth to cover a table, especially during a meal.” That is right out of the American Heritage. Merriam/Webster is not all that different — “a cloth that is placed on a table before other objects are placed on it.” What words should I not use in making this my own? Cover? Placed? Cloth?

Now with this data in hand, what may I publish in my notes for, say, an ESL class? Suppose I write, without attribution or citation, a “tablecloth is a cloth you place on a table before placing anything else on it.” Now given what a tablecloth is, my options are limited.

Depending on the noun in question, you might find yourself citing common knowledge, and sounding an awful lot like one or more dictionaries.

Allusions
An allusion is a discrete head nod between the writer and the reader. Reference is made to another work with the expectation that the reader will recognize it, picking up the echo. But it would be better to say that an allusion is a discrete head nod between a writer and a small percentage of his readers. Unless the reference is to something like The Simpsons (doh!), how often do literary allusions miss the majority of readers? And if ninety percent of the readers think that a fine phrase or image was original to the writer they are reading, does this widespread ignorance on their part make the writer a plagiarist? No markings, no quotation marks, no hints, no footnotes.

For example, here is C.S. Lewis talking about his time with the “Great Knock” — Lewis uses this phrase, “but because it was wasting time, darkening counsel” (Surprised by Joy, p. 136). The allusion is to the book of Job. “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2). Lewis doesn’t mark his use of that (striking) phrase because he assumes a certain level of cultural literacy in his readers.

It reminds me of the old joke about the woman who hated reading Shakespeare because it was so full of cliches.

I remember an incident in a lit class in college when the entire conclusion of a Thomas Hardy novel (I forget which one) was misunderstood in class discussion because an allusion was missed. There was a reference in the novel to a “cake half turned” which the class, instructor included, did not recognize as an unattributed allusion to the book of Hosea. And the presence of that allusion altered the direction of everything. Was Hardy plagiarizing? Or was he correctly assuming a certain level of scriptural knowledge in his generation, accurately enough? Then as subsequent generations slid into scriptural ignorance, the reference becomes something an editor should footnote for the reader?

Idioms and Cliches

Often idioms come from allusions that “caught on.” We know that it was the genius of William Tyndale that gave us phrases like “salt of the earth,” or “bread alone,” or “powers that be.” These phrases caught on and became generally idiomatic.

You don’t have to cite anyone when you write “on the one hand” or “on the other.” And as my son once observed (please note the citation), no one knows who was the first person to say “see you later, alligator.” But perhaps I should take that back. Maybe somebody does know. Maybe I am just the one who does not know. It sounds like it might have come from one of those Tin Pan Alley songs in the twenties.

Crowdsourcing
The crowdsourcing of striking phrases presents another possible problem. One time I got into a conversation with a guy on a plane. Now I have a particular kind of sticky mind that when it comes to vivid expressions. I don’t remember the topic of conversation, but I remember that he said something like “these were guys with fifty pound heads.” That phrase prompty entered into my conservation. But here is a problem. I don’t know if that is something that his grandmother used to say, or if he was quoting a Seinfeld episode, or if he got it out of a Reader’s Digest joke. Let’s say the phrase makes its way into something I write, and let us say further that someone sardonically notes that I have clearly been lifting material from Wittgenstein again.  But . . . but . . . guy on a plane, I say.

And then there might be oblique crowdsourcing. For example, sometimes when I am reading some Wodehouse, which is usually all the time, I come across phrases that make me think he is just channeling American slang from the first part of the twentieth century. Let us use the expression “the butterfly’s boots,” which I take as having a similar semantic range as “the cat’s meow.” I feel free just to use something like that. But if I think that the expression bears the unmistakable stamp of Wodehousian genius — “he looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow” — then it is necessary to mark any use of it as not originating with me.

There is more to say, and so I think I will adopt the useful expedient of saying it later.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
65 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Adam Sanders
5 years ago

Then there’s the question of, what if in your plagiarizing haste, you get your maths wrong? ;-)

“5. The rule of Cambyses II was eighteen [sic] years in length (530-522 B.C.)”

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago
Reply to  Douglas Wilson

So if he ruled 18 years, in the space of 8 years, was he a really good steward?

Matt Massingill
Matt Massingill
5 years ago
Reply to  "A" dad

Or maybe a tyrant?

jillybean
jillybean
5 years ago

Or on speed?

