Skip to main content

Policies regarding plagiarism and academic integrity are among the most common liturgies in American higher education, yet Christian teachers and scholars have given minimal attention to the ways such liturgies shape students’ assumptions about the ownership of words and ideas. While analyzing handbooks, honor codes, and academic policies, Rachel B. Griffis considers concepts of plagiarism alongside Christian perspectives on language and the pursuit of knowledge. She argues that individualistic and consumeristic ideologies undergird current understandings of plagiarism and therefore detract from the efforts of institutions seeking to form students morally. Dr. Griffis is Assistant Professor of English and Director for the Integration of Faith and Learning at Sterling College.

Protocol regarding plagiarism in American higher education supports James K. A. Smith’s claim that the university is “a charged religious institution.”1 Members of academic communities associate plagiarism with specific cultural liturgies, including Turnitin submissions, reports, investigations, appeals, petitions, hearings, and evidence. Anti-plagiarism language, articulated in handbooks, syllabi, websites, and within classrooms, also contributes to these liturgies by categorizing this offense as an honor code violation, academic misconduct, and dishonesty. Although the academy, as Smith states, touts its secularity, the liturgies surrounding plagiarism communicate to students that the act is indeed a sin deserving of punishment. Teachers and scholars who have analyzed the rhetoric of plagiarism, as well as the impact of policies meant to prevent and correct it, often use ominous, theological language to describe the phenomenon, including “a sign of immorality” and “the academic sin that we most dread our students’ committing.”2 Students tend to express similar convictions. For example, one semester when I was teaching Dante’s Inferno, I asked my class to rank sins specific to college students from least deadly to most deadly, and my students decided that plagiarists, along with drug-users, should occupy the lowest reaches of hell because those sins often result in expulsion from the institution.

Liturgies related to plagiarism indeed communicate a seriousness about this offense to the academic community and beyond, though educators, particularly Christian ones, should consider the purpose of the liturgy itself: do their policies and instruction regarding plagiarism teach students to love God, their neighbor, and wisdom? As Smith argues, the liturgies practiced by both individuals and communities direct people to a specific vision of the good life, a vision that may be incongruent with Christianity. He explains, “Secular liturgies capture our hearts by capturing our imaginations and drawing us into ritual practices that ‘teach’ us to love something very different from the kingdom of God.”3 Christian educators and their institutions tend to accept mainstream, “secular” liturgies surrounding this offense, believing they support their institutions’ goals of providing education from a Christian perspective. For example, many faith-based institutions connect their honor codes to their religious mission, such as my alma mater, Azusa Pacific University, which requires a pledge from students that begins, “As a student at this Christ-centered university, I will uphold the highest standards of academic integrity.”4 This article, however, questions whether current, widely-accepted narratives and practices regarding plagiarism are indeed liturgies aimed at the kingdom of God. Rather, these liturgies may detract from an institution’s mission to educate students according to Christian virtues by shaping them into defensive owners of language and knowledge, gifts which cannot be owned and ought to be loved and shared with others.

Scholars in the field of rhetoric and composition have long acknowledged and discussed the complex cultural, political, and ethical dimensions of plagiarism, often pronouncing them ambiguous. Alexander Lindey’s study Plagiarism and Originality (1952) is quite strident in its definitions of plagiarism, calling it a “legal wrong”; however, he makes important concessions that have been discussed more thoroughly in recent iterations of this conversation, such as “there can be no final conclusions with respect to plagiarism” and “there is no such thing as absolute, quintessential originality.”5 Rebecca Moore Howard, in Standing in the Shadows of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators (1999), advances the conversation considerably when she contests “the premises that a writer can and should be autonomous and original” and asserts that such expectations have been “produced by and for a capitalistic, patriarchal society.”6 Many other rhetoric and composition specialists have furthered Howard’s work by examining the implicit messages of current policies and assumptions surrounding plagiarism in the American academy. Kelly Ritter, for example, suggests that the rhetoric of paper mills is “proeconomic” and participates in the treatment of writing as a commodity, mirroring the language of autonomy and ownership found in many university’s enjoinders against plagiarism.7 In an article with pedagogical suggestions, Margaret Price argues that plagiarism policies should be “context-sensitive” and she outlines her own classroom practices for presenting the issue as a reflection of conventions that arise from a particular culture and historical moment.8 In the Chair’s Address at the 2005 Conference on College Composition and Communication, Douglas D. Hesse draws attention to the consumeristic and capitalistic implications of teaching writing when he refers pejoratively to “property rights, the buying, selling, and leasing of textual acreages.”9

The rhetoric and composition community has accomplished significant and valuable work by discussing and elucidating the cultural warrants underlying perspectives on plagiarism in the American academy. Assumptions about the ownership of writing, however, affirmed and communicated through plagiarism policies, remain prevalent. At the very least, accreditation standards preserve these assumptions.10 Educators have, nonetheless, contested current widely-accepted notions about plagiarism. In rhetoric and composition studies, many professors, some quoted in this article, challenge ideas about writing as property in their classrooms through their instruction, assignments, and subversive procedures. Many consider mainstream perspectives on plagiarism antithetical to their goals, often political ones, and they have made pedagogical changes based on those considerations.11 For moral rather than political reasons, educators at faith-based institutions seeking to form students according to Christian virtues may share concerns with rhetoric and composition specialists about plagiarism. Whereas the latter group is concerned with the political dimensions of education, often through dismantling capitalistic, hierarchical, and patriarchal systems, Christian educators should be troubled by the possibility that the liturgies in their institutions promote the sins of greed and pride under the name of integrity.12

