The American Copy Editors Society is organizing a National Summit on Plagiarism and Fabrication , which will take place on April 5, and this has led a number of people to start thinking about plagiarism issues in advance of the event. One of the more interesting contributions to the discussion has been Roy Peter Clark’s “ Why we should stop criminalizing practices that are confused with plagiarism ,” at Poynter.org. Clark argues that discussions of plagiarism in the field of journalism are often too loose to be helpful. Clark’s argument has led to some interesting discussion at You Don’t Say and Language Log .

One of the longstanding questions about plagiarism is one with which many First Things readers might be quite familiar, at least indirectly: plagiarism in homiletics. The advent of the printing press made sermon publication very easy and, at the same time, delivering a sermon written by someone else very easy. So if someone does this and does not attribute it to the original source, and if we take “plagiarism” to mean “morally problematic copying without attribution,” does this count as plagiarism? I’m inclined to think there is nothing problematic about it, because homilies are not an area of life in which originality is especially important, but you can easily find people on both sides of the issues today.

You could also find people on both sides of the issue in the eighteenth century, when large-scale publication of sermon series began to take off. One person who had to deal with the question directly was Laurence Sterne. Sterne often gave other people’s sermons, and his own published series of sermons includes a great many that are clearly other people’s sermons reworked to various degrees. He was criticized for it, and this is probably what led to what is arguably the most famous literary passage on plagiarism ever: Volume 5, Chapter 1 of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman attacks plagiarism in words that are themselves plagiarized from Richard Burton.

I’ve often thought myself that we would do better to stop thinking in terms of whether something counts as plagiarism and instead consider the underlying reasons why it’s problematic. There is no reason to think that what is problematic in one field will be problematic in another, and, indeed, reason to think that this will often not be the case. Copying becomes problematic when things like money and reputation are on the line; that is, it becomes troubling when it can endanger the incentive structure of the field in question. There are, however, many fields where copying does not do this. Nobody cares whether laws have original language or not; we so take for granted that politicians don’t write their own speeches that we are surprised when they do; and entire fields of folk art are based on swapping ideas in ways entirely inconsistent with any concern for plagiarism.

In any case, my view is a stronger view than most people usually accept; more people are likely to take the approach that Clark, following Richard Posner, takes. Whatever one’s view, it does seem that we need to think more critically about what we are actually criticizing when we talk about plagiarism, and why.

Articles by Brandon Watson

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