plagiarism

sanctioning plagiarism?

Earlier this morning I found a few articles on the writing routines of great writers. (Mainly because I’m always trying to learn how to write gooder better). The ones on Immanuel Kant and Charles Darwin were rather interesting. Another article, from a different site, was not so much routines but tips for budding writers, offered by W.G. (“Max”) Sebald. What is particularly noteworthy is that the advice Sebald gives transcends the constraints of genre; much of what he has to say applies to all forms of writing.

However, near the end of his categorized advice (in “On Reading and Intertextuality”), I found this disturbing tip:

I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.

If I’m reading this right, and I’d like to think that I am,* Sebald is essentially sanctioning guilt-free plagiarism. (As an aside: when dealing with questions of style, Sebald says, “Avoid sentences that serve only to set up later sentences.” I cannot help but think that the second sentence quoted above [i.e. "No one will ever notice"] sets up what Sebald drives at in the third–especially the promise of guiltlessness). I can neither agree with nor accept this piece of advice as either good or accurate. Plagiarism is literary thievery, and given today’s technology those pillaging another’s ideas can be spotted (and caught). [That means you, Mr Driscoll.]

So, on this point I think I can and will follow Sebald’s final piece of advice: “Don’t listen to anyone. Not us, either. It’s fatal.” Done.

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* Props to those who noticed what I’ve done.

undergraduate theft?

To get the mental juices flowing this morning, I decided to skim Marsh-Moyise’s, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction (1999),¹ partly because I’ve never read it and partly because it was the first book I noticed on the shelf. It’s (so far) clear, concise, and useful in its basic summary of the key issues in Gospels scholarship. For those wanting to meander around the field, Marsh-Moyise’s book is a decent place to start.

The only hiccup (so far) is that some details are mentioned as though they are common-coin and therefore unnecessary to footnote. In other words: there is a bit of “assumed knowledge” in what Marsh-Moyise present. This is fine for those familiar with coinage but not entirely helpful for those unfamiliar the currency, the latter being the intended audience of the book.

For example: in the chapter on Mark’s Gospel, Marsh-Moyise point out that “[f]or much of church history, it [i.e. Mark's Gospel] was thought to be an abbreviation of Matthew” (p.14) but say nothing about who historically held that thought. Again, this is well and good if you know the history but potentially frustrating (or at least unsatisfying) if you don’t.

I could remember from when I took a Gospels course in College (eons ago) that St Augustine maintained the “abbreviated” view of Mark’s Gospel (see De consensu evangelistarum 1.2), but I did not recall anyone else. So, after reading Marsh-Moyise’s chapter on Mark, I decided to dig around (quickly) to see what I could find. This cursory search revealed no other proponents of the “abbreviated” view; Augustine’s name was the only one that continued to emerge.

However, I did discover something that troubled me quite deeply, and that something became the reason for this post. Before stating what that “something” is, let me quote the opening paragraph of Marsh-Moyise’s chapter on Mark (p.14):

Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels, beginning at Jesus’ baptism (nothing about his birth) and ending at the empty tomb (no resurrection appearances). For much of church history, it was thought to be an abbreviation of Matthew and hence less important. Over 600 of its 661 verses find a parallel in Matthew, and although early tradition suggests that Mark drew on the memories of Peter (see Appendix), the fact remains that it was not written by an apostle. This probably explains why so few commentaries were written on Mark in the early church and the book fell into neglect.

Now, having read that, have a look at this. Look familiar? My only hope is that the website is unable to show documentation and that this person “mitch106″ gave Marsh-Moyise due respect. However, the cynic in me thinks “mitch106″ simply lifted the material, changed a couple of words, slightly altered the punctuation, and reordered some of the sentences hoping that the teacher/professor wouldn’t notice.

Shame.

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¹ Yeah, yeah, yeah; I know the link is to the 2nd edition and my reference is to the 1st.

jane’s addiction and webpages on the scythians

On odd combination, to be sure.  Here’s why.  While tootling around the internet this morning, feeding my brain with some general ancient history (namely the historical context of the emergence of the Persian Empire), I stumbled across what appears to be straight-up plagiarism.  I’ll let you decide.

Here’s the first link: ‘The Scythians‘, from something called the World History Center.  Here’s the second link: ‘The Scythians‘, from the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies.  The differences between the two are minor (e.g. word changes, formatting), but the similarities are . . . well, almost exact (aside from the titles).

Not really sure which site needs to be linked with Jane’s Addiction, mainly because of the overlap (and dare I say, ambiguity) in copyright dates, but there’s obviously some thieving going on here.

If it smells fishy, it probably ain’t good

Anyone who knows me and my ‘fussy’ eating habits will not be shocked by my aversion to seafood. I admit to the odd occasion when I have had seafood of some kind, but those are not exceptions that disprove the rule. It is sadly to the point where all I have to do is smell it and my stomach locks up like a high security vault and my taste-buds voice scathing threats.

On a completely different level (sort of), there are times when I can sense that something is not good–or that something is terribly afoul. The way in which my mind reacts to various things usually tells me something is wrong, and because of that reaction I proceed cautiously. I will then do all that I can to see if what I sense is indeed correct so that my claims are not based on mere intuitions, which may occasionally be correct.