Speaking about and considering plagiarism from the perspective of Christian virtues is an important step in better aligning an institution’s liturgies with visions of the good life oriented toward the kingdom of God. David I. Smith argues that the “practices,” or liturgies, of an institution indeed consist of “the things we tell ourselves and one another about just what we are engaged in and for what purposes,” and “Participation in practices may require teachers and students to acquire new vocabulary for describing aspects of their own educational activity and growth.”13 The narrative students receive and perpetuate about plagiarism, then, likely teaches them to develop a certain disposition toward language, knowledge, and intellectual labor. Many stories and vocabularies used to describe plagiarism extol autonomy, originality, and ownership, which accentuates the need for new and revised narratives about intellectual integrity and academic accomplishment. The first section of this article will consequently examine language, specifically explanations and definitions of plagiarism in handbooks and honor codes from selected colleges and universities to understand what is communicated to students in the United States about this offense and academic dishonesty more broadly. The next section assesses these explanations and definitions in light of theological perspectives on language and the pursuit of knowledge. Pedagogical suggestions follow, focusing on the ways Christian virtues might function as remedies to the sins underlying students’ motivations to plagiarize. The liturgies of plagiarism in academia in the United States indeed tend to facilitate vice by encouraging the pride of originality and elevating personal possession through frequent reminders to students that they must each produce their own work. To counter these liturgies, Christian educators should teach students to love and participate in their disciplines, to share language, and to submit to authority.

What Plagiarism Policies Communicate to Students

Definitions of plagiarism that inform how students and teachers understand this concept inhabit a variety of intellectual spaces, ranging from citation manuals to college websites and literary handbooks. Penguin’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, for example, discusses plagiarism in the Elizabethan period, prior to copyright law, in reference to people who stole plays and took credit for others’ work.14 Recently published citation manuals treat plagiarism as a professional issue. Citing sources and acknowledging others’ influence on one’s ideas is a requirement for participation in certain communities, a kind of civil code. In the American Psychological Association’s manual, the first sentence under the plagiarism heading reads, “Researchers do not claim the words and ideas of another as their own; they give credit where credit is due,” and the definition of plagiarism does not appear until much later in the manual, where it is described as “the practice of claiming credit for the words, ideas, and concepts of others.”15 The Modern Language Association handbook also presents the civil code of academic writing and publishing as a professional issue, which states correct documentation “is a sign of competence in a writer.”16 Similar to the APA manual, The Chicago Manual of Style gives minimal space to plagiarism, including it under “Importance of attribution,” with the explanation, “With all reuse of others’ materials, it is important to identify the original as the source. This not only bolsters the claim of fair use but also helps avoid any accusation of plagiarism.”17 Across these three citation manuals is the understanding that plagiarism is unprofessional conduct and violation of a specific community’s standards for conversing and conveying knowledge.

The composition textbook I use in my freshman writing classes, Andrea Lunsford’s Everyone’s an Author (2013), similarly presents plagiarism as entirely a professional and cultural matter. Lunsford’s statement that improper citation and the failure to give credit to others “is viewed as unethical and considered plagiarism” suggests that acts of plagiarism are not themselves ethical violations but that culture has made them so.18 She therefore explains that the “conventions” of American academic writing “require you to give credit where credit is due by explicitly acknowledging what others contribute to your work and thereby avoid plagiarism.”19 Her definition of plagiarism is similar to that of the APA manual: “the use of the words and ideas of others as if they were your own work.”20 This textbook, along with the APA manual, represent one end of the spectrum in teaching students about plagiarism. Both communicate that it is a morally neutral act that one must not commit in order to earn course credit in academia or to prove one’s competency for professional purposes. The statement in the APA manual, “Researchers do not claim the words and ideas of another as their own,” implies that in order to be a legitimate researcher, one must abide by documentation requirements.21 Accordingly, Lunsford states that proper documentation “helps establish your credibility and authority as a researcher and an author.”22 Even Lunsford’s chapter title, “Giving Credit, Avoiding Plagiarism,” challenges moral and ethical issues associated with plagiarism, for in most systems of virtue, sin warrants a stronger word than avoidance.

Whereas sources like the APA manual and Everyone’s an Author caution students against plagiarism solely for professional reasons, other venues represent the issue as an ethical and moral matter. Although The MLA Handbook, as cited above, indeed presents plagiarism in relation to the civil code of academic writing and publishing, the handbook also includes language that makes plagiarism an issue of vice and virtue. For example, it describes plagiarism as “a kind of fraud” which “deceiv[es] others to gain something of value.”23 It furthermore explains that “it is always a serious moral and ethical offense,” because “Plagiarism undermines the relationship between teachers and students, turning teachers into detectives instead of mentors, fostering suspicion instead of trust, and making it difficult for learning to take place.”24 The handbook also contends, “Academic writing is at its root a conversation among scholars about a topic or question,” a statement that draws attention to plagiarism as a communal and moral issue, not solely a professional one.25 Unlike some of the other definitions and explanations of plagiarism included here, The MLA Handbook demonstrates why this academic offense might be considered a moral issue and even expresses it using theologically-charged terms like fraud, trust, and deception.

