20 December 2010

Plagiarism in the Church: How Big a Problem is it Really?

This post started out as a reply to a Collin Hansen post on this subject.  I found out about Collin's post by reading Justin Taylor's blog post.  I located Taylor's post by using Google Reader, where I follow him, among others.  (There, now I can't be accused of doing what I'm writing about!)

Some time ago, a few years after I wrote my doctoral dissertation, I was interested in trying to find out if anyone had used my work in any further work.  I entered a few phrases in Google, and was surprised how many hits I got from people who had used my words, but clearly hadn't seen my dissertation.  I know they hadn't seen it, because their work was published before mine was.  I know I didn't use their work, because in the process of writing a dissertation, one becomes pretty familiar with the research he or she is consulting (for those who have written one, you will appreciate the humor of the understatement, I hope).

So, do this little experiment yourself-

Take a phrase, sentence, or a few sentences from something YOU have written that you KNOW you did not plagiarize or borrow from another source…something original to you; and ideally, it should be something you have not published or made public.

Now, Google it.

Except for rare instances, you’ll be surprised at how many ‘hits’ you get. How? If you didn’t steal it, and it wasn’t published for others to steal from you, how did others use your original words?

I think there are several factors in play.

First, we are talking about a finite body of information (the gospel). Within the limitations of a language, there are only so many ways to say what the gospel is. There are bound to be repeats.  I'm talking here about unintentional, chance-based used of similar language.

Second, and this is probably the biggest factor, our memories are not like video tape…they are dynamic. We hear things, and then repeat those things, sometimes years in the future, without realizing where the thoughts came from.  We think these are original thoughts, but they are original only in the sense we have processed them in our minds and forgotten their genesis.  (It makes one wonder if there is truly any original thought...how are we to know that no one in history has ever thought what we are thinking?)

Third, in combination with the second factor above, the internet has made it possible to put almost any thought in writing in a public venue. In the past, we had a lot of unoriginal thoughts (though we didn’t realize it) and they passed through our minds, or were even spoken in public, and nobody noticed. Now, when we repackage an idea we think is original but is in fact something we heard in the past, we put it in a permanent, written format, and put it online where the net bots can quickly find it. This makes the (unintentional) problem more noticeable.

Finally, a rhetorical question: If we express what we understand to be the gospel, do we OWN that material? If not, how can the use of that verbiage be called theft if someone else uses our words?  If you believe that you DO own that material, what does that say about the gospel?  There was recently a series of posts over on the Resurgence blogs about copyright and Christian music intended for use in worship.  It was thought-provoking, though I don't know that it went far enough at times.  (Personally, I believe that if one writes worship music, markets it as worship music, and then profits from it above and  beyond ones costs, he or she is going to have a tough argument to convince me he or she has not robbed God by committing some form of usery against His people.  This isn't a fully-developed idea by me yet...I'm working on it.  I may be wrong. But it bugs me, deeply, to think that a gathering of believers, singing a song together to praise God, may be breaking the law by not paying a license fee to some organization.)  I wonder how much of that applies to sermons and Sunday School lessons?

There is certainly a large gap between intentional use of someone's thoughts and the mistaken regurgitation of an idea we heard long ago but don't really remember isn't original with us. But motives are hard to judge. I would urge caution before accusing someone else of plagiarizing your work, at least until you’ve tried the little experiment I mentioned above.

1 comment:

  1. Certainly the kind of thing you talk about can happen. But I have a friend who recently did his doctoral thesis on pulpit plagiarism, and he pretty convincingly shows that the wholesale use of another person's sermon (without admission that this is what is being done) is widespread.

    As my friend points out, this is not just dishonest, but it betrays a lack of belief in the power of God to work through his word faithfully preached, believing instead that it is "the right words" that are important.


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