Swiping my words.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 August

Christians play really fast and loose with plagiarism.

Years ago I taught junior high. Various subjects: History, literature, grammar, science, bible, algebra. Sometimes ’cause the other teachers weren’t up to teaching those subjects; sometimes despite the fact they really wanted to teach those subjects, but I’m more qualified. (That’s a story for another time.) Anyway, I made the kids write. A lot.

Often in class: I’d give ’em an assignment which needed to be completed during classtime. I had an ulterior motive, which they didn’t always suspect: I wanted to learn how they wrote. Partly to work on improving it… and partly to catch ’em when they plagiarized.

’Cause time would come when they had to write reports. And when they did, I’d seen enough of their writing to immediately detect whether they wrote it personally, or not. I mean, it’s fairly obvious when they lift entire paragraphs from the encyclopedia; suddenly they were writing at a collegiate level, with vocabulary words I knew they didn’t know. But the internet has all sorts of writing styles.

Some of the dimmer bulbs in my classroom didn’t really try all that hard to disguise their plagiarism. They’d cut and paste directly from the website. Wouldn’t bother to change the font. Wouldn’t even bother to get rid of the hyperlinks. I kid you not: They’d turn in papers with blue underlined links to other webpages.

When I was in junior high, the teachers went a little too easy on you: Plagiarism would get you knocked down a grade or two. In high school you’d automatically get an F. I figured my kids oughta learn this lesson early, before it ruined their high school grade point averages: I also adopted a zero-tolerance policy. Plagiarism meant an F. I’d let kids redo their papers for better grades, but once you plagiarized, you were stuck with that F. No exceptions.

Now when I handed the graded papers back to the kids, I’d usually put ’em on their desks myself, and face-down. ’Cause it’s nobody else’s business what grade they got. Unless of course they made it everyone’s business… as one of ’em once did in one of my science classes. Loud enough for all to hear: “Hey, what’d I get an F for? I worked hard on that paper! Why’d you give me an F?”

Oh so we’re gonna have this discussion in front of everybody? Very well then.

Me. “You got it for plagiarism. You didn’t work hard on that paper. You cut and pasted from the internet.”
She. “I did not.”
Me. “Oh come on. You didn’t even get rid of the blue underlined links. It says on your paper, ‘Click on the link to see the animation.’ What am I supposed to click on?”
Rest of classroom. [hilarity]
Me. [miming trying to click on a sheet of paper] “Doesn’t work.”
She. [getting redder and redder]
Rest of classroom. [more laughter]
Me. “Don’t tell me it wasn’t cut and pasted.”

And I dropped it and changed the subject.

Yeah, I’d have fun with the kids when they tried to pull a fast one. Well, it was no fun for them. But they had no idea I’d done worse when I was their age. Kids rarely recognize teachers were once their age, and tried the same stunts they had. Or that years of previous students had tried such things too. I knew exactly how to catch the kids who never thought they’d get caught. I know I didn’t catch all of them—I let a few of ’em slide, ’cause you gotta pick your battles.

But plagiarism was definitely a battle. ’Cause it’s such an easy thing to avoid: Credit your source! Put the statement in quotes, and say who said it.

Back in high school I once wrote a science paper which was almost entirely quotes. I went to the library, wrote a few dozen quotes from three different astronomy books onto index cards, sorted them into a fairly coherent order, and the few parts I personally wrote were only there to link the quotes together. I barely wrote anything. But I followed the rules: I didn’t plagiarize, and named my sources. Got an A. I told kids all the time: The rules are easy. But kids’d break ’em anyway.

Years later, in grad school, I was working on a paper (or blogging; don’t remember; either way writing was going on). One of my hallmates, an undergrad, angrily slammed his door and stormed down the hallway.

Me. “What’s wrong?”
He. “Got an F on my [incestuous participle] history paper. The [same word] professor says I [his vocabulary wasn’t diverse] cheated.”
Me. “Did you?”
He. “No. I wrote the whole thing myself. I just quoted someone and didn’t give them credit.”
Me. “So, plagiarism.”
He. [look of “You’re on THEIR side”]

He disappeared from the school after that semester. I’m guessing he flunked out.