Honor codes and policies written for specific colleges and universities in the United States also tend to present plagiarism and academic dishonesty as fundamentally moral problems. Harvard College, for example, refers to “honesty” as “the foundation of our community.”26 The University of Michigan states “academic honesty and responsibility” “is expected of all members of the University community.”27 At the University of California-Berkeley, the Honor Code is a statement written in first-person that all students must affirm: “As a member of the UC Berkeley community, I act with honesty, integrity, and respect for others.”28 The policy at my institution, Sterling College, reads, “Our commitment to academic integrity requires that each student and faculty member be responsible for creating an environment of trust and respect in which the search for knowledge, truth, and wisdom can be successfully accomplished.”29 These honor codes and policies, among many others in institutions of higher education in the United States, communicate a sense of morality and ethics.30 They refer to communities of learners and respect for others’ work. Moreover, they evoke “honesty” and “integrity” as the cardinal virtues of academic communities. A far cry from Lunsford’s amoral definition of plagiarism, or the APA manual’s sole focus on valid research, honor codes and policies contribute to notions in academia that plagiarism is a sin, and not one determined by cultural convention but by intrinsic categories such as community, respect for the property of human beings, or the virtue of honesty.

The academic codes, policies, and definitions analyzed here indicate that contradictory messages may inform students’ understanding of what plagiarism is and why they should refrain from doing it. On the one hand, students (as well as their counterparts in the real world, including writers and researchers) are prohibited from plagiarism because of cultural and professional strictures regarding originality and intellectual property. On the other, students who write papers to earn course credit and a degree are told they have transgressed moral and ethical boundaries if they plagiarize, committing fraud and theft, thus harming themselves and the person whose work they copied or cited improperly, as well as their professors and institutions. Despite these seemingly opposing narratives about plagiarism, they both nevertheless proceed from an individualistic ideology that assumes language and ideas can and should be owned. As demonstrated above, honor codes and policies present plagiarism unequivocally as a moral matter; however, their claims to intrinsic authorities, such as community or honesty, are rooted in distinctions between the work of oneself and the work of others, as well as the rights a person has to guard his or her own work. Though students may be influenced by one narrative, such as the idea that plagiarism mainly concerns a person’s professional competence, more than the other, which brands plagiarists as immoral thieves, both perspectives share assumptions about an individual’s autonomy and property.

The expectation that one must respect others’ and one’s own property, particularly in honor codes, reflects American cultural values that diverge from and conflict with Christian virtues in significant ways. Susan D. Blum draws attention to the secular roots of current understandings of plagiarism when she refers to “the official rules governing citation, stemming from Enlightenment notions of authorship, ownership, and originality” that students struggle against.31 Paramount among these cultural values which Blum asserts come from Enlightenment ideology is the expectation in honor codes that students perform “their own work.” This language is so pervasive in honor codes at institutions of higher education in the United States that I will only quote my college’s code, which asserts that students are expected to “perform and represent honestly their own academic work.”32 Commenting on the prevalence of such language, Margaret Price suggests “the concept of one’s ‘own’ work is the centerpiece” of each honor codes she examines.33 This concept is also a fundamental part of the definitions of plagiarism discussed earlier in this article, and it is implicit in references to the work of others. While doing one’s own work is presented as a virtuous endeavor, especially in honor codes, these repeated mandates for autonomous intellectual activity recall American truisms found in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who announces, “imitation is suicide” and “Trust thyself.”34 In contrast, some cultures, even pre-Enlightenment Western culture, expect students not to produce their own work, but to, as Helen Fox puts it, “[defer] to those of greater knowledge and to timeless, ‘original’ wisdom.”35 As demonstrated in plagiarism policies enforced in educational institutions across the United States, cultural expectations for college students resound with Emerson more than pre-Enlightenment notions of learning and knowledge. The ubiquity of the command, “do your own work,” on American college campuses affirms the literary critic R. W. B. Lewis’ declaration, “America, since the age of Emerson, has been persistently a one-generation culture.”36

Appeals to honesty and integrity in honor codes and policies also reflect individualistic ideologies that point to consumeristic motivations for the protection of intellectual work. Harvard College’s statement, “We thus hold honesty—in the representation of our work and in our interactions with teachers, advisers, peers, and students—as the foundation of our community,” specifies that the expectation for honesty is limited to professional and external interactions.37 The University of Michigan’s policy connects “honesty” to productivity, asserting, “academic honesty and responsibility is fundamental to good scholarship.”38 Both examples present honesty as a virtue that essentially helps an individual or an institution establish and maintain a legitimate reputation in academia. Although honesty indeed has its place in the Christian tradition, the ways in which these honor codes represent honesty for the sake of professional success resonate more directly with American cultural values than religious ones.39 These cultural values are evident in American folklore, such as the Honest Abe story featuring the return of a penny or the popular axiom “honesty is the best policy.” Moreover, Benjamin Franklin includes a version of honesty, “Sincerity,” in his 13 virtues in his Autobiography, the list for which D. H. Lawrence labels him “the first down-right American.”40 As Alasdair MacIntyre points out, Franklin’s virtues are “utilitarian” and oriented toward “success.”41 Given the ways honesty is used in honor codes and policies to defend and bolster an institution’s and an individual’s standing within academia, it seems that this virtue signals American ambition and individualism more than a dispositional morality rooted in Christian virtue.

