Plagiarism: Flattery or Fraud

Posted on August 26, 2012 by

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Aristocratic Romans began education early in their children with the use of private tutors.[1] Historian Robert Wilken goes on to explain that even a certain “style of speech” was essential to embrace early on, so that there was no “style” to unlearned later in life.

To give a sense of the aristocratic educational processes of the mid-first century AD, Wilken writes:

[…] Roman education consisted chiefly of the study of rhetoric, the skill an enterprising young man would need most for a life in the law courts or a position in the civil bureaucracy. Grammar, recitation, analysis of classical literary texts, imitation of the great styles […].[2]

Such learning would include tremendous repetition.

That is probably why the Latins are attributed with the old saying: Repetitio mater studiorum est. Translation: “Repetition is the mother of all learning”.[3] After enough repetition, imitation is bound to appear – intended or otherwise.

It would stand to reason that at some point imitation must give rise to personal stylistic variations and the development of a unique voice. Still, one might hear the echo of a common saying: “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery” (QuotationsPage.com).

Nevertheless, not all imitation is flattery is it? Especially the kind of imitation which goes by the name of plagiarism. Dictionary.com denotes the term as:

[A]n act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author.

Unfortunately, despite the constant emphasis for academic responsibility, plagiarism appears in our educational institutions and academic organizations.

With the time of the year upon us where educational pursuits are reinvigorated by the rush of “back to school”, we thought it timely to address an issue which affects the school house as well as the church house.

The Issue of Plagiarism

If a dictionary definition does not bring home the problem of plagiarism, perhaps synonyms will provides some focus and sharpness to our understanding. Phrases such as “piracy”, counterfeiting”, and “passing off” (Dictionary.com) should be pointed enough to stress that this act is “literary theft” (Thesaurus.com).

A few years ago, ABC Primetime’s Charles Gibson spoke to many college students regarding cheating and plagiarism. One student interviewed said, “The real world is terrible […] People will take other people’s materials and pass it on as theirs. I’m numb to it already, I’ll cheat to get by”.[4]

It is unfortunate when Christians use equally transparently flawed reasons for intellectual dishonesty. The Christian ought to have an aversion to plagiarism out of sheer principle that we ought not to be thieves or robbers (Exod. 20.15; 1 Pet. 4.15).

This ethic would extend beyond physical property to include intellectual property as well. “Sticky fingers” is not supposed to be a part of the “worthy” calling of God (Col. 1.10; Eph. 4.1). And yet, it no longer a shock to this author when it occurs “even in religious circles”.[5]

It is an amazing thing that some operate under the impression that they can provide a sort of ‘wave-of-the-hand’ acknowledgment to another’s work, while copying line-after-line of material, without the common use of appropriate grammatical devices which indicate the identity of the real author.[6]

The goal to expand the knowledge of humanity is never deterred by documenting the sources used and borrowed – “whether facts, opinions, or quotations”.[7]

Why Plagiarize?

I suppose there are many reasons for the seductive temptation to take the words of another to employ them as though they are yours: need, laziness, lack of creativity, tight schedules, arrogance, etc. “Convenience, quick turn around and other elements are also factors”, says J. Bailey, a victim of plagiarism.[8]

The action is, however, thuggish. It has been observed that “plagiarists chose their victims in much the same way and they often do so with much less skill than the common mugger chooses theirs”.[9] Would anyone, including a child of God, want to be considered a “mugger”?

There are two New Testament terms of significance here.[10] (a) Thieves (kleptes) operate by means of “fraud and in secret”; likewise, (b) robbers (lestes) obtain what is not theirs “by violence and openly”. The plagiarist resembles both of these terms.[11]

Joseph Gibaldi, author of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, observes:

Using another person’s ideas, information, or expressions without acknowledging that person’s work constitutes intellectual theft. Passing off another person’s ideas, information, or expressions as your own to get a better grade or gain some other advantage constitutes fraud.[12]

It has been a painful thing to read the work of fellow classmates, and the work of others, only to discover that the words and research they employ are not their own – but that of others.

Not only has “intellectual theft” and “fraud” occurred, but blatant deception as well. Since liars, the greedy, and thieves will not be welcomed in that eternal abode (1 Cor. 6.10, Rev. 21.8), why plagiarize? There is no spiritual advantage. Frankly, there is no advantage at all.

Concluding Thoughts

It may be argued that plagiarism is not the worst thing “out there”. One might be tempted to agree, but the practice of hi-jacking the words of another robs one of learning and personal development. More importantly it reflects a sinful disposition which must be rejected.

The truth of the matter is that it is an ethically deficient habit which not only hurts others but also ruins the trustworthiness of intellectual thief. It is a tragedy that some either do not know the courtesy of citing where they learned their information, or are too lazy to follow through with it. We strongly encourage our writing brethren and friends to refrain from literary theft.

For our friends who are in the spotlight we submit this brief warning from Wayne Jackson:

Every writer should remember this. Once he has compromised his status as a serious student and a researcher of integrity, he will forever be suspect. Whose material are we reading—his or someone else’s? It behooves the Christian to be honorable in all things (Romans 12:17).[12]

Sources

  1. Robert L. Wilken, 1984, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press), 2.
  2. Wilken, 1984, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 2.
  3. Amanda Moritz, 2011, “Repetition is the Mother of all Learning,” Brainscape.com (May 6).
  4. A Cheating Crisis in America’s Schools,” ABCNews.com.
  5. Wayne Jackson, 1997-2012, “Hank Hanegraaff and the ‘Christian Research Institute’,” ChristianCourier.com.
  6. Jackson, 1997-2012, “Hank Hanegraaff and the ‘Christian Research Institute'”.
  7. Joseph Gilbaldi, 2003, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 6th ed. (N.Y.: Modern Language Association of America), 142. Cf. Wayne Jackson, 1997-2012, “Advice to Aspiring Writers,” ChristianCourier.com. Jackson writes, “I have observed some writers quote line after line—even consecutive paragraphs—from other authors with no credit given whatever. Or, sometimes significant portions of a writer’s material will be “borrowed”—word-for-word with no quotation marks—but with some sort of generic acknowledgment added at the end. Literary “plastic surgery” is unethical. One never detracts from his own scholarship by giving proper acknowledgment to those from whom he has learned.”
  8. Jonathan Bailey, 2011, “Why Plagiarism is not Flattery,” PlagiarismToday.com (May 23).
  9. Bailey, 2011, “Why Plagiarism in not Flattery”.
  10. Cf. Jovan Payes, 2011, “Such Were Some of You (5)”, Livingstoncoc.Wordpress.com (July 3).
  11. Richard C. Trench, 1894, Synonyms of the New Testament, 12th edition (London: Paul, Trench, and Trubner), 157.
  12. Gilbaldi, 2003, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 66 emphasis added.
  13. Wayne Jackson, 1997-2012, “Ethical Guidelines for Writers,” ChristianCourier.com.
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