Andy Crouch’s Tragic Minimalization of the Very Serious Offense of Plagiarism

In Christianity Today Andy Crouch writes

… As for the unattributed copying in the church’s Bible study guide, by “Pastor Mark Driscoll”: this was, without a doubt, improper use. But rather than tar it with the explosive word plagiarism, with that word’s connotations of intent to reap rewards by presenting others’ work as one’s own, why not simply call it a mistake?  A mistake that needed correcting, to be sure. But plagiarism? Let’s give the research assistant who was at the time writing under the name “Pastor Mark Driscoll” a break….

No, let’s not.   Whether the plagiarism was Driscoll’s doing or the deed of an assistant it was, and is, and remains, plagiarism.  Mr Crouch may not understand the significance of passing off someone else’s work as one’s own, but academics and scholars the world over know precisely what it is and how serious an act of transgression.  To cavalierly dismiss it with the wave of the finger and the dismissiveness of an excuse made is itself utterly improper.

What plagiarism is is theft.  Nothing less.  If Driscoll had walked into a store and stolen a $60 pair of pants no one would say that his act deserved to be called something other than theft.  Likewise, when he ‘walks’ into a text, takes it up, puts it in his ‘pocket’ and trots it out later on, he has acted the thief.

The real problem, then, isn’t with calling that theft real theft.  The problem is the ease with which Driscoll is being given a pass by Andy and others who seem pathologically unwilling to call the act what it is.  This raises the question ‘why’ but that’s a question best left to psychiatrists.

Andy continues

But there is something truly troubling here, in my view. Not that “Pastor Mark Driscoll” carelessly borrowed a section of a commentary for a church-published Bible study, but that “Pastor Mark Driscoll” was named as the sole author of that Bible study in the first place.

‘Carelessly borrowed’.  That very much reminds me of the men who cheat on their wives and end up having intercourse with someone other than their spouse and when confronted say ‘well it just happened; we didn’t mean for it to’ to which the spouse replies, justifiably, ‘oh you were just naked and she fell on top of you then’.  In a storm, any excuse will do.  In the case of Driscoll’s theft of another’s idea, the sleight of hand at work in Crouch’s essay is to divert attention away from that fact and on to a derivative and secondary fact: Driscoll is named as the author of the book.

But of course he is.  That’s how plagiarism works.  Were there no plagiarism, the authorship of the book would not be in question.  Yet Mr Crouch seems oblivious to this simple self evident truth.

In the world of journalism, the one Mr Crouch inhabits, plagiarism may be a one-off ‘mistake’ but in the world of scholarship there are few things more serious.