Self-aggrandizing assertions embedded in honor codes and policies also detract from their claims to maintain the virtue of their communities. For example, the statement of academic integrity at the University of California-Los Angeles begins, “With its status as a world-class research institution, it is critical that the University uphold the highest standards of integrity.”42 UC Berkeley similarly announces, “we have an obligation as the nation’s preeminent public university to assume a leadership role in this area.”43 Although such statements were undoubtedly written under the assumption that excellence in academic integrity is indisputably a virtuous pursuit, they nevertheless reveal the particular propensity toward pride that, as Mark A. Noll suggests, arises from “the predispositions of intellectuals and the circumstances of formal learning.”44 Paul J. Griffiths also comments on the sinful propensities of devoted learners who “are very likely to consider the learning they have their own accomplishment.”45 He argues, “Such views and attitude are sinful: they oppose the Christian life in profound ways, and they are the special temptation and characteristic deformity of the learned.”46 As a result, Griffiths cautions against “a single-minded idolatry of the intellect” and suggests that “Christian ambivalence” regarding this idolatry will lead to institutions of learning situated to “mak[e] that idolatry evident without check and without shame.”47 Christian institutions of higher education are perhaps more likely to endorse excellence in academic integrity because of their Christian witness rather than the “world-class” or “preeminent” statuses that UCLA and UC Berkeley defend. Nevertheless, Christian schools in the United States are often just as complicit as secular ones in accepting and perpetuating the assumption that honor codes and policies protect an institution’s commitment to virtuous pursuits.

The language of individualism and ownership belies claims to virtue in many discussions of plagiarism. Although honor codes and handbooks such the MLA’s refer to trust among community members and respect for others, the preoccupation with property, articulated as the work of oneself and the work of others, reinforces the individual mission of a student to obtain academic achievements. For example, when The MLA Handbook provides motivation for students to resist plagiarism because they might “deprive themselves of the knowledge they would have gained if they had done their own writing,” this plea for honesty highlights the individual achievement of a student who can use education to acquire and possess knowledge.48 While these venues for discussing plagiarism may genuinely aspire to help students consider how their actions impact others, their continual return to matters of the individual and property reveals that such are the claims most effective for students in a nation and culture that has largely internalized Emersonian individualism.

Plagiarism, the Christian Tradition, and Virtue as Remedy

According to contemporary definitions, the Bible contains plagiarism, a conspicuous though perhaps overlooked aspect of the Christian faith that disputes notions connecting plagiarism with sin and citation with virtue.49 An often-discussed example of what educators today consider plagiarism is the “Synoptic Problem” in the biblical studies discipline, which concerns the sources of the New Testament Gospels Mark, Luke, and Matthew.50 The Gospel of Mark is likely an uncredited source for Luke and Matthew, a reality that suggests current beliefs about the ownership of ideas and language are not rooted in the Christian tradition and instead arise from more recent cultural phenomena, including copyright law and American individualism.51 As Lunsford states in her composition textbook, expectations for students regarding citation reflect cultural values expressed in systems of American education. However, within a Christian understanding of language and knowledge, and contrary to Lunsford’s suggestion, plagiarism policies are not morally neutral. Educators who affirm these standards for originality and ownership may actually encourage students to assume ideas that are antithetical to Christianity. In Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (2009), Griffiths puts forth both a moral and countercultural argument regarding plagiarism when he suggests it is essentially a phenomenon that ought not to concern Christians because of the unique role of language in their religion. He asserts that words, both spoken and written, are gifts from God and “not subject to the logic of ownership.”52 He reminds readers that the Holy Scriptures “are no one’s possession.”53 Consequently, other forms of language, he argues, “are ancillary to … the scripture-liturgy complex, and do aspire to be like it in approaching the status of confessio, gifts received that must be given back in praise and lament.”54

Relevant to the present study is Griffiths’ support of his argument, which is rooted in his study of concepts from the Christian tradition that express virtuous and sinful approaches to learning and the acquisition of knowledge. Through his reading of St. Augustine, he disinters a vicious approach to learning with the term “curiosity” and its opposite, “studiousness.”55 He describes curiosity as “a particular appetite,” “a particular ordering of the affections.”56 “What it wants,” he writes, “is new knowledge […] And what it seeks to do with that knowledge is to control, dominate, or make a private possession of it.”57 In contrast, “the studious do not seek to sequester, own, possess, or dominate what they hope to know; they want, instead, to participate lovingly in it, to respond to it knowingly as gift rather than as potential possession, to treat it as icon rather than spectacle.”58 Using the vice of curiosity and the virtue of studiousness as the foundation for his study, Griffiths states that both perspectives acknowledge plagiarism as a phenomenon in relation to language but they produce different reactions to it. As stated above, plagiarism to studious Christians is of little concern, one not deserving of their attention, for they have not internalized the notion that knowledge, much less language, is a possession they should protect. In contrast, the curious perspective on knowledge and language is “one of ownership and anxiety” and has much in common with honor codes and current strictures regarding plagiarism.59