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago
Reply to  jillybean

Jilly rules now! No speed needed! ; – )

lloyd
5 years ago
Reply to  "A" dad

Johnny Cash used to say something like he served in the Air Force for 20 years between 1950 and 1954. Maybe Cambyses’ II reign wasnt that great…

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago
Reply to  lloyd

So………Wilson plagiarized Jonny Cash? ; – )

Capndweeb
Capndweeb
5 years ago

I do not remember when or from whom I first heard this phrase, but I use it often: “He couldn’t pour water out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the heel.”

Malachi
Malachi
5 years ago
Reply to  Capndweeb

It’s a Southern phrase, I’d lay.

Capndweeb
Capndweeb
5 years ago
Reply to  Malachi

For some reason, I envision the boot being of the cowboy persuasion and, hence, a Western derivation. A preliminary Google search suggests a possible Texas connection, (although this variant uses the vernacular for human urine rather than water) so that would make us both right.

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago

Some how I think your critics will still try and strain out the gnats cats, and their pajamas.????

Who knew camel swallowing could be habit forming? ; -)

Nathan Tuggy
Nathan Tuggy
5 years ago
Reply to  "A" dad

It’s all the nicotine in them.

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago
Reply to  Nathan Tuggy

The Simpsons had an episode about a combined tobacco / tomato plant, a “tomacco”. Has ISIS combined tobacco and dromedaries?????

Rob Steele
Rob Steele
5 years ago

“Fifty pound heads” is delightful and I just spent a pleasant five minutes Googling it. Still prefer “pointy headed”.

Jeremy
Jeremy
5 years ago

Booth’s plagiarism was clearly a problem. But what people are trying to pin on you stems directly from their prior dislike of you, not from anything substantial. Thanks for this post.

Malachi
Malachi
5 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy

But not so much of a problem as folks would have you believe…

RFB
RFB
5 years ago
Reply to  Malachi

It is more of a problem for the 8 oz heads.

LT
LT
5 years ago

I question whether the Cambyses illustration is a good one to begin with. The same dates can be found in dozens or hundreds of sourcees in substantially similar ways. If there were adjective includes, such as “Cambyses magnificently ruled …” then plagiarism would be more evident, even with simple changes such as ruled to reigned or governed.

There’s not much proprietary about the dates of someone’s rule. There is something proprietary about its description. And you can quote me on that … but only with a footnote.

Dunsworth
Dunsworth
5 years ago
Reply to  LT

This is exactly the point, though — some of the plagiarism Booth has been accused of amounts to about that much. Some of the noted instances are simple definitions or explanations that don’t have any apparent proprietary flavor to them, they’re just factual.

Chris Duncan
5 years ago

There are a number of related posts from the not-too-distant past. Here is just one: https://dougwils.com/books/uncommon-commonplaces.html

jillybean
jillybean
5 years ago

We seem to have lost a lot of the common heritage that enabled ordinary people to recognize unattributed quotations from the KJV, the Book of Common Prayer, Milton, and Shakespeare. I was sniggering over a sentence from Wodehouse (“She looked like Lady Macbeth waiting for news from the guest room”), and I had to patiently explain it to the person who wondered why I was laughing. I think that plagiarism is more of a temptation as people become less and less familiar with “the best of what has been said and thought”

PerfectHold
PerfectHold
5 years ago

Intent.

If you pick, cook, chew, swallow & digest a thought — it becomes yours.
When you poop it out, even if it’s identical looking to someone else’s — it’s yours alone.

When that preacher steals the Cambyses bit — you can feel the pride slathering all over it, because it ain’t him.

Rob Steele
Rob Steele
5 years ago
Reply to  PerfectHold

Vivid metaphor. Kind of makes using others’ ideas less, um, appetizing.

andrewlohr
andrewlohr
5 years ago

If you’re hungry, and are walking past your neighbor’s field, you can pick a few heads of grain to eat as you walk by, but you shall not take a sickle to it nor collect it into a bag. So, hey, a little copying, no big deal, but if it really hurts the source, pay up. Quote a dictionary occasionally on this or that, OK by me, or cite casually [“(Webster).”] Reprint the whole dictionary or a chunk of it because it’s OK to quote one definition? That’s stealing. And how does the NT cite the OT? “David says in… Read more »

PerfectHold
PerfectHold
5 years ago
Reply to  andrewlohr

Good conversations you have, young one.

