When It Is and Isn’t Plagiarism

The problem of plagiarism by pastors and Christian writers is a real one, though I think it’s less widespread than some believe.

From time to time, I’m reminded of how common it is for people to believe a writer or speaker stole his or her material. Sometimes material is indeed used word for word without crediting the source, and this is unethical. But other times, people assume an idea or material has been stolen when it isn't the case.

Mark Twain wrote, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

Had I written the preceding words myself, without putting them in quotation marks and crediting Twain, I’d have been guilty of plagiarism. Had I stated the essence of it in my own words by saying “No thoughts we have can be entirely original,” that would be okay, particularly because many others have made similar observations. However, if I went on to develop Twain’s words in any similar way to his, I would need to credit him, saying something like, “To paraphrase Mark Twain…”

Were I to merely change little words here and there, altering “it is impossible” to “It can’t be done,” but still speaking of a “mental kaleidoscope” or “curious combinations” or “same old pieces of colored glass,” and if I failed to credit Twain for these distinctive phrases, I would still be plagiarizing even if the majority of the words were different than his. I would be guilty of what’s called “mosaic plagiarism.”

I just rewrote Twain’s words while retaining all three of those distinctive phrases and submitted it to an online plagiarism checker. It didn’t catch them. A student, writer, or speaker might or might not get away with this kind of plagiarism, but it would be dishonest nonetheless. If you are building a distinctive flow of thought based on someone else’s words, it’s like taking someone else’s painting, changing some things, adding some colors, and then signing it as if you were the original painter. You weren’t.

Plagiarism is a major problem with college students.  Over 50% of college papers contained material plagiarized by the internet. Sadly, as I’ve written about before, plagiarism is even a problem among some pastors, in terms of their sermons and written materials for the church. (In this article, Don Carson, Tim Keller, and a few others address the problem of plagiarism among Christian leaders.)

Years ago someone contacted our ministry because it appeared I had plagiarized a nationally-known preacher’s words. They had read The Treasure Principle and informed us that part of it was identical to what they had heard from this popular preacher. It turns out fifteen minutes of his message were taken word for word from my book, four whole pages of it without attribution. His ministry had then published that message in a book that accompanied his messages. Since she read my book after hearing his message and reading his booklet, it’s understandable why she wondered if I had stolen his material. Fortunately my book had come out years before his message and booklet, so it was easy to prove the original material was mine, not his. (He later apologized to me, which I appreciated.)

However, the talk about the serious sin of plagiarism has helped cultivate a suspicion that’s sometimes unhealthy.

For instance,  there's a very popular book, written by a pastor that says much that’s a paraphrase of, and occasionally nearly word for word, from portions of my book Money, Possessions and Eternity. I may or may not have been the only one to notice, but one day I won’t be surprised if someone reads my book and thinks I stole the material from him. But the truth is, I love this man and believe he was significantly influenced by my book and didn’t realize the extent to which he had drawn his thinking and words from it. That doesn’t offend me, as I’m glad he’s reaching many people who will never read my book. The brother wasn’t plagiarizing; rather, he’d taken some of my words to heart and in turn they became his.

Sometimes in my own writing I say something not identical to C. S. Lewis or A. W. Tozer, but close enough that I’ve needed to give them credit even though my words were different. And I’ll bet I’ve written things that without me knowing it are close enough to Lewis, Tozer, Francis Schaeffer, John Piper, Charles Spurgeon, and others that if I’d realized it, I would have given them credit. Unawareness isn’t the same as plagiarism.

HeavenWe should be cautious in our assumptions. People have told me how parts of my book Heaven are very much like N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, his book on Heaven and the New Earth. I use many of the same quotations he did. But his book came out several years after mine. This isn’t plagiarism at all. Dr. Wright just saw and liked some of my research (he emailed me saying he’d read and appreciated it) and then he quoted the same sources I did. Many of these he probably found in his original research, just as I did. Maybe he got some from my book, and if so, I’m delighted. I certainly got a number of great quotations from the 140 books on Heaven I read!

When I see a great Spurgeon quotation in someone's book and then quote it, I don't say “Here’s a quote from Spurgeon which I got from Phil Yancey who got it from Chuck Colson.” I just go find it in Spurgeon’s original message or writings, and cite the original source. It’s not plagiarism to quote someone whose words you first saw on Facebook or Twitter, but you better attribute it to the original person and double-check the words (they’re often wrong on social media).

I used an illustration once that someone told me was from a book of Max Lucado’s, but it was one of his books I hadn’t read. The story was one I’ve heard a number of times, and first heard as a teenager from Pastor Marden Wickman, my first pastor. Max never said he was inventing the illustration, nor did I. But the person wondered why I wasn’t attributing it to Max. Any time I’ve gotten something from Max that I didn’t hear somewhere else first, I’ve quoted Max. That’s why my books are so loaded with quotations—I want to make sure I give credit where it’s due.

Someone wrote me twenty years ago to tell me my novel Deadline was obviously based on a book he’d read, so why didn’t I acknowledge that? He told me the author’s name and the book title, both of which I’d never heard of. I tried to find it and couldn’t. I only wish I’d written it down so I could hunt it down now (easy with the internet), read it and find out how much Deadline was actually like it.

I’ve been told by several people that an illustration a particular speaker uses is an obvious adaptation of my dot and line illustration. But if so, so what? He’s read some of my books but likely doesn’t even remember me talking about the dot and line. And honestly, did I come up with the dot and the line, or did one source, or perhaps many, help implant that concept in my mind years ago? I have no doubt several similar illustrations have been used. One time I read a message by Charles Spurgeon in which he uses a distinctive illustration that Jonathan Edwards used. Spurgeon, a voracious reader who read Edwards, likely got it from him. He wasn’t plagiarizing; he just didn’t remember where it came from.

