WHAT IS PLAGIARISM, ITS PENALTIES AND HOW TO SHUN IT?
There is so much dishonesty nowadays and one area it is very glaring is in the area of writing. People indiscriminately copy other people’s works and pass them off as theirs. The internet makes it easy to get ready-made material on almost every subject but what those who copy forget is that other people have access to the same material they are stealing.
“Stealing?” you ask. Yes, stealing. When you take someone’s work and claim that it is yours, that is stealing. It is called plagiarism. And there are consequences for such stealing as there are for other forms of wrongdoing. People have lost important positions and attracted indelible opprobrium to themselves because they were caught plagiarising the writings and speeches of others.
In this post, we look at accusations against one famous plagiarist to throw more light on the issue, underscore the need for Christians to eschew plagiarism although it is rampant today, break down what constitutes plagiarism to enable writers avoid it, stress the application of its rules to both formal and informal writing as well as its penalties and how to cite the works of others.
A Famous Plagiarist
In discussing famous plagiarism cases, yourdictionary.com cites the 46th US president, Joseph Biden as an example:
“Joe Biden has fallen foul of plagiarism several times throughout the years. He failed a course when he was in law school because he plagiarized a paper. According to the New York Times, Biden stated that he had ‘used five pages from a published law review article without quotation or attribution’ in an article he wrote for the Fordham Law Review. In 1988, Biden was forced to withdraw from the presidential race due to plagiarism allegations. Some of his speeches were taken from speeches made by the Kennedys, Hubert Humphrey and Britain’s Neil Kinnock during his campaign against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.”
Even now as president, he has been plagiarising his predecessor Donald Trump’s populist policies, like, “Buy American, Hire American,” even though his immigration policies subvert those very policies.
Why Christians Should Particularly Shun Plagiarism
You may not be famous like Joe Biden but you will never attain respectability as a writer if you habitually copy from others without acknowledging or crediting them. This applies whether the work in question is published or not. And if you get emboldened in doing this, one day you will be slammed with a copyright suit when you start profiting from people’s works that you copied and sold in your own name. That is human nature and the Bible describes this tendency in these words:
“Because the sentence against evil deeds is so long in coming, people in general think they can get by with murder.” – Ecclesiastes 8:11 (MSG)
I really like the way the Message Bible translated that verse above, murder representing heinous offences. When people think they can get away with plagiarism (which is an ethical violation) because most people are not punished for it, they are likely to graduate to piracy- reproducing and selling other people’s works without authorisation, whether in their own name or the original author’s name.
Christians have no business getting involved in these kinds of violations because we represent the Lord Jesus who is the Truth (John 14:6). When a Christian decides to play with evil as the world does, God comes after them with His bulala (whip) to correct them. He might overlook wrongdoing from an unbeliever because He sees them as not knowing their right from their left (Jonah 4:11), but not so for a Christian because you ought to know better and teach others to flee from evil. By playing in it, you bring a reproach on the name of God as Paul censured the Jews in Romans 2: 17-24.
Besides, it hurts to have your work plagiarised, especially when the person involved financially profits from the theft. To have people ascribe your coinages to another, to see that person bask in the glory after you sweated to produce a work is heart-breaking. We should remember the teaching of our Lord Jesus on the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12)- to do to others as we would like them to do to us-.and not visit that pain on others.
What Constitutes Plagiarism?
It’s important to clarify what amounts to plagiarism because some people may be inadvertently committing the offence due to ignorance of the actions that can make someone culpable for it.
1. Using other people’s exact words in your work without including them in quotation marks and citing the source
Quotation marks are used to enclose direct quotations- material lifted verbatim from elsewhere. When you cite the source and omit them, you give the impression that you have rephrased what the other person said in your own words. When you don’t cite the source, you are taking the credit completely.
In fact, any lifting of several consecutive words from a source (some style guides say as little as three words) should be marked off with quotation marks. Such brief quotes are called partial quotations. So, it is wrong to think you can lift portions of people’s works as long as they are not full sentences.
