What Is Plagiarism?

I stumbled across a helpful article on plagiarism that I thought I’d share in light of my previous post highlighting an egregious example of plagiarism. It’s written by the folks at Desiring God. I commend it to you.

The only issue I have with the article is that it is potentially misleading on what it means to paraphrase. Here’s the second of three items they list that entail plagiarism:

Paraphrasing another’s words without acknowledging the author whose words you are restating. In other words, if you do not quote the person verbatim but instead just change a few words and do not give credit, you have committed plagiarism.

The problem is that “paraphrasing another’s words” is not the same as “just chang[ing] a few words,” as the above statement seems to imply. (Perhaps the authors didn’t intend to imply that, but why introduce the concept of “chang[ing] a few words” unless as a means of explicating paraphrasing in the previous clause?) If all you do is change a few words, even if you have given credit to the author, you have still plagiarized. Paraphrasing involves using different words and syntax so that the mode of expression is clearly yours, though the thought is still clearly the author’s.

The reason that “just chang[ing] a few words” is and should be considered plagiarism, even when the source is cited, is that by accepted practice paraphrasing gives the author credit only for the idea, not for the mode of expression. (Quoting gives the author credit for both the idea and the mode of expression.) So your readers will think that you were the clever one to come up with the particular way of saying it, even though in reality both the idea and the expression of it belong to the author.

That minor quibble aside, it’s well worth reading.

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7 Responses to What Is Plagiarism?

  1. Justin Taylor January 16, 2009 at 12:32 pm #

    Thanks, Phil. Matt Perman and I wrote that several years ago. You’re right about the ambiguity. I guess we were using a fairly loose (i.e., improper!) meaning for “paraphrase.”


  2. Phil Gons January 16, 2009 at 4:33 pm #

    Thanks for the note, Justin. Helpful article. Minor quibble.

  3. Anon January 16, 2009 at 7:32 pm #

    So what if your pastor is guilty of plagiarism? Confront him…I know. So he stops for awhile and then goes back to doing it. Then what?

  4. Ted Hans January 17, 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    Thanks Phil for your thoughts on plagiarism – much food for thought. Those of us who study a lot and preach should be careful about this. Stealing and ministring in God’s name do not go hand to hand together.

  5. John May 3, 2009 at 12:44 pm #

    Sorry I’m late, but plagiarism hasn’t occurred when credit is given: it is when it hasn’t been given that’s plagiarism; in that case it’s quoting (when same words), near-quoting when slightly different (unless the words are changed to modify the thought), and paraphrasing when expressing the same statement in one’s own form, own expression. Plagiarism only occurs when the credit isn’t given: when it is, i’s not plagiarism. Spurgeon way back decided to be a little provoking once, actually,preaching that Christians must remain on the old paths, and so preached that we must be “the ultimate plagiarists”: once when he went and sat in a Church taking a Sunday off and letting another preach when he was depressed the minister…preached his Sermon, and he met the man (who freaked) and in tears forgave him saying all he knew was that the sermon reminded him how he was a great sinner, Christ a great savior, etc. etc.! Some pastors I’ve known of are very much against preaching anything from anoter unacknowledged, and also doing that habitually even when acknowledged, but they’re fine with such so long as they do their own study but might perhaps occasionally use another’s materials acknowledged, perhaps even all of it if truly appropriate or edifying (reminds me of the Reformation when various Catholic monasteries started reading Reformers’ writings in their meetings openly, which converted many, dissolved asceticism, set guys like Casiodoro de Reina afire to true belief and he even translated the Bible into Spanish afresh.

    Where due we give credit, where the demands of the text a preacher must just deliver, but without being plagiarists, we must be the great plagiarists of that old truth venerably passed-down to us in Scripture! : )

    • Phil Gons May 4, 2009 at 8:04 pm #


      Your view doesn’t seem to be supported by the standard style guides. Here are some selections from Turabian’s 7th ed.:

      Never paraphrase a source so closely that a reader can match the phrasing and sense of your words with those in your source. (42)

      You paraphrase appropriately when you represent an idea in your own words more clearly or poiedly than the source does. But readers will think that you cross the line from fair praphrase to plagiarism if they can match your owrds and prahsing with those of your source. (78)

      [E]ven if you do cite a source accurately, you still risk a charge of plagiarism if you use the exact words of the source but fail to identify them as a quotation. . . . (348)

      I’m curious how you’d defend your view that “plagiarism hasn’t occurred when credit is given” when you are “near-quoting” (i.e., neither quoting nor paraphrasing an author). Is this your own novel opinion, or can you cite style guides that support your view? The problem with your view as I see it is that using someone else’s wording and syntax without giving them credit for the wording and syntax is taking credit for something that doesn’t belong to you, which is communicating a falsehood to your readers and is thus plagiarism and sin. A quote gives someone credit for the idea and the expression. A paraphrase gives someone credit only for the idea, while claiming originality of expression. If there is indeed a tertium quid, as you argue, then how are your readers to differentiate between when you are paraphrasing (and not giving credit for the expression) and when you are “near-quoting,” as you put it (and thus giving credit for the expression)? The only way I can think that this could be accomplished is by explicitly stating this on every occasion of paraphrasing and “near-quoting” so that your readers know to whom credit is due. This seems to me to be an unaccepted, non-standard, clumsy, and unnecessary practice.


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