Feb 22, 2012

Our Weekend at the Cottage – a Metaphor for Plagiarism

by Keith Elford

Suppose that I invite you to my cottage for a weekend of relaxation and water sports and when you get there, you find this well appointed lake front summer home set in a picturesque rustic setting.  You enjoy the weekend.  However, you hear several weeks later that I have been arrested.  The wonderful weekend was a sham.  It was not my property.  In fact, I had stalked the owners, observed the patterns of their comings and goings and scheduled “my weekend” with my friends when I knew they were out of the country.

I open with this scenario to concretize the multi-dimensional impacts that are in play when a pastor plagiarizes material and uses it in either written or spoken communication. Plagiarism is not a new phenomenon.  Material from books and commentaries have been plagiarized by previous generations, but the ability to cut and paste wonderful resources made accessible by the internet makes plagiarism very easy and tempting.  And, the internet also makes it very easy for plagiarism to be detected.

What is plagiarism?  The Macmillan dictionary defines it as “the process of taking another person’s work, ideas, or words and using them as if they were your own.”   It’s the last eight words of the definition that need our special attention. The first part of the definition readily implies that other people’s work is available to us.  Often their work is novel, imaginative, gripping, insightful and just what one needs to make a point memorable in the audience’s mind.  It’s not wrong to use their material; in fact, using it is a compliment!  The ethical issues arise when we do not acknowledge something that is not original with us.

What are the ethical issues associated with plagiarism?  Using my opening scenario to concretize the topic, let’s think them through.  (But first, let me admit here that what follows is a summarization of material that I have read online.  Links will be provided below.)

Plagiarism is stealing.  The cottage was not mine to use.  In a premeditated way, I picked it out and decided to find a way to use it without being caught.  While the time frame on the decision to co-opt someone else’s creative work is only minutes compared to the amount of time required to “case” a cottage, the same choices are made.  It’s looking for something to steal and then deciding to do it.

Plagiarism is cheating – others and myself.  If I really want a cottage to share with my friends, I need to experience the healthy pride of ownership that comes from sacrifice and saving.  Plagiarism is finding an easy way to impress others – which is an issue of pride or an unhealthy need for approval or acceptance.  

When I take short cuts by being overly dependent on the work of others, this laziness indicates a lack of self discipline that will ultimately stunt the development of my own giftedness as a communicator. Even worse, if I do not myself read, reflect, enter into, and wrestle often with the story of the scriptures, I do not speak out of the fullness that comes with regular personal encounters with God’s word and my spiritual authority to speak God’s word does not mature.

Plagiarism is deception.  If you had found out that the weekend at the cottage was all a pretentious sham, you’d have some real misgivings about my character and would probably begin to wonder what else in my life is not as it appears.  No one likes to be lied to.  If I plagiarize, it’s sobering to think of the potential for cynicism about me and my ministry when my listeners, using a search engine, find out that “my messages” that were such a blessing were actually stolen off the internet.  Passing off other people’s work as my own is deceit. My listeners are deceived about my actual ability.  What’s more, if I persist and accept their applause for the stolen goods that I’m handing out, self-deception fed by narcissistic pride may take hold of my soul.

Admittedly, the questions of how and when to give credit are not easily answered.  Space does not permit the exploration of those important topics, but there are good discussions on this at the links listed below. 

Just for the record, I promise that I won’t invite you to a cottage that I don’t have permission to use.

For further reading, I would recommend the following helpful articles that are available online without joining online preaching resource sites:

When Do We Cross the Line into Plagiarism? (Collin Hansen, D. A. Carson, Sandy Willson, Tim Keller, Matt Perman, and Glenn Lucke)

Just What is Pulpit Plagiarism? (Ron Forseth) 

Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize – Understanding the necessity of citation and the damage of deceit (Thomas G. Long)

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