It is also wrong to use someone’s work and just say “Copied” at the end, rather than giving credit to the source, something that should be done at the top to let the reader know right away you didn’t write that stuff.
2. Rewriting people’s works without giving them credit
Another erroneous impression some people have is that if they rewrite a piece of work, they are exempt from the need to acknowledge the source. Wrong!
Whether you paraphrase, transpose or summarise the contents of another’s work, you are still duty bound to cite them as the source.
3. Passing off material that you don’t know or can’t recall its source as yours
That you can no longer remember where you got something is no reason to claim it as yours. That something is lying around with no clear owner doesn’t make it yours either. You can say, “Source unknown,” in informal writing or “Anonymous” for material that has been cited as such by others. In academic circles, the title or part of it is used in place of the unknown author while citing such material.
4. Republishng your old work as new
This is called self-plagiarism and it mostly concerns professional writing. While you can use what you wrote in the past, you ought to cite it from the previous publication, not pretend that it’s brand new. You can quote yourself, yes! But you shouldn’t present what you previously published or portions of it under a new title to give the impression that it’s another work. Sometimes, people fraudulently do this to multiply the number of their works- they just rehash and repackage what they already have to give the impression they are prodigious writers.
Plagiarism rules apply in formal and informal writing
Whether you are writing a book, an academic paper for a conference or publication, an assignment for school, a social media or blog post, the rules for plagiarism are the same. Some people feel that anything on social media can be appropriated at will but there is such a thing as social media plagiarism as Think Marketing Magazine points out.
The penalties and modes of citation for formal and informal writing may differ, but the writer needs to scrupulously separate what is borrowed from what is theirs to avoid accusations of plagiarism.
What do I mean by penalties and modes of citation differing?
In academic circles, plagiarism is considered a grievous offence with specific penalties attached for lecturers and students like:
***the loss of lectureship position
***tainting of work records that prevents future academic employment
***loss of promotion
***withdrawal of degree or other certificates
***expulsion from school
***tainting of academic records that makes admission into other schools difficult
***suspension from school
***repetition of class
***failure of courses
***reduction of grades
While many schools may not always follow through with all these punishments, one needs to be careful not to be made an example of.
On informal fora like social media, there are no stipulated penalties. Yet, the culprit may, in addition to the public humiliation of being exposed, suffer a loss of trustworthiness that may result in job loss, a limiting of employment opportunities in their professional field and a scuttling of their public aspirations, like seeking leadership positions. It all depends on how widely publicised the offence is and public mood at the time.
In terms of citation, academic bodies have rigorous citation guidelines compiled in style books for use by professionals in their field. For example, in Mass Communication as in other social sciences, we use the American Psychological Association (APA) Style which is regularly updated. Any academic paper written must follow the guidelines both in in-text citation (i.e within the work) and the References at the end. Other disciplines have their own styles, like the Modern Language Association (MLA) Style used in the humanities, the Harvard and the Chicago Styles.
No one writing informally, say on social media, is obliged to follow the detailed professional citation guidelines, but mentioning the name of the source and on occasion the work from which the material is lifted is essential.
If you habitually do this in your informal writing, you will not need reminding to do it as required in your professional writing. And you’ll have the satisfaction that whatever accolades you get for your work are well-deserved.
Copying other people’s work is really a waste of time and easy to expose. There are times when I have read a book or article and got suspicious. With just a little internet search, I have discovered where the bulk of it was copied from. I’m talking about the first page of my search results, right at the top- and usually it’s from Wikipedia. There is also plagiarism checking software to catch offenders with.
Instead of wasting time copying others and damaging your reputation in the process, pray for wisdom before you write. Then do some research and acknowledge the sources you find helpful.
That way, God will help you find your own voice, your message and unique way of delivering it. That will be infinitely more fulfilling than producing patchwork as content after copying and pasting material from a variety of sources or stealing wholesale from one source.