But here’s the problem: That’s just school. Once you graduate from high school, university, and graduate school, and go off into the “real world,” unless you’re in academics, journalism, politics, or publishing, nobody cares.

Yep. People plagiarize to their hearts’ content, and nobody calls ’em on it. That is, till they publish something which makes them rightly liable for a lawsuit. Then they might get sued or fired. But most of the time they totally get away with it.

Happens all the time among Christians, in the church. That’s who rips me off, anyway.

This is all copyrighted, y’know.

I write The Christ Almighty Blog, a site for Christians who wanna get serious about our religion. Most of the articles are resources for these Christians. It’s for them to read, free, on the internet. I don’t charge for it; I barely advertise on the site.

If people wanna quote me, or print out the articles, or repost stuff on their own websites, I don’t mind… so long that they give me credit. ’Cause everything on TXAB is copyrighted. At the bottom of each page is the copyright statement. Some of you might’ve read it. Some not, ’cause that’s not why you came to the site. Who goes to websites to read the fine print?

But yes, I didn’t do the Creative Commons thingy. Thought about it, but in the end decided against it. I wrote ’em, I accept responsibility for ’em, and declaring ownership rights makes it so other people don’t abuse them. It’s meant to cover your butt as well. If you quoted one of my pieces, and I got something wrong—or if I offend anyone, or my words otherwise cause problems—people will know whom to blame, and it won’t be them.

Here’s the problem: Christians plagiarize. A lot.

Like that hapless undergrad, some of ’em aren’t entirely clear on what plagiarism consists of. Nor care. All they know is they’re looking for content to post on social media or their own websites. Or they’re looking for stuff to stick in their sermons. They stumble across TXAB, find something useful, figure they can read it for free so it must be free, and swipe it.

Not that they’re disguising it as their own. But they’re not saying they got it someplace else, and if that’s the case, what do people assume? Right—that they wrote it.

Fr’instance I wrote an article some years ago about biblical history. It still gets tons of hits on Google, ’cause it’s one of the few articles which explains the subject in easy-to-understand terms. No surprise: A lot of seminarians have swiped it for their term papers. I know this ’cause some of ’em had their abstracts published with my wording in them. I don’t know whether they lifted my entire article, or just used a sentence here or there; it doesn’t matter. If they get a book contract, they’re getting sued. I don’t care how few people ever read their books: If I wrote a chapter for them, it’s only fair I get a cut.

For another instance. Someone pointed me to an interfaith church’s website which lifted a whole section of my “Go to church” article. That church believes some very different things than I do, so it’s kind of an odd setting for my words. But the section sorta works in any religion’s setting, so I can see why they were swiped. Even so, it’s plagiarism.

Most of the plagiarism actually comes from pastors who lift my ideas for their sermons. They’ve been doing this ever since I first started blogging. See, I go to the trouble of researching my stuff, as every Christian should. But we all know there are pastors who slap together their messages Saturday night (or even Sunday morning!), and their “research” consists of no such thing; of grabbing facts from any sources they can find. Might be their study bible’s notes, or Wikipedia, or bible commentaries. They don’t references their sources; it’d slow down the preaching. (Not that this is a valid excuse, but still.) My stuff gets tossed in the mix, and I’ll get quoted verbatim.

How do I find out about it? Simple: The sermons get turned into podcasts. Transcripts are made. Some pastors have their assistants edit these transcripts into books, which is how these pastors “find the time” to crank out a slew of books. And of course none of their facts get sourced.

I own a 122-year-old copy of D.L. Moody’s Notes from My Bible. It consists of all the notes Moody wrote in the margins. He got ’em from various sources; he admitted this freely. But he didn’t keep track of the sources, and since his record-keeping of them was so spotty, he didn’t include any in the book. Couldn’t be bothered.

It’s a common practice. A rotten one. ’Cause Christians are passing off other people’s work as their own cleverness. Maybe they realize it’s theft; maybe they don’t, and don’t care. But they should care. Even if they can read it for free on the internet.