That's the point of this: not to "reveal" or "shame and blame" but to try and understand. So, I'm going to be intentionally vague about the particulars and give you just the facts. I'm also going to switch genders from time to time. I apologize if that gets confusing.
A while back, I wrote a short meditation and posted it to my blog. Almost exactly 13 hours later, I was alerted that it appeared on the FaceBook note page of another clergy person, in another diocese far, far away.
This clergy person is the rector of a large congregation and is also adjunct staff at a (non-Episcopal) seminary, teaching, of all things, homiletics.
No credit of authorship was given. Only two paragraphs were "adapted" to that particular person's setting, along with a few minor flourishes. For example, I had said something about going to "daily mass." That was changed to "Mass" - in quotes - a good Protestant distancing from something too obviously Roman Catholic for that priest's tastes.
Everything else, word for word, was my essay. Every. Thing. Else.
SooOOooo, after I took a few deep breaths, I wrote to said priest in a private message on his/her FaceBook page. I simply gave a link to my blog post and asked for an explanation.
About an hour or so later, I was telling Ms. Conroy about it and clicked back on the FB note page to show her. Lo, there appeared the following sentence at the top and bottom of the page, "by THE REV ELIZABETH KEATON, Chatham, NJ"
Yup. Spelled my name wrong and everything.
Mind you. I had not heard word one from said priest. I began to realize that the person was moving rapidly into panic mode.
So, I wrote back again saying, "But, I am not/wasn't in your diocese. You've just made things worse. I'm really trying to understand."
S/he wrote back saying, "I've now posted that this was 'adapted' from an essay written by the Rev Elizabeth Kaeton (spelled correctly and adding some superlatives and lavish compliments), and also written that in my comments so it will go to everyone who has read this piece. So, you have gotten credit."
At that point, there were 14 people who had commented on it, including the bishop.
I wrote back saying, "It's not about getting 'credit'. It's about 'theft'. You stole my 'intellectual property'. Even FB has a policy about that. Look, why don't you call me? Here's my cell phone number. I'll be up until midnight."
S/he wrote back, admitting to the 'theft', apologized and said s/he'd call.
She also took down her FaceBook note page.
I spoke to Ms. Conroy and a few very close friends, including my Spiritual Director. The group was evenly divided - half said I should write to the bishop and the dean of the seminary, the other half said to accept the apology and leave it at that.
I confess I didn't sleep well that night.
A little after noon the next day, the priest called. S/he was truly humble and remorseful, saying over and over again how humiliated and embarrassed s/he was, and how "You have to believe I've never done anything like this before and won't ever again."
I have no doubt.
I did offer the suggestion that since these things tend to take on a life of their own, that perhaps s/he should call the Bishop and have her/him hear the story "from the horse's mouth." I suspected things would go better if s/he did, rather than her/him hearing it from someone else. S/he said s/he would.
I also suggested that s/he tell the Dean. S/he repeated that s/he would talk with the Bishop.
I said something about being less concerned about the theft and more concerned about what was going on in his/her soul, and perhaps a conversation with her/his spiritual director might be in order. That passed without comment.
S/he thanked me for being gracious, and sincerely repeated his/her remorse. I told her/him I would pray for him/her.
And, I have. I can only imagine that what s/he has put her/himself through is far worse than any "punishment" that might be stored in the dark corners of my imagination.
I confess that I am still unnerved by this.
On the one hand, I suppose it is a compliment, right? "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," and all that. Oddly enough, I'm not flattered. I'm still flabbergasted.
Then again, I enjoy writing. I love words and I love the challenge of expressing something creatively. Sometimes, I get lazy, but mostly I really enjoy the process of expressing an idea or a thought - especially when it arouses someone else to think.
Furthermore, I am from the school of thought that says that when something like this happens, it is a message from the cosmos to look deep into my own soul.
So, I have.
Have I ever plagiarised? Well, I have taken a sentence or two here or there from an AP news report without crediting the source. So, yes. Well, but when an article doesn't carry a byline, it's easy to rationalize, isn't it? I mean, do I really have to say, "as the AP article reports".