Though holding to his claim that concerns about plagiarism should not occupy Christians, Griffiths gives some guidance regarding a proper view of citation and documentation. For the studious, he asserts that adhering to these standards is motivated by “gratitude” for others and “submission to authority.”60 He eschews the proscribed duty mentioned elsewhere about giving credit and emphasizes that citing and documenting sources “plac[es] your own words in a particular lineage.”61 Griffiths thus affirms the possible virtues of adhering to citation standards with these statements; nevertheless, he contends that the studious “do not provide anything approaching a requirement” for acknowledging others’ words and ideas, and he goes so far as to suggest that current descriptions and understandings of a plagiarist are inaccurate.62 The plagiarist, consequently, is “just someone who lacks gratitude; he is no thief, and not even necessarily a liar.”63 By describing the plagiarist as “just” a person who fails to say “thank you,” Griffiths criticizes what may be one of the most consistent codes in an educator’s profession, the controversy of which he acknowledges when he states that understanding the plagiarist as a thief or liar “has become a widespread and standard assumption, evident in intellectual property law, university definitions and proscriptions of plagiarism.”64

Griffiths’ argument that studious Christians “do not provide anything approaching a requirement” for noting the “presence” of others’ words and ideas in one’s compositions may not have attainable applications even to faith-based institutions, given professional and cultural standards for citation and documentation. Lack of requirement for citation and documentation would fail to equip and educate students properly to meet standards in academia and beyond.65 Nevertheless, Griffiths’ argument demonstrates a pointed disagreement between perspectives on language in the American academy and Christianity. Because an open, generous stance toward language is significant to Christianity, schools that aspire to educate according to this tradition should recognize that consistent demands repeated in honor codes, syllabi, and within classrooms that everyone must produce their “own work” will indeed impact and form students morally. Such demands are liturgies; they are, in James K. A. Smith’s words, “ritual practices that ‘teach’ [students] to love something.”66 The academy’s preoccupation with an individual’s original work may teach students to desire ownership, possession, and dominance over the gifts of language and knowledge rather than to love, share, and receive them.

In Cheating Lessons (2013), James M. Lang recommends that institutions concerned about academic honor “concentrate on creating [a] rich campus dialogue” about offenses like plagiarism.67 Although Lang’s research aims to reduce instances of academic honesty, a purpose that differs from mine, his suggestion that institutions should focus on creating a culture about academic honesty is pertinent. Honor codes and policies, as well as definitions of plagiarism, often provide vocabulary and concepts that inform an institution’s culture.68 Consequently, Christian colleges and universities might include statements in their honor codes that reject claims to the ownership of language by encouraging students to demonstrate their gratitude for others. Including a theological explanation of language in a definition of plagiarism may give faculty helpful vocabulary for teaching, discussing, and penalizing plagiarism as they work with students. They might also attenuate the vicious aspects of plagiarism rhetoric by refusing to refer to the plagiarist as a thief. As Griffiths points out, such labels reinforce sinful ideas about the ownership of language. If plagiarism is not theft, teachers and administrators might then deliberate over what sins this act involves and what resources the Christian tradition provides for understanding and addressing them. For example, the most egregious forms of plagiarism often involve a student in plotting, calculating, manipulating, misrepresenting, and deceiving his or her professor for personal gain. In Dante’s Inferno, sinners who calculate their sins are punished more severely than those who act on impulse. Because plagiarism tends to require a pointed calculation and deception on the part of the student, the entities involved in addressing the offense can help plagiarists reflect on how they have become disciplined in the practice of vice and how they might begin changing, both internally and externally.

To counter the prevalence of the Emersonian concept “our own work” in the American academy, and explicitly in plagiarism policies, Christian institutions might work toward creating a culture that celebrates the virtues of imitation and the communal aspects of intellectual labor. To draw upon biblical language, St. Paul writes, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”69 Alan Jacobs’ recent book How to Think (2017), presents an argument congruent with a Christian view of imitation and community when he states, “To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable.”70 He explains, “learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst, is so important. To dwell habitually with people is invariably to adopt their way of approaching the world.”71 Griffiths provides a particularly poignant image of the impossibility of thinking independently: “Anyone who speaks or writes now, swims, knowingly or not, in an ocean of words already spoken or written.”72 A contemporary of Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, also offers insight regarding ways to challenge his colleague’s influential notion that “imitation is suicide.”73 In his novel The Marble Faun (1860), Hawthorne elevates the virtues of an artist who has the capacity to produce original work, but due to her “deep and sensitive faculty of appreciation,” she imitates the artistic authorities she encounters in Rome, devoting herself to “diffuse[ing] those self-same beauties widely among mankind.”74 Just as Hawthorne dismantles negative notions of imitation with his positive portrayal of a fictional, artistic copyist, educators have the opportunity to temper demands for originality through presenting imitation as a worthy pursuit in both matters of learning and character development.

Although this article primarily takes issue with the language of ownership and individualism that informs current understandings of plagiarism, action-based practices that attune students to the virtues of imitation are also important. In You Are What You Love (2016), James K. A. Smith argues, “We learn to love … not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love but rather through practices that form the habits of how we love.”75 Action-based practices should therefore accompany revised language about plagiarism and originality. For example, in courses that require writing, virtuous practices might involve assignments that instruct students to articulate others’ arguments, summarize texts, and imitate seasoned writers. Furthermore, the ways students are taught to read may impact their views on plagiarism and the ownership of language. In an essay on charitable reading, David I. Smith provides pedagogical suggestions to help students approach “the text expecting it to make moral demands” and with the “willing[ness] to submit and be changed.”76 Such reading practices may serve to counteract attitudes about the ownership of language as well as plagiarism itself. Students who practice charitable reading may become aware of the gift of language, the efforts of the author to communicate with readers, and the ways in which writers dwell, to use Griffiths’ phrase, “in an ocean of words.”77 Interacting deeply with a text should aid students in developing gratitude and appreciation, thus motivating them to recognize others as they write.

