Someone brought something to my attention recently. A young woman on our staff came across a talk, given by a pastor, on a church’s website.
It was my talk.
He had delivered it, largely verbatim, from a manuscript purchased on the ChurchandCulture.org website. There was no verbal attribution ever given. Perhaps most egregious was his telling of my personal vignettes as if they were his own.
She dug in to a few more, and found that almost every talk for the last two and a half years had been one of my talks.
I called him on the phone, and we talked about it. To his credit, he wasn’t defensive, but repentant.
Then it happened again this week. Someone stumbled on to a talk on a church’s website, and it was one of my talks.
Again, almost completely verbatim.
This is serious. A pastor of a large church in our city lost his job when one of the members of the church heard a talk on the radio by a well-known radio preacher. The pastor had given the same talk earlier that week in the church, without attribution. The member told an elder, the elder looked into the matter, and discovered a pattern of plagiarism.
What are the “rules” of plagiarism for communicators? I’m not sure we know, because they aren’t as spelled out as they are in the academic world. But I think we can – or at least should – agree to the following ten commandments:
The Dos and Don’ts of Plagiarism
1. Do take inspiration from another person’s talks.
2. Do allow yourself to be informed by another person’s research.
3. Do feel free to quote another person, tell their story, use their outline, and repeat memorable phrases with attribution.
4. Do buy mp3s and manuscripts of speakers to grow as a communicator as you listen to their style and structure.
5. Do borrow ideas for series from other speakers and churches.
6. Don’t ever use another person’s creative outline without attribution.
7. Don’t ever use another person’s unique insights without attribution.
8. Don’t ever use another person’s stories without attribution, and never, ever go even further and tell it is as if it happened to you.
9. Don’t justify plagiarism by trying to spiritualize it with “it’s all for the Kingdom” or “it’s not really theirs, because God gave it to them” kind of statements. That is true of everything, such as our property, yet God says “Don’t steal.” That includes intellectual property, too.
10. Don’t let the abundance of online resources keep you from doing spadework on the Scriptures, exertion on the exegesis, and prayer for the pulpit, that makes for anointed talks.
In truth, there is little excuse for plagiarism. It’s so easy to give attribution in a flowing, natural way. If you have listened to many of my talks, you know how common it is for me to start off a talk or series by saying, “My thinking has been informed on this by...” or “I’m indebted throughout today’s talk to...”
I’ve started many a sentence with, “Philip Yancey tells the story of…”, “John Ortberg writes about this in a funny way…”, “Andy Stanley talks about this in terms of…”, or “C.S. Lewis once observed that…”
The point is that good communicators borrow material all the time.
But ethical ones let you know where they borrowed it.
James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.