There’s been a movie and several songs called “An Audience of One” written since I first used that term in several of my books in the early 1990s. I have no idea whether anyone read those books, but I do know the expression wasn’t original with me. I remember reading an obscure book, I have no idea who wrote it, and there was a passing phrase used by the author, and it was either “the audience of one,” or something similar. I loved the phrase and started using it in my books. Some have gotten it from me, others have gotten it from whoever I got it from, and he probably got it from his pastor, Sunday school teacher, or another! So to whom does it belong? Certainly not me!

It would ruin a book to start by saying, “Here’s an expression I got from a book by Randy Alcorn, who got it from somebody he doesn’t remember.” I’m not going to start saying, “Here’s a thought that’s a hybrid of Spurgeon and Lewis, and John Owen and G.K. Chesterton said something similar (and who knows who they got it from, maybe from Paul, who got it from the Holy Spirit).”

In fact, when an insight comes from God, why should it surprise us to think that thousands of others have come up with the same idea?

I’m part of an online writer’s group where this comes up often. A movie or made-for-TV drama comes out and one of the writers feels as if it was taken straight from their novel. I know several writer friends who say entire television series match their novels in startling detail. In many cases the ideas and terminology are uncannily similar.

Sometimes there is theft, no doubt about it, but often people living in the same culture at the same time and being exposed to the same media, books, and movies, simply come up with the same ideas, illustrations and sometimes even, on a small scale, the same wording (though not four pages of it). :) This is often labeled, in creative circles, “It’s in the ether.” These are thoughts and ideas that seem to be “out there somewhere” and tapped into by multiple people. Here’s what Jim Banister says:

Many ideas simply bud simultaneously and spontaneously in multiple minds separated by vast distances. Some even argue that once a thought is manifested, it’s in the “ether” and available to anyone else in the world tuned to pick it up. Most of us have had the experience of thinking up something we believe is totally original and saying to ourselves, “Wow, that’s a great idea. I should do it.” Then you proceed to let that idea slip to the back of a closet in your mind only to see the “invention” appear in the marketplace one, five, ten years later, produced by some enterprising individual who tapped into your ether channel (or so we’d like to believe). [1]

I remember when writing Heaven “coming up” with the illustration of feeling like you're leaving the party early when you're dying, when in fact you're actually arriving at the greater party in Heaven early and everyone you love is going to follow you there. But had someone come up with this idea before I did? I’d wager they did. In all probability that illustration could be found in books written long ago. But as far as I know, I never read them. So if it’s a good illustration, why wouldn’t have someone come up with it before I did? Even when something is “sort of” original with us—that is, we didn't get it directly from someone else—it certainly doesn’t mean we were the first person to think of it!

It reminds me too that if I allow someone to heavily or directly influence me, I should be sure to say that. But the truth is, I’m sure I’ve written many things that were indirectly influenced by countless writers I’ve forgotten. When you read thousands of books, as I have, each book is like another bucket of water thrown into your mental reservoir. You draw from that reservoir every time you speak and write.

Most of us are influenced by dozens if not hundreds of people, and much of what we say isn’t original. It’s impossible to even remember when or where we heard some things. No doubt I say countless things that were influenced not just by famous authors but by obscure sources, and not only from books I’ve read and messages I’ve heard, but from personal conversations.

My policy is to credit a large number of people in the acknowledgments, knowing some of my thoughts and perhaps even specific words come from them, even though I don’t recall who said what. For sure, whenever I know I’m using someone’s words, even if they are unpublished, I always give them the credit. In the case of illustrations, I may have heard them from others or come up with them “independently” (always a relative term since I’ve been influenced by thousands of others).

I once heard a pastor preach who was almost paranoid about citing every source, to the point it was distracting. By all means, quotations should be credited. But when you use the ancient illustration of freshwater Sea of Galilee having an outlet in the form of the Jordan River, which flows to the Dead Sea where there is no outlet, and therefore no life, there is no need to try to find the source! Nearly everyone has heard that and knows you didn’t make it up.

Here are my suggestions if you think any writer or pastor is taking credit for things that originated with you or someone else you’ve read or heard:

  1. Don’t assume the worst. It’s very possible they thought of these things independently, even if others thought of them before they did.
  2. If the specific wording is drawn from someone else, and it’s more than, say, ten identical words, point that out and send them a link to whatever someone else wrote. Keep in mind that it may well be the OTHER person who took those words from the person you’re writing to! OR the person themselves thought the words were original with an editor or researcher assisting them in the project—therefore, they may be guilty of failing to double-check or of taking credit for what they thought were the words of someone assisting them. That is its own ethical issue, but it is not plagiarism, which is the theft from someone else’s product.
  3. When it comes to illustrations and ideas, realize that many people come up with similar things on their own, and even those they’ve heard from others are often “public domain” in the sense that after decades of use by multiple people no one knows for sure who they originally came from. (For example, I’ve tried to find the original source of the story of the engineer whose son was crossing the railroad tracks and the man switched the tracks resulting in saving hundreds of others, but killing his own son. I couldn’t find a clear indication of who the original source was.)

[1] Jim Banister, The Word of Mouse: New Age of Networked Media (Chicago, IL: Agate Publishing, 2009), 193.

Photo: Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries