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Plagiarism - How It Harms Our Community