bethyada
5 years ago

This is all very good. But it shows that plagiarism (in as much as it exists) is a problem of honesty not theft. The relevant commandment is false witness but not stealing. Much confusion is added by using the term intellectual property for something that is not particularly analogous to property. Now one can make money of ideas, but one can make money off lots of things that are not property. So when a man makes money in a situation where there is plagiarism we need not say that plagiarism is analogous to property (we shouldn’t) we just need to… Read more »

Malachi
Malachi
5 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

That really was a good bit of point/counterpoint, beth.

gerv
gerv
5 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

Absolutely. Copyright is a related question – if the Lord spares me, there’s a lot more thinking Christians need to do about copyright, and I hope to do some of it. But one big way that it’s different is that, unlike the law of property (grounded in “thou shalt not steal”), there is, I would argue, no biblical basis for copyright law. One could try and justify it as a pragmatic measure, within the freedom of discretion allowed to mankind, to increase the supply of authored works, as those who wrote the Constitution do, but you can’t justify it based… Read more »

bethyada
5 years ago

As to the Western concern about plagiarism, I think we need to consider the Bible more closely. Yes their culture was different (which needs to be considered) and truth is somewhat dependent on what is expected from another. But we are overly literal. An otherwise honest lady would ask her daughter to knock on the door so she could honestly say to the person on the phone someone is at the door (as a way to get off the phone). She falsely thought this was honest where it is patently a lie; a lie that the ancients would have recognised… Read more »

Thomas Austin
Thomas Austin
5 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

Yes – the cultural side plays a great role. A friend was teaching Biology at a community college near Seattle, and many of her students were recent immigrants from China. They had a completely different concept of “original work” – homework answers would be verbatim from the textbook, often including things like “see Fig. 3.2”. When she asked them to “put it in your own words”, they were taken aback. The general feeling seemed to be, “This text was written by the recognized expert; who am I to interpret what I think he meant?” To them, that wasn’t plagiarism, it… Read more »

bethyada
5 years ago
Reply to  Thomas Austin

Agreed, emulation is respect. And as much as the Asians do it they are correct. While I think there may be some cultural differences here, our desire to be different doesn’t seem to be a strength of our individualism (though individualism (or sorts) has strengths).

Of course the students need to be told that rewriting in own words is not an issue of respect, it is a method of instruction. Both as a method of learning and a method of testing (whether they know the material).

RFB
RFB
5 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

“nasty, ugly (but original!) clothes that pass for fashion”

Indeed, people buy clothing that already looks like it has been extensively worn, with bleach stains and holes. And they can vote.

bethyada
5 years ago
Reply to  RFB

Well actually I was thinking of worse examples.

Scott Cottrill
Scott Cottrill
5 years ago

It seems to me that we are the product, intellectually, of everything we have ever learned, and that would include what we have read, been taught, heard, etc. Just as we take in food, digest it, and it is used by the body to feed the cells, provide energy, get eliminated as waste. We take that information, process it and ruminate on it and file it away for future use in facing situations life presents to us. A process is taking place and so it is with knowledge. I cannot imagine how tedious a conversation would be where every statement… Read more »

Dghjtg
Dghjtg
5 years ago

Will you be giving this blog post to all the St. Andrews students you hold to such high standards?

ME
ME
5 years ago

It can be very challenging these days to not face accusations of plagiarism, so I am very tolerant and patient there. In the blogging world people have snatched several paragraphs of mine and posted them as their own words. That is clearly theft and lying. On the other hand, I quote Shakespeare and a few people have squealed, you stole that from from Shakespeare! Yes, no kidding, I assumed everyone knew the reference. My point being, there is emotionalism and this spirit of condemnation and finger pointing, even in the world of simple conversation and sharing of stories. Reminds of… Read more »

bethyada
5 years ago
Reply to  ME

I think I have shown that copying your blogpost was dishonesty and not theft—you still have the words on your blog.

Your point about Shakespeare is excellent. The plagiarist police are so concerned about documenting sources that they miss the beauty of allusion! Oh well, their loss.

bethyada
5 years ago
Reply to  ME

The dress issue nails it. My wife and her friend share some slightly uncommon tastes. One will see something the other has and buy it; or one will buy two items they like and give one to the other. If they both wore the same outfit it would be a source of much mutual amusement and discussion and pleasure. This is the right response. To hate another for sharing your taste is just vanity: the pride and narcissism of the 21st century secular West.

