• Hughson T. Ong

Faith and Plagiarism: What You Need to Know

Updated: Aug 18, 2018

Plagiarism is a common problem in academia today. It is defined as taking other people’s ideas and work, and then using and passing them on as one’s own. In this digital age, virtually every piece of information can be accessed and obtained through the internet. Some will argue that any publicly-obtained information through the internet, because it is publicly available, cannot constitute plagiarism. I disagree.

Let us take plagiarism in education, even Christian education, as an example. There are two typical problems that relate to plagiarism in educationthe first concerns students, the other scholars, even established scholars.

Let’s begin with plagiarism among students.

Students have always asked me, “how do you know that something is common knowledge enough that citing without documenting it would not constitute as plagiarism?”

I’ve always responded that, when you use someone else’s words or idea (or even suggestion or opinion) that is new to you, regardless of where you took it from—whether from the internet or the library, and regardless of whether it is common knowledge to everyone, acknowledge it.

Plagiarism isn’t just an ethical violation, but it’s a moral issue, an honesty issue. It’s an issue that concerns the integrity of the individual person more so than their professional or academic practice. In other words, one shouldn’t avoid plagiarism for the sake of not getting caught. Rather, one shouldn’t plagiarize because it’s their moral obligation to do so. This seems obvious, yet it remains a common issue that teachers deal with regularly.

For instance, when you begin to research on a new topic, it is expected that you acknowledge virtually everything you’ve taken and used from your sources, because they’re new to you. Here are some easy steps.

  • State that you are summarizing the view or argument of someone at the beginning of your paragraph and document the source in the footnote.

  • State that your discussion of something is indebted to someone in the footnote.

  • State that you have taken the idea from a conversation with someone in the footnote.

  • Footnote everything that is not your own work or idea—it is totally okay to have a dense footnote on every page of your paper because it shows proper and thorough research. Footnotes are the perfect place to acknowledge and document your sources.

The key to avoid plagiarism is to make your conscience clear that you are not stealing someone else’s intellectual property. So, to answer this first question, anything you learn for the first time is obviously not common knowledge for you yet, so you need to acknowledge your source to avoid plagiarism. To many, this would seem pedantic, unwise, artless, or excessive—I’m not surprised! For many people today, lying has become their second nature.

Consequently, students have asked, how do I avoid the charge of plagiarism?

Good question.

For scholars, this is a typical, unspoken precaution most of them take in their writing and professional practice.

It is probably a noble precaution, but, as I’ve argued above, plagiarism is an honesty issue. So, it is unnecessary to ask the question, “how can I avoid the charge of plagiarism?”

I’ve been in academia for quite some time now, and I’ve noticed that the risk of plagiarism and the instances that you’ve actually plagiarized becomes higher the longer you’ve been in scholarship. Consider the following questions:

  • How many times have you taken and used ideas from the students’ papers you’ve read and marked that you eventually made and published as your own ideas without acknowledging it?

  • How many instances during conversations did you suddenly get an idea that originated from somebody else, or was given to you in a conversation, that you have taken and implemented as your own project without giving due credit to the resource person?

  • How many times have you rehashed an idea or work, restated it, and weaved it in the arguments and content of your work that you have not acknowledged your source?

These are real temptations of an established scholar. So, what do you do? Well, the answer is simple. Understand that plagiarism is an honesty issue and be honest with yourself—that’s it.

So what does plagiarism have to do with our faith? Well, honesty is a sign of genuine faith. Therefore, when we are dishonest, it defeats the entire purpose of the Christian work or ministry you’re doing, even though we are successful outwardly. This was a problem John wrestled with his congregation in the first century: “If we claim to have faith and yet act dishonestly in the dark, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 Jn. 1:6).