Sunday, 1 May 2011

What Constitutes Plagiarism?

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
In light of all the blogs people maintain these days, and with all the thoughts and ideas going back and forth over social media sites, I sometimes find myself wondering about plagiarism. What constitutes plagiarism? By saying that, am I also saying that I tend to plagiarize? Certainly not! At least not consciously, and that’s what I want to talk about. How are we to define “plagiarism” in our modern e-world?

Let’s start with the dictionary. Plagiarism is, according to the Gage Canadian Dictionary, “an idea, expression, plot, etc. taken from another and used as one’s own” [L. plagiarius, kidnapper]. I think we all get that. However, here’s my question.

Most of us who will read these words are likely well-read people. Many of us have also dabbled, to some degree or another, as writers. The problem that arises from this is that, unless we carefully document thoughts every time we read, the more we read the more we also lose focus as to just where ideas and thoughts originated.

For example, if you’ve been to this site before, you will no doubt have noticed that I have often blogged on various issues pertaining to what we sometimes call the “institutional” church. Having said that, from where did I get the idea of a church being “institutional?” Ultimately, I would argue, the idea came from a revelation of God. OK, so how then does God reveal things? Could not at least part of His revelation to people come from the writings of others? I’m sure we all would have no problem with that concept. God’s revelation comes through His Holy Spirit, through His written Word (the Bible), and through His people who have been called by His name.

If I consciously know that something I am writing comes from someone else, I will certainly give credit where credit is due by quoting the source. Likewise, if I am using a saying or quoting an idea that I’ve heard before, but which I haven’t a clue as to where it came from, I will always list its source as “unknown.” In these cases, to fail to do that, I think would make us guilty of plagiarism. But what if we unconsciously say or write something that originated with someone else? Are we then plagiarists for that which was unconsciously written or spoken on our part?

You and I obviously did not write the Bible. Still, how many times haven’t we quoted Scripture, orally or written, without giving precise references? When the Scriptures are taken to heart, we don’t always quote book/chapter/verse. We may even paraphrase, but when we do, does that make us plagiarists? No, it doesn’t. In a written document, it may make us guilty of violating a copyright somewhere (unless we’re specifically quoting the KJV which has no copyrights), but not of plagiarizing.

So if we have embraced a concept or idea that we have read from someone else’s writings, does it not then likely also become a part of who we are? In such a scenario, we are no longer aware of where this concept or idea came from originally; it becomes a part of our subconscious. Then, if it becomes a part of our very nature, of our subconscious, are we then plagiarizing if we then also use that thought or concept later on in something we may either say or write ourselves? That is the question I’ve been asking myself.

For me it all boils down to that which was done intentionally versus unintentionally, with pure motives versus impure motives. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8). “The Lord looks at the heart,” says 1 Samuel 16:7. That’s good enough for me. If I have peace in my heart concerning these things, and have not deliberately mislead anyone, then I have not been guilty of plagiarism.

So what are your thoughts? Have I missed something here? What constitutes plagiarism in your books?


  1. Will,
    Great thoughts... but I think you plagiarized CS Lewis!

    Just kidding. You are absolutely right. None of us have any truly original thoughts. What we think and what we write is usually just an odd collection of things we have heard or read from someone else.

    The way we put these ideas together may be unique.

    Either way, it's not plagiarism. I really like this post and what you wrote.

    Thanks for the comment on my blog about this post! I enjoyed reading it.

  2. Thank you Jeremy. I appreciate your feedback. Blessings.