Erm . . . okay. Yes, I do.
Have I ever taken a sentence or two here or there from a news report with a byline without crediting the source? Well, to be painfully honest, yes I have.
Did I feel guilty about it? Yes, a twinge here or there. Indeed, as I wrote my admission of guilt, I wanted to rush to say, "But, it wasn't an 'idea'. It was a descriptive sentence. Part of a report of the facts."
Theft is theft. Guilty as charged.
Has my guilt stopped me from being a repeat offender? No. Will it in the future? You bet it will.
Have I ever 'adapted' something - taken an idea and put my own spin on it? Yup. And, I have taken great pains to credit my source.
Have I ever lifted an entire article - word for word or even minor adaptations - and called it my own? No.
Many, many years ago, I did use most of a sermon preached by Barbara Brown Taylor, but I gave her absolute credit. From the pulpit. Before I even started. I said something like, "I want to preach to you today about _____, but here's what Barbara Brown Taylor says and I just couldn't say it any better than this."
"Nick". Sounds innocent enough, right. Not "stealing". Not "plagiarism". Goodness know, there is no paucity of images on 'google', seemingly free for the taking.
The above graph is from "Avoiding Plagiarism," Perdue Online Writing lab, which gives the following definition of plagiarism:
"In an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its source."So, yeah, I guess I plagiarize artistic ideas most every day.
Pot, meet kettle.
I suppose, then, that I shouldn't be surprised to learn how widespread plagiarism really is in this country.
In fact, the above graph comes from a podcast about a computer software program called "TurnItIn" which scans academic papers for evidence of plagiarism.
I'm sure there are many, many others, but I first learned about this program when I was writing my doctoral thesis. We were carefully instructed on the University's policy on plagiarism and informed that our papers would be submitted to this software before it was even allowed to be read by the faculty.
I must say, that was a pretty powerful deterrent. You can be sure I made absolutely certain that I footnoted everything to a faretheewell (What a royal pain in the behind! No joke!)
I'm told that in certain Methodist conferences, when the candidate for Elder ordination has to give their ordination sermon, it must be in a site with WiFi capabilities because there are folk sitting in the congregation who are randomly 'googling' key phrases or sentences to check for veracity.
Really? Yup, apparently so.
Which is one indicator, I suppose, that plagiarism really is a wide spread problem.
A clergy colleague told me that she was looking for a phrase that had appeared in the previous year's church newsletter. Imagine her surprise when she googled the phrase and up popped the newsletter of another church in a diocese far, far away. There it was. The same essay. Word for word. No attribution, of course.
Over the past few days, I heard one story of a woman from NYC who was a member of a congregation with a pastor who is pretty well known for his excellent preaching. She was visiting a friend in Texas and, while in church on Sunday listening to the sermon, suddenly got a sense of 'homiletical deja vu'.
Turns out, this pastor had taken the sermon whole from her pastor's web page and didn't bother to give him any attribution. Well, not from the pulpit.
Then again, several years back there was a rector of a major congregation here who's parishioner blew the whistle on his repeated, weekly plagiarism of sermons. His explanation to the bishop, as I understand it, was that he was, essentially, a CEO and didn't have time to write thoughtful sermons.
Besides, he reportedly said, "I print out all 'my' sermons and, on the bottom of the written page, I give full credit to the source." Not from the pulpit. But, only after it was delivered and on the printed page for distribution.
So, where is the line and how do you know when you've crossed it?
If it's true that there is no such thing as an 'original thought' does that mean that everything is, in one sense, plagiarism?
I don't know too many bloggers who credit the source of the artful illustrations that accompany their posts.
An interesting note: The very first illustration on this blog post came from an article about plagiarism. I don't know if the author of the post also created the illustration. He doesn't give it credit.
Is "everyone does it" an adequate rationale for this practice?
You can bet I'll be crediting more illustrations from now on, if it's at all possible.
I don't have any answers to this question. Well, I suppose I do. Bottom line, plagiarism is a lot like the famous definition of pornography: You know it when you see it. Or, do it.
And, if you know it, don't do it.
At least, that's my thought - original or not.