Writers need to be careful about plagiarism

Oct. 15, 2016 | by Ken Walker

With the presence of the Internet, social media and video cameras on every street corner, we live in the kind of world where it feels like we’re all being watched. In a sense, we are. Nowhere is that more evident than in the area of plagiarism—the unauthorized taking of another person’s work without permission or due credit.

Years ago, I wrote a newspaper story about pastors who engage in such practices, although there are often some very fine lines involved. For example, pastors can take another pastor’s sermon, add commentary, scriptural references and insights of their own and turn it into a new sermon. As long as they attribute the source of their inspiration, they haven’t crossed any ethical lines.

Software checkers

When it comes to columns, books and other written materials, accusations of impropriety surface regularly. I still remember one of my favorite syndicated columnists getting dismissed by his employer for lifting material from someone else. Though I’m not sure, I figured the situation may have been prompted by the demands of continually churning out readable copy for a national audience. That doesn’t make it right, but unless one has faced such situations, you can’t understand the pressures involved.

I also remember the flap that erupted several years ago over one of former Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll’s books. I never had time to fully investigate the allegations, but I do know that in any project involving multiple researchers and sources, mistakes can easily happen.

However, there are enough instances of unauthorized plagiarism that I recently read in my professional editors’ group email that there is software available to double-check manuscripts for duplicative uses of published works.

I’m assuming that’s how one author wound up getting several books withdrawn from publication in recent months by two different publishers. One statement said that while they didn’t think he intended to misuse secondary sources, his research and writing practices rendered clear instances of plagiarism. In the interest of maintaining high standards, it withdrew the books for sale and shredded the remaining stock.

Unjust accusations

I have always sought to be honest and credit sources from an article, book, or web site for anything I write, including Church Central and my own site. So it was quite ironic that a couple days after reading about this unfortunate author I got a notice from an agency accusing me of unauthorized use of a client’s photograph and demanding payment.

When I saw what they were citing, I got a bit puzzled. The offending picture was connected with a story I wrote for a magazine more than three years ago (and I had long ago taken down the hyperlink to it).  

One business associate advised me they were simply fishing for dollars and to ignore them. Another suggested I contact the magazine to see what they had to say, which is what I did. At the moment, the matter isn’t resolved but I hope it will be soon.

The reason I share this story is to warn any would-be authors who think they can get away with grabbing a paragraph or two from someone else’s work, or a funny cartoon they found online, and think no one will notice. With countless parties trolling the Internet for the sole purpose of generating cash, the chances are they will. If that happens, you will have more headaches on your hands than just trying to sell copies of your book.

Topics: Commentary, Leadership, Ministry, Teaching Resources

Ken Walker

An experienced freelance writer, co-author and book editor, Ken Walker edits blogs for several contributors to Church Central and has coached various bloggers for the site. A member of the Christian PEN (Proofreaders and Editors Network), he has co-authored, edited or contributed to more than 50 books. You can see samples of his work or ask about his services as a writing coach by going to http://www.KenWalkerWriter.com or by e-mailing kenwalker33@gmail.com.


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