Justin Taylor, executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway, then shared five lessons from this incident:
- 1. You cannot be too careful when taking notes. Some people plagiarize intentionally, but it often comes from not being careful.
- 2. Booth is wrong about exact wording of dictionary definitions being excluded from plagiarism.
- 3. Publishers, authors, teachers, and students should be aware that detection software exists when in doubt: e.g., http://www.ithenticate.com/
- 4. Some, especially those without academic training, simply haven’t been taught what plagiarism is. Here’s a start http://www.plagiarism.org/plagiarism-101/what-is-plagiarism
- 5. Plagiarism, intentional or not, is literary theft, and it should be repented of as such.
Justin kindly agreed to answer three questions about plagiarism for my readers:
1. What is plagiarism?
“Plagiarism” involves using the original and specific wording or arguments of others without acknowledging the source, thus giving the impression that they are original with you.
2. Is plagiarism sinful?
In most cases, especially in the culture and context of the contemporary Western world, the answer is Yes. When done deliberately, I believe plagiarism is sin—even if you don’t know that it is sin. It is an act of …
- theft (you have stolen someone else’s intellectual property),
- deception (you have given the impression that you have created something you did not),
- pride (you want to get credit for something for which you do not deserve credit),
- harm to neighbor (you don’t want someone else to get credit for something for which they deserve credit), and
- laziness (you have not done the harder work of producing original material or acknowledging where your material came from).
But we can go too far with this accusation. Plagiarism is not always black and white (there can be gray areas), and some errors are unintentional mistakes (a footnote can be accidentally deleted, for example).
There are also, I suppose, cultural and contextual factors to consider. If I am giving a devotional to my family at Christmas, it would be highly distracting to cite the sources for every point I might wish to make. And yet even there, I would not read a Tim Keller quote and pass it off as my own.
3. How do I prevent plagiarism?
The first step is to use common sense. We can unnecessarily fixate on the gray areas and lose sight of the big, clear principles. When I worked for John Piper, I once discovered online (!) a pastor’s sermon manuscript that was virtually verbatim from Piper’s. He only changed things like “the beautiful Minnesota sunset” to “the beautiful California sunset”! He humbly repented when confronted, and he explained that this is what he was taught to do in Bible College, but I still can’t help but think he had to know deep down this was wrong and deceptive.
Second, if you copy exact wording into your notes, you have to put it in quotes and include a reference. The reason I say “notes” here and not “final version” is that many of the unintentional problems occur because a writer might go back to old notes and not realize it was actually from someone else.
Third, develop the habit of only including quotes in your work that are especially memorable or incisive. Many students (and authors) are prone to include too many quotations.
Fourth, remember that common knowledge doesn’t need a citation. The Purdue University English Department helpfully suggests that you can tell something is “common knowledge” when (1) you see it undocumented in at least five other sources, (2) you think it’s something your readers will already know, or (3) you think it’s something your readers can easily discover using general reference works. So, e.g., the sentence “C. S. Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland, on November 29, 1898” is in the category of “common knowledge”—and really, there are only so many ways to express this fact, and it does not need a citation. Saying that Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a powerful preacher does not need a citation. But if I said, “In the pulpit he was a lion, fierce on matters of principle, austere in his gravity, able in his prime to growl and to roar as his argument required”—I would need to show you that it was J. I. Packer who first said that, not me.
Finally, take the small amount of time to do a little reading on plagiarism, how to cite sources, etc. (You could start with this website). Remember that ignorance is not an excuse and that failure in this area can lead to failing a course, being dismissed from a school, fired from a job, and other unpleasant consequences.
4. You tweeted, “Booth is wrong about exact wording of dictionary definitions being excluded from plagiarism.” And you say above, “Common knowledge doesn’t need a citation.” How do you harmonize those statements? [I asked this question to Justin on 12/12/2015.]
The problem is using exact and specific language and syntax without attribution. For example, conceptually the definition of bulverism and its origin may be “common knowledge” (though actually I doubt it!), but if you quote the exact words from a dictionary without indicating that, then you are giving the appearance that these are your words. If it’s common knowledge, why would you need to copy and paste the exact wording? Why couldn’t you define it in you own words?
If I say that an apple is a fruit that grows on a tree, with red skin on the outside and a core on the inside, I’ve expressed a common-knowledge definition (I wrote it off the top of my head). But if I say an apple is “the round fruit of a tree of the rose family, which typically has thin red or green skin and crisp flesh,” then I am relying upon the more technical formulation that someone else wrote, and I should acknowledge it as such.
Perhaps this question is a good test case: Is it possible that someone could read your definition and then cite you as the person who originally wrote that definition? You could solve most of the problems by rewriting or paraphrasing rather than copying and pasting.
Update on 12/12/2015: Doug Wilson writes, “Right now, I simply want to acknowledge what happened, and take responsibility for all that I can.” See his post “The Names on the Cover.” I respect him for how he is handling this sad situation.
- Using and Abusing Sermons (TGC’s warning in 2008)
- Collin Hansen, “TGC Asks: When Has a Preacher Crossed the Line into Plagiarism in His Sermon?” (December 19, 2010)
- Jonathan Leeman, “What’s the Big Deal with Plagiarizing Pastors?” (December 11, 2015)
- Nick Batzig, “Plagiarizing and Quoting in Preaching” (December 29, 2015)