Malachi
Malachi
5 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

bethyada said, “My wife…”

Well, I guess I can no longer think of you as female…

jillybean
jillybean
5 years ago
Reply to  ME

Women can be other women’s worst enemies. If sisterhood means anything, it should mean our having kindness and understanding towards other women.

bethyada
5 years ago

Apparently some people even think plagiarising yourself is wrong!

Giovanni Tiso accused the former politician of “self-plagiarism”. “And
by the way, in case you’re confused, self-plagiarism really isn’t okay.
As an academic, Whyte would have had this hammered into him,”

Malachi
Malachi
5 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

That’s exactly the kind of moronic fluff I expect to wheeze out of academia.

BooneCtyBeek
BooneCtyBeek
5 years ago

I find that as I prepare for my Sunday message I’ll come across a thought or idea that someone has. “That’s a fine idea. It is a way of looking at this passage I’ve never thought of.” And then I’ll read how the person teases it out. Then I’ll think, “Well, look, here’s a place I think this goes. I wonder why they didn’t think of it.” And by the time I’ve scratched and scribbled, I don’t know quite where all these ideas came from. But I’ll put them together as coherently as I can and that’s the message for… Read more »

gerv
gerv
5 years ago

Doug wrote: At the center, plagiarism is a simple problem to identify, and the solution is to “not do that.” Let me challenge this foundational assertion, because on this all else hinges. The internet, specifically answers.com, tells me: “Matthew contains some 600 of the 666 verses of Mark, often using exactly the same wording in the Greek language.” Matthew does not attribute Mark as a source for his text. Is he therefore guilty of plagiarism, by your definition? If so, has God been committing sins as he caused Scripture to be assembled? Or was it just Matthew who was sinning?… Read more »

Malachi
Malachi
5 years ago
Reply to  gerv

Sins and crimes are often conflated.

Less confusion would come from aligning our civil laws more perfectly with God’s Law.

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago
Reply to  gerv

Gerv, all Scripture is God breathed. You are babbling about the scribes, and ignoring The Author.

gerv
gerv
5 years ago
Reply to  "A" dad

Are you saying that because God wrote all of it, he can’t plagiarise himself? That’s an interesting position, although I don’t think it matches the orthodox understanding of the dual authorship of Scripture. 2 Peter 1:21 – “prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” There is a clear element of human authorship in Scripture – and so if taking someone else’s words without attribution is always and everywhere a sin, and the human authors of scripture clearly did that, then they have sinned. The solution is to say that it is not,… Read more »

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago
Reply to  gerv

G e r v. 2 Tim. 3;16 says all scripture is God breathed. You are arguing against fact.
What God says, is “the solution”, not what you say.

gerv
gerv
5 years ago
Reply to  "A" dad

Hi, “A” dad,

I would encourage you to have a chat with your pastor or an elder about how to best relate the two truths that God wrote the Bible (“all Scripture is God breathed”), and that humans wrote the Bible (“prophets, though human, spoke…”).

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago
Reply to  gerv

I would encourage you to talk to God about the same! Perhaps The Spirit will instill in you, the plain and simple meaning of His Word, with no need of human, academic qualifiers.

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago
Reply to  gerv

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (CEV)
16 Everything in the Scriptures is God’s Word. All of it is useful for teaching and helping people and for correcting them and showing them how to live. 17 The Scriptures train God’s servants to do all kinds of good deeds.

Messengers and media are not the same as the message Its’self.

gerv
gerv
5 years ago
Reply to  "A" dad

But a message is expressed by messengers into the particular form in which you receive it. The books in the Bible reflect the personalities of the authors who wrote them, as well as the character of God. We do not believe, as the Muslims do, that God hands down his word from on high with the exact individual letters written on tablets of gold that the authors of the Bible merely copied. He communicates to us through particular people, so that the result is fully inspired, true and authoritative, and yet also reflects the character of the authors that wrote… Read more »

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago
Reply to  gerv

Again, Who is Lord over, and Who created individual personalities? Jesus is Lord over the message, the messengers and how the message is conveyed.
To put it another way, are you of Paul, or are you of Appllos? (Search the verse.)
Paul expressed God’s Words as God Ordained Paul to express them.