This has proven helpful on several instances in the past while grading papers for classes I’ve taught. The paper would all of a sudden sound all too familiar with either course texts or other works I know moderately well. (Sadly, on a couple of occasions, contextually speaking, the paper would be ‘okay’ and then become absolutely brilliant before returning to ‘okay’). A few weeks ago, I smelled fish in a particular individual’s writing–one who is intriguingly popular amongst a specific demographic of people–and I wanted to make sure that I was smelling properly before saying anything.

Unlike my usual respect for the students I’ve taught, which is to keep them absolutely anonymous when discussing their work, I will name this most recent individual–primarily because he is not a student of mine in any shape or form. Jack Kinsella is the leading writer for the Omega Letter website, which is nothing more than an extension the (wacky*) theological ministry of Hal Lindsay. As such, and admittedly so, the Omega Letter (and Kinsella) stands firmly entrenched in Dispensational views of Scripture and allows such views to dictate how they view and understand culture.

I came into contact with the Omega Letter and Kinsella only because I was referred to both by a well-intention individual, who also holds Dispensational views. The reference came to me in a ‘What do you think about this?’ sort of manner. I read through what Kinsella had to say, laughed a bit, shook my head alot and then responded kindly to the individual expressing my disagreement with Kinsella’s arguments. After my response, I decide to engage in a bit of mental masochism and continued to read through previous Omega Letters and then a few of Kinsella’s articles. It was when I began going through his articles–one in particular–that I began to smell fish.

The article in question was called, ‘The “Hidden” Bible’, which dealt with the interesting (at least for me) debate on the Apocryphal books–i.e. those not included in modern (Protestant) Bibles. At first, I expected his treatment of the topic to be rather polemical and dismissive, and then launch into a whole bunch of reasons why the Apocrypha is worthless for Christians (i.e. his usual approach to anything that he deems non-conservative). However, I was rather surprised to read through the first part of his summary; it sounded legitimate, historical, fair and even cogent (i.e. not like Kinsella’s usual approach). It then turned into a scathing treatment of how the Apocrypha is worthless for Christians.

It was those very features that caused me to wonder if these were Kinsella’s actual thoughts. Something about the initial summary was not jiving with me. First, he begins by saying ‘First,’ but then never comes up with a ‘Second.’  (One normally does not begin with ‘first’, as if making a list, without providing additional points). Second (ha-ha), is the fact that he uses ‘B.C.E.’ as a time designator, which by Kinsella’s normal reckoning would be a liberalising of chronology. Further, a couple of sentences later he uses ‘A.D.’ as a time designator which, for Kinsella, would be the proper Christian way of defining history. Thirdly (and finally for the purposes of this rant), the flow of logic, grammar and syntax were completely unlike Kinsella. All of these things (and a few others) just didn’t sit well with me. I knew something was wrong. I smelled fish.

I did a number of searches and found several websites containing the exact same description that Kinsella gives for the Apocrypha. (The most telling one is found here).  The logical assumption is that he simply did a copy-and-paste (i.e. stole) from these previous sources and created his own version (so to speak). In order to test this assumption, I did a quick text-critical comparison of these other sources and Kinsella’s version. It became quite clear that Kinsella restructured the order of material but kept the contents virtually untouched.  Moreover, it does not appear that Kinsella bothered to recognise or even change the details of the contents–hence, the use of ‘B.C.E.’ in one place but ‘A.D.’ in another.

Well, wait a minute: this switching needs explanation. My first guess was that Kinsella inserted his little comment about ‘the Rheims-Douay version (1582 AD)’ into the other material he copied (i.e stole). I assumed this simply because the Rheims-Douay comment does not exist in the description of the Apocrypha found elsewhere. But then I found this, which contains the exact phrase regarding the Rheims-Douay version of the Bible. Either Kinsella copied (i.e. stole) from Robert Sargent, or Sargent copied (i.e. stole) from Kinsella, or they both copied (i.e. stole) from an unknown source. Given that Sargent’s page has a time-stamp of 25-Apr-2008 and Kinsella has 30-June-2009, one of the three options is ruled out; however, neither of the remaining two are good ones.

This illustrates another key point. All of the sites I found were prior to Kinsella’s Omega Letter and nearly all of them had copyrights on their material. This raises obvious ethical questions for Kinsella. If he is going to write his Omega Letters as though they are his own thoughts and conclusions (which is precisely what he claims at the start of his letter), then he needs to own up to instances where he must borrow from someone or somewhere else. That’s just plain courtesy. However, if he is going to borrow from someone or somewhere else and pawn it off as his own (i.e. without proper citation, or at least a ‘most say’ comment), that’s plagiarism which is tantamount to theft–plain and simple. Moreover, presenting something in writing as though it is your own when it is clearly not, but wanting people to believe that it is your own, is lying. Either is Kinsella is guilty of plagiarism and lying, or he is not. The evidence, however, does not appear to be in his favour.

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* That’s really the nicest term I could think of at the moment.