Given that many educators refer to laziness when explaining why students plagiarize, it is also worthwhile to discuss the sin most closely associated with this condition in the Christian tradition: sloth, or acedia. To draw upon anecdotal support, many students my colleagues and I encounter who admit to plagiarism explain their behavior with references to laziness, and when I initially presented a version of this paper at a conference, questions from the audience echoed this concern. Kathy Koch, in an article on academic dishonesty, refers to the common explanation among teachers that “kids today are just lazier.”78 In an essay for Slate about plagiarism cases outside the academy, Meghan O’Rourke suggests that public shame associated with plagiarism springs from people’s perceptions of the “slackers” who have failed to perform the labor that benefits them.79 If laziness is indeed the primary motivator for this offense, the concept of acedia and the ways Christians have struggled against it may help educators better understand the nuances of a lethargy that turns students into plagiarists.

In the Christian tradition, acedia has been associated with monks, or individuals and communities engaged in mental work, such as prayer or study. According to Kathleen Norris, “Acedia is a danger to anyone whose work requires great concentration and discipline yet is considered by many to be of little practical value.”80 Considered in this light, the work of college students is surprisingly similar to the work of monks who devote substantial time every day to prayer and spiritual disciplines. The fourth-century monk Evagrius’ statement, “The monk afflicted with acedia is lazy in prayer and will not even say the words of a prayer” is a description that also bears similarity to students who struggle with the motivation to carry out tedious duties.81 In an essay on moral education, Paul J. Wadell and Darin H. Davis argue that “the young increasingly succumb to [acedia]” for reasons Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung also expresses when she notes that the slothful are “content with being less than [they] really are.”82 Other thinkers have commented on the prevalence of this sin more widely, such as R. R. Reno who states that acedia “is a real threat, a deadly sin doing its deadly work in the present age.”83 Jean-Charles Nault echoes Reno when he writes, “on the one hand, acedia is the most forgotten topic of modern morality; on the other hand, it is perhaps the root cause of the greatest crisis in the Church today.”84 Thinkers from both the past and the present recognize the significance of this sin. Students and educators may therefore have much to gain from drawing upon two traditional antidotes for acedia—zeal and perseverance—as they develop practices to combat plagiarism and the “laziness” that often motivates it.

In Dante’s Purgatory, sinners overcome acedia by running continuously while citing examples of zealous people, such as the Virgin Mary, who responds to God’s call with enthusiastic willingness. Dante’s guide Virgil thus explains the sin and corrective remedy of these souls in terms of activity: “the great zeal you now show / no doubt redeems the negligence and delay / that marred your will to do good,” he says.85 Virgil draws attention to the sinners’ failure to be proactive in goodness, a failure that may also describe college students who resist the formative labor of writing papers. In a more recent description of zeal, David A. Horner and David R. Turner also identify the virtue with activity. They define it as an “orientation toward the good that is consistently expressed in wise, fervent, and diligent pursuit,” and “a passionate, intentional, rational, diligent pursuit of what is good, motivated by and expressed in love.”86 Students zealous for the virtuous ends of learning are unlikely to shrink from the activity it requires because they have developed the discipline to pursue goodness. For students lacking zeal, Horner and Turner argue that community is a necessity for developing and maintaining this virtue “because we were never intended to do so” independently.87 Students who have succumbed to acedia may consequently display a strong resistance to intellectual community. Reno describes the attitude of a culture that has rejected the call to live with others in terms that may apply to many students’ stance in a classroom: “Most of us just want to be left alone […] We want to find a cocoon, a spiritually, psychologically, economically, and physically gated community in which to live without danger and disturbance.”88 As educators and administrators think about how to help students overcome acedia in general, and plagiarism in particular, practices that deepen communal bonds and develop zeal through enthusiasm for learning are worthwhile endeavors.

Teaching students to combat acedia also involves developing their capacity for perseverance, specifically their appreciation for everyday routines and faithfulness in mundane tasks. Similar to the virtue of zeal, Nault calls perseverance the “essential remedy” for acedia, which is “a very active thing.”89 He suggests perseverance involves “fidelity to one’s everyday routine, fidelity to one’s rule of life,” an echo of Evagrius who writes, “Perseverance is the cure for acedia, along with the execution of all tasks with great attention.”90 In the realm of plagiarism and writing papers, teaching students perseverance may involve requiring their attention to the mundane aspects of writing: drafting ideas, gathering research, writing sentences, proofreading. As Horner and Turner assert that zeal is best maintained in a community, perseverance in writing papers should also be practiced in a community. Composition classes in particular may be a good place to institute practices that involve students writing together at specified times, in which they develop their faithfulness to the mundane alongside one another. Other courses with a writing component may benefit from community-oriented structures built into writing assignments, such as writing groups who meet together to compose, conduct research, and review each other’s work.

