Pious Plagiarism


I have often said that I have never had an original idea in my life, but I'm content with that given that one of the wise teachers of the Bible tells us that there is "nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1: 9), and I know that I'm not bad at synthesising other people's ideas, recombining them into something that LOOKS vaguely original and creative (and as a friend pointed out to me today, one of my favourite screenwriters, Aaron Sorkin, is a creative magpie, stealing material wholesale from various sources which he then weaves into something wonderful). This has been true of my academic, theological and theatrical work over the years, and I'm generally very careful to attribute sources, particularly if I am lifting material verbatim. When I was in theological college I was frequently told off because my footnotes and references often outweighed the main text of dissertations and assignments, but this was probably caused by an awkward experience in my first degree at Edinburgh, where I was studying biological sciences.
My main subject was zoology, with a minor in psychology, and in one of my zoology assignments I was set the subject of writing on the selective pressures for altruistic behaviour. We'd been covering some of the same ground in a psychology module so I read widely and submitted a paper that I felt relatively proud of. I had even gone beyond some of the material I had read to offer a model based on "game theory", that I believed underpinned or explained a particular form of altruisic behaviour, known as reciprocal altruism, which could still be reconciled with the theories popularised by Richard Dawkins in his then seminal "Selfish Gene". I summed it up in some clever line (so I thought) about "If I scratch your back is there a good statistical probability that at some point in the future you will scratch mine." You're impressed aren't you! Well I was...
Or at least I was until I was summoned into my supervisors office and told that I would have to meet with the head of department and a small panel of other academics the next day to explain some significant plagiarism in my assignment. She didn't point out what they believed had been plagiarised but pointed out that it was significantly serious to warrant a written warning at least. I was absolutely devastated.
The very next day the psychology class was made up of a rescreening of a BBC Horizon documentary featuring the blessed Dawkins, entitled "Nice Guys Finish First" (it would later form a new chapter in the revised edition of "The Selfish Gene"). In that documentary he moved on from chapter 10 of the original version of the Selfish Gene which focuses on altruistic behaviour, under the title of "You Scratch my back, I'll ride on yours" and used almost, word for word, the same analogy re the statistical probability of backs being scratched, that I had used. I hasten to add that as a poor student in the mid 80's I didn't possess a TV and only ever saw TV at lunchtimes in the students' union, where it was permanently showing "Neighbours"... hence I had NEVER seen this documentary before. Some strange parallel evolution of analogy had occurred (OK not so strange, Dawkins had simply read the same papers as I had 2 years before me!) But I could not get out of that class quick enough... I got on my bike and cycled the 3 miles from the main campus to the Zoology Department at King's Buildings faster than I had ever previously managed, and camped outside my supervisor's office until I was able to explain what I thought had happened. Thankfully she bought my story and I was off the hook.
But from there on in I cited everything, even the slightest allusion to or origin of any idea.
However, some people seemingly don't have such scruples. In a piece in The Biblical World this morning I read of theogical seminary students who are paying someone to do essays and participate in online seminars for them.
Mind you, it is good practice for some... In former years I frequently heard William Barclay preach... or rather preached, as preachers lifted portions of William Barclay's Daily Bible commentary, lock, stock and barrel, without ever attributing it, and recently a colleague identified the online source of a student's entire sermon while on placement with them... and having told them this fact, he then did EXACTLY the same the next time he preached... (when scanning the internet for a suitable graphic for this piece I discovered that William Crawley had touched on this subject last year).
I use a wide range of material when preparing my sermons and Bible Studies, but I assiduously attribute sources and radically rework even the most comprehensive treatment of subjects, because not only do I believe Phillips Brooks famous dictum that preaching is "truth through personality" but also that everything must be understood contextually... both exegesis and application must take context into account.
But with both those seminary students and preachers who take short-cuts in this process, just who do they think they are fooling?
(Update 18th November. Today William Crawley picked up the story and links back to the original piece here.)

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