plagiarism and sin redux

A guest post by Natalie Swann.

I freaked out a bit after my more-provocative-than-I-had-intended post on plagiarism and sin. More people than I expected read the post and some people I respect have had some contrary things to say.

So, while I freaked out, I Googled “plagiarism is not sin”. Mostly, I got articles about plagiarism being sin. Oops. But on page 2 of the results I came across this NYT article by Stanley Fish, ‘Plagiarism is not a big moral deal’.

It’s a really good article and you should go and read it. I did. 3 years ago.

It shaped my consciousness for tutoring students about the rules of the citation and referencing game. And then life happened and I forgot the article, but remembered its lesson.

And I didn’t acknowledge it in my previous post.

So I’m on the fine edge of what my own university would call plagiarism — although I’m not sure Prof Fish would mind.

In light of the conversations I’ve had on- and off-line (I’m looking at you Hugh, Simon, Jo, Heather, Marty, Toby, and Rob), I need to make a concession: theft is always socially constructed.

In some places it is OK to help yourself to veggies on a public plot, or a deer from crown land. In other times or places it is not.

And so, because of contemporary understandings of Intellectual Property, plagiarism constitutes theft and it is probably rightly called a sin.

Prof Fish puts it like this:

“Of course every sin is learned. Very young children do not distinguish between themselves and the world; they assume that everything belongs to them; only in time and through the conditioning of experience do they learn the distinction between mine and thine and so come to acquire the concept of stealing. The concept of plagiarism, however,  is learned in more specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a  few; it’s hard to get from the notion that you shouldn’t appropriate your neighbor’s car to the notion that you should not repeat his words without citing him.”

But I want to stick to my guns for two reasons.

First, what does (and does not) count as plagiarism isn’t self-evident.

All this talk of plagiarism as a sin makes it seem like the ‘rules’ are obvious when really they are actually quite complicated:

“If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game  you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no. But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you … that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.”

My own University, the University of Melbourne, provides guidelines for students here. According to these guidelines, plagiarism included “copying ideas, concepts” (like I perhaps have done by not citing Prof Fish earlier) and “presenting as independent, work done in collaboration with other people (eg, another student, a tutor)” which seem to me about as clear as mud.

For example, I have never cited — and I have never seen anyone else cite — a tutorial conversation in an essay. And yet the purpose of a tutorial (at least, in the social sciences) is to collaborate and help students learn to think in disciplinarily acceptable ways. So shouldn’t our students be citing their tutorials?

Ultimately, if the church writ large is going to cry ‘Plagiarism!’, I think we need to be more explicit about what is and isn’t considered OK.

Is it OK to use someone else’s ideas uncredited in your sermons? It would certainly break the flow. Are preachers more like politicians or academics in Prof Fish’s example above?

Is it OK for a pastor’s partner — let alone research assistants and ghost writers (who at least get paid!) — to make significant uncredited input to sermons or written work?

Second, Intellectual Property (as we know it) is a relatively new invention and not necessarily the way things must be.

Calling plagiarism a sin threatens to blind us to this — and stop us imagining other ways of doing it.

Maybe IP is a really great idea. But maybe there are alternatives that the church should be championing.

There is certainly movement in some academic circles to make research open access. Surely it’s even more important that good theology gets out there?

Beyond that, maybe we should ask ourselves: Do Christians really think knowledge belongs to individuals?

I can’t help but feel it’s a perfect example of the interdependence of the church as a body.

And I would be excited if, in light of Pastor Driscoll’s transgression, we could have a conversation about the theological imperative for something like Creative Commons licencing and Open Access.

Admittedly, both Creative Commons and Open Access still value appropriate attribution. But both movements point us towards more collaborative and interdependent models for sharing knowledge. And I find that attractive.


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