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.
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.
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.
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.
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.