Scholarship on Christian teaching and learning in the last few decades has corrected individualistic and consumeristic notions of education. For example, in “The Loss of the University,” Wendell Berry asserts, “The thing being made in a university is humanity” against the idea that college education should produce a career.91 In “The Countercultural Quest of Christian Liberal Arts,” an essay written to undergraduates, Jeffry C. Davis quotes scripture to challenge students’ sole concern with building careers at college: “You cannot serve God and money.”92 Addressing educators, Clarence W. Joldersma argues for “Christian institutions of higher education to become voices for social justice and human flourishing.”93 Using concepts similar to Griffiths’ resurrection of the ideas “curiosity” and “studiousness,” though with a different vocabulary, Ashley Woodiwiss describes how he aspires to convert students from “tourists” to “pilgrims.” As he explains, the goal is to direct students “away from a culturally prevalent ‘education for employment’ perspective to an ‘education as character formation’ view.”94 Many other admirable philosophies of education exist in this literature. The language of plagiarism, however, with its emphasis on ownership, individualism, and originality, works against such efforts to educate students for character formation and virtue. Predominant liturgies surrounding plagiarism, perhaps inadvertently, teach students to be curious learners, tourists rather than pilgrims, and owners more than givers. This fundamental component of education, present in nearly every class that requires written assignments, needs also to come under scrutiny by Christian educators in the United States and other educational contexts that prioritize the ownership of intellectual work. Doing so will not only contribute to the larger goals of Christian education to form students morally but also model to the wider academic community the virtuous posture of a learner who loves, shares, and participates in knowledge and language.

Cite this article
Rachel B. Griffis, “Plagiarism as the Language of Ownership: Aligning Academic Liturgy with Christian Virtue”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:2 , 109-126


