Forgive Us Our Shortcuts
• For several years, a handful of books by high-profile historians yielded unoriginal passages without reasonable attribution.
• This week a young conservative blogger for The Washington Post resigned for lifting, among other things, part of a movie review from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Plagiarism is theft. And let me state clearly that definition comes from The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Then let me ask, for the sake of discussion, what causes an artist already sailing on his or her own merit to run aground on someone else’s work?
The problem’s large enough now, or at least public enough, to have its own academic treatment. Not long ago, The New York Times reported on John P. Lesko’s new web journal Plagiary: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication and Falsification. Lasko’s site chronicles “the shades of plagiaristic gray” inherent in, among other things, copyright infringement in the arts and journalism.
While Lesko scours for deceit where it shows up, Timothy Dodd of the Center for Academic Integrity (Duke University) looks for its roots, pinning some of the blame on good ol’ American ambition. Dodd says, “This kind of winning culture . . . is causing a lot of people to take shortcuts, to over-invest in the chase for stardom.” According to Dodd, plagiarizers often justify their shortcuts as being for “the greater good.”
When I was a freshman in college, an upperclassman explained to me why a certain amount of cheating makes sense. Neither of us would use this political science information in our daily lives, he said; we were fulfilling a course requirement unrelated to our majors. Our parents signed away their hard-earned money to get us through school, and no matter how we aced this kind of class, we were respecting our parents by getting our A's and getting on with life.
At the time, all I knew was that I couldn’t go home with an unearned grade. Looking back, I can dust off Aristotle. He said we are what we repeatedly do. My Sunday school teacher taught me a similar truth. When we’re caught running a stop sign, she said, it’s rarely the first time we ran it.
The Apostle Paul strove to keep his conscience clear “before God and man” (Acts 24:16). In a letter to the church in Corinth, he condemned secret and shameful ways. He was in the business of presenting The Word without deceit or distortion, and through plain truth to “commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).
Writers, like all of us, are flawed. It is easy to talk about integrity, believe in it even, until we feel threatened or face a difficult deadline. Up against the inevitable temptation to take a shortcut, we have two good resources to warn us from pursuing secret and shameful ways: 1) headline stories, and 2) God’s high call to a clean conscience.