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A few thoughts on plagiarism

By Scott Tibbs, July 27, 2016

Please allow me to tell you a little secret: Everyone is guilty of plagiarism. There's not a single person on the planet who has an original thought and has not heavily borrowed from someone else. Everyone plagiarizes everyone else, so the real question is where plagiarism becomes something that is no longer acceptable.

We are all shaped by our experiences. Our parents, our siblings and our friends, along with what we read, watch and listen to all help us formulate our thoughts, our principles, and why we believe the way we do. We all use phrases in our everyday speech we have picked up from somewhere else. For those of us who write, those things wind up in our writings. Let's not pretend that using someone else's ideas is something that only truly abhorrent people do. We are all guilty, and there is nothing at all wrong with that.

Now, let me be clear: This is not to excuse egregious plagiarism. If a student copy-pastes whole sections of text from a website into his term paper, presenting it as something he wrote himself without crediting the author, he is guilty of severe academic misconduct and should be disciplined for it. A politician who lifts large sections of speeches from someone else without proper attribution should be publicly mocked and shamed. We all know there is a line where we are outright stealing someone else's work and we are morally wrong in doing so.

But let's all be honest here. Pastors freely use theological analysis from two thousand years of church history. Opinion writers consume hundreds of other opinion pieces and we craft what we have learned into our own arguments. Even the fact that we are able to speak and write is taking someone else's knowledge and using it as our own. My two-year-old son recently started saying "thank you" when given something and I was not sure where he got it from as I had not been working with him on it. Someone pointed out he probably picked it up from me thanking him when he does as he is told. That is a good kind of "plagiarism."

So yes, we should shame those who openly steal large blocks of someone's work verbatim and present it as "original content." In fact, it amazes me that any public figure would think he or she can get away with plagiarism, with the 24/7 news cycle and social media picking apart every single word someone says! But let's not pretend that we should all live in some sort of bubble where we are all producing only original context. That is not and will never be the case.