  1. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 112.
  2. Kathryn Valentine, “Plagiarism as Literacy Practice: Recognizing and Rethinking Ethical Binaries,” College Composition and Communication 58.1 (2006): 91. Kelly Ritter, “The Economics of Authorship: Online Paper Mills, Student Writers, and First-Year Composition,” College Composition and Communication 56.4 (2005): 602.
  3. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 88.
  4. “Academic Integrity Pledge,” Academic Integrity Policy of the Undergraduate Community at Azusa Pacific University, 2.
  5. Alexander Lindey, Plagiarism and Originality (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1952), 13, xiv, 14.
  6. Rebecca Moore Howard, Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators (Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing, 1999), 15.
  7. Ritter, “The Economics of Authorship,” 604.
  8. Margaret Price, “Beyond ‘Gotcha!’: Situating Plagiarism in Policy and Pedagogy,” College Composition and Communication 54.1 (2002): 97.
  9. Douglas D. Hesse, “2005 CCCC Chair’s Address: Who Owns Writing?” College Composition and Communication 57.2 (2005): 337.
  10. For example, the Higher Learning Commission, under Criterion 2.E.3 requires that “The institution has and enforces policies on academic honesty and integrity.” “HLC Policy,”
  11. While much of the scholarship in rhetoric and composition studies affirms such political goals, there are exceptions. Richard A. Posner, for example, distances himself from this perspective when he indicts “the Left, which dominates intellectual circles in the United States,” for being “soft on plagiarism.” The Little Book of Plagiarism (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), 94.
  12. I do not mean to suggest that Christian educators ought not to concern themselves with the abuses of capitalistic, hierarchical, or patriarchal value systems. However, the tenor of the conversation about plagiarism in rhetoric and composition studies is indeed grounded in a political rather than moral mission. Some scholars even seek to dismantle notions that a writer proves his or her morality through writing, thus implying that writers’ highest authority is cultural convention. Howard, for example, calls “fiction” the idea that a writer proves he or she is moral through original writing. Standing in the Shadow of Giants, 15.
  13. David I. Smith, “Recruiting Students’ Imaginations: Prospects and Pitfalls of Practices,” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, eds. David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 213, 218.
  14. J. A. Cuddon, Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, revised by M. A. R. Habib (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 537.
  15. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2010), 15, 170.
  16. The MLA Handbook, Eighth Edition (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2016), 6.
  17. The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers, Sixteenth Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 190.
  18. Andrea Lunsford, et al., Everyone’s an Author (New York: Norton, 2013), 404.
  19. Ibid., 401.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Publication of the American Psychological Association, 15.
  22. Lunsford, Everyone’s an Author, 401-402.
  23. The MLA Handbook, 6.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 5.
  26. “The Honor Code,” The President and Fellows at Harvard College,
  27. “The University of Michigan Faculty Handbook,” Office of the Provost,
  28. “Berkeley Honor Code,” Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning,
  29. “Academic Integrity,” Sterling College Academic Catalog, 2017-2018, 67.
  30. The institutions cited here, except my own, were selected for their prominence and visibility in higher education in the United States.
  31. Susan D. Blum, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 58.
  32. “Academic Integrity,” Sterling College Academic Catalog, 2017-2018, 67.
  33. Price, “Beyond ‘Gotcha!’,” 93. The three policies Price refers to include the University of Michigan, the University of Massachusetts, and a proposed policy published in an article.
  34. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance,” in Essays: First and Second Series (New York: Library of America, 2010), 29, 30.
  35. Helen Fox, Listening to the World: Cultural Issues in Academic Writing (Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994), 51.
  36. R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), 9.
  37. “The Honor Code,” The President and Fellows at Harvard College,
  38. “The University of Michigan Faculty Handbook,” Office of the Provost,
  39. Maintaining honesty, for example, is implicit in the ninth commandment that forbids false witness.
  40. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, ed. Joyce E. Chaplin (New York: Norton, 2012), 80; D. H. Lawrence, “Benjamin Franklin,” in Autobiography, ed. Joyce E. Chaplin (New York: Norton, 2012), 326.
  41. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 185.
  42. “Academic Integrity,”,
  43. “Berkeley Honor Code,” Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning,
  44. Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 61.
  45. Paul J. Griffiths, “From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Learning,” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, eds. David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 103.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid., 104.
  48. The MLA Handbook, 7.
  49. The presence of Mark’s Gospel in Luke and Matthew is one of the most prominent instances of plagiarism in the Bible. However, such instances are not limited to the Gospels. For example, portions of 1 and 2 Kings appear in 1 and 2 Chronicles, and other New Testament writers use each other’s words without direct citation, such as the writers of 2 Peter using Jude.
  50. Sources for the Gospels, their chronology, and their material relationship to one another have been discussed among Christians and scholars for centuries. The standard view is that Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke independently used it and a hypothetical source of Jesus’ sayings (“Q”) in writing their Gospels. However, other reconstructions of the evidence are possible. In any event, much material is shared between these three Gospels, down to specific wording. A recent publication about this debate is Stanley E. Porter’s and Bryan R. Dyer’s edited book, The Synoptic Problem: Four Views (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016).
  51. The writer of Matthew provides no direct information regarding the sources he consulted; however, the writer of Luke mentions, within the first three verses, his collection and investigation of various resources that aided in the composition of this Gospel. Although he does not mention specific people or texts, an omission that violates current expectations for academic integrity, this introduction to Luke nevertheless acknowledges others’ participation in the text’s construction.
  52. Paul J. Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 176.
  53. Ibid., 181.
  54. Ibid., 182.
  55. Griffiths uses the Latin words “curiositas” and “studiositas,” which he suggests are more nuanced than the versions of these words in English. Intellectual Appetite, 9.
  56. Ibid., 20.
  57. Ibid.
  58. Ibid., 21.
  59. Ibid., 176.
  60. Ibid., 183-184.
  61. Ibid., 183. As stated earlier, the APA manual and Lunsford’s Everyone’s an Author both mention the importance of giving credit where credit is due.
  62. Ibid., 184.
  63. Ibid.
  64. Ibid., 173.
  65. However, I think it is important to acknowledge that plagiarism is less serious outside of academia and the publishing world than within these areas. One recent example of plagiarism outside these areas is Melania Trump’s speech given at the Republican National Convention in July 2016. Although this instance of plagiarism was an embarrassment for the Trump campaign, the future first lady suffered no formal punishment for the act because she is neither a student seeking course credit for that speech nor a writer hoping to benefit from it professionally.
  66. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 88.
  67. James M. Lang, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 174.
  68. Lang actually argues that institutions should “forget about the code” and focus solely on the “dialogue” and culture. Lang, Cheating Lessons, 174. I disagree with Lang on this point, contending with David I. Smith, cited earlier, that our formative liturgies are also “the things we tell ourselves and one another about just what we are engaged in and for what purposes.” David I. Smith, “Recruiting Students’ Imaginations,” 213. These “things we tell ourselves” often begin with honor codes and policies and thus inform routines at an institution.
  69. Holy Bible, New King James Version, 1 Corinthians 11:1.
  70. Alan Jacobs, How to Think (New York: Currency, 2017), 37.
  71. Ibid., 87.
  72. Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite, 167.
  73. Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” 29.
  74. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun, ed. Susan Manning (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 46.
  75. James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 21.
  76. David I. Smith, “Reading Practices and Christian Pedagogy: Enacting Charity with Texts,” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, eds. David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 44.
  77. Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite, 167.
  78. Kathy Koch, “Cheating in Schools,” The CQ Researcher 10.32 (2000): 749.
  79. Meghan O’Rourke, “The Copycat Syndrome,” Slate 11 Jan. 2007,
  80. Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 43.
  81. Evagrius, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 84.
  82. Paul J. Wadell and Darin H. Davis, “Tracking the Toxins of Acedia: Reenvisioning Moral Education,” in The Schooled Heart: Moral Formation in Higher Education, eds. Douglas Henry and Bob Agee (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 134. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and their Remedies (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), 89.
  83. R. R. Reno, Fighting the Noonday Devil and Other Essays Personal and Theological (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 5.
  84. Jean-Charles Nault, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), 18.
  85. Dante Alighieri, “The Purgatorio,” in The Divine Comedy, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 2003), XVIII. 106-108.
  86. David A. Horner and David R. Turner, “Zeal,” in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, eds. Michael W. Austin and R. Douglass Geivett (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 72, 81.
  87. Ibid., 99.
  88. Reno, The Noonday Devil, 4-5.
  89. Nault, The Noonday Devil, 42.
  90. Ibid., 43. Evagrius, Evagrius of Pontus, 85.
  91. Wendell Berry, Home Economics (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1987), 77.
  92. Jeffry C. Davis, “The Countercultural Quest of Christian Liberal Arts,” in Liberal Arts for the Christian Life, eds. Jeffry C. Davis and Philip G. Ryken (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 33.
  93. Clarence W. Joldersma, “Introduction,” in Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), xxi.
  94. Ashley Woodiwiss, “From Tourists to Pilgrims: Christian Practices and the First-Year Experience,” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, eds. David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 127.

Rachel B. Griffis

Sterling College
Rachel B. Griffis is Assistant Professor of English and Director for the Integration of Faith and Learning at Sterling College.