Justin Taylor, Senior Vice President at Crossway Books, joins us this week to talk about the badness of plagiarism. He and Matt get into an argument; hilarity doesn’t quite ensue, but a good time was had by all (we think.)

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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  • hoosier_bob

    Matt’s concerns seem to be misplaced. Plagiarism can occur on both sides of the idea-expression dichotomy, but the two are generally treated quite differently.

    When plagiarism requires the withdrawal of a publication, it is usually because the plagiarism occurred on the expression side of the dichotomy. Plagiarism of expression doesn’t merely involve republishing another’s ideas without attribution; it also involves republishing another’s very expression of those ideas without attribution. One cannot carry out this kind of plagiarism haphazardly. It occurs by intentional effort, and reflects a high degree of moral turpitude.

    Plagiarism of ideas is a much hazier area, as it’s rare that any given work contains more than a single novel idea (if even that). Saying something that echoes of O’Donovan’s general way of thinking is not plagiarism, as his general way of thinking is not novel. With few exceptions, most of his ideas are simply reformulations or reorganizations of others’ ideas. He may be a well-known modern-day prolocutor of those ideas, but that hardly cloaks those those ideas in the mantle of novelty. Besides, ideas that appear to be novel often aren’t. Schumpeter, for example, popularized the notion of creative destruction as a feature of the business cycle. But the basic concept had been an aspect of certain strands of Marxist thought for a century. So, while the idea of creative destruction is often associated with Schumpeter, it hardly originated with him.

    Plagiarism of ideas doesn’t bother me much, as it’s unlikely that the accused plagiarist failed to attribute an idea to someone to whom such attribution was actually owed. By contrast, plagiarism of expression is fairly serious. It reflects a serious degree of moral turpitude in the person who engages in it. In the legal profession, for example, a lawyer is likely to receive a much stiffer penalty for committing plagiarism of expression than for driving drunk. The former conduct reflects dishonesty, while the latter merely reflects poor judgment.

    • Philipp

      Well, it depends on what you mean by a ‘novel idea’, doesn’t it? As Whitehead observed, ‘The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.’ An amusing quip, and not all wrong, but it hardly does justice to Aristotle or Epicurus or Plotinus, let alone to their modern heirs. Demand a high enough bar for novelty, and you might well find that no ideas are actually new.

      Specialisation of knowledge is also worth bearing in mind. In many academic sub-fields, there are few or no new ideas–or at least none that would seem significant to a layman. But to a specialist, a particular re-combination of ideas might seem really new and significant, as might the cumulative effect of lots of small new observations about a well-studied phenomenon. This is especially true where scholarly approaches to overlapping bodies of evidence have diverged in different fields or in different countries/language areas. By the same token, the general tenor of scholarship in an area is often really just common knowledge, but it still behooves one to let one’s readers know whom you’ve been reading and who you think is really important to read, if they are to understand the intellectual status quo. To some degree, I wonder whether the practice of citation ought to be distinguished in isolation from plagiarism more often that it often is, inasmuch as citations are very often intended to perform purposes other, or in addition to, the attribution of clear intellectual debts. In an academic setting, their main purpose (apart from the pragmatic, social aim of signalling membership within an intellectual community) is very often simply to allow other specialists to follow the argument with a minimum of extraneous effort, and only secondarily to credit ideas.

  • Guest

    the thing about Handel is that, if we bear in mind the “average” way Baroque musical composition worked a fledgling composer generally self-published at his own expense on speculation with a flowery dedication to a prospective patron from the clergy or the aristocratic castes in the hopes of a retroactive gift, sinecure or actually decent desk job. Since the arrangement was more for services rendered than for necessarily a given piece of music it’s not clear that an appeal to 18th century arts and patronage dynamics corresponds to 21st century scholarship or even popular non-fiction.
    Justin Taylor seemed to be trying to make a case that the problem of self-plagiarism is that when author A is published by publishers X & Y there’s a breach of a trust relationship that’s possible.
    This is stuff to consider even if we take as given the viability of invoking the self-recycling tendencies of Baroque era composers as a comparison point to contemporary scholarship … and not everyone sees that as really all that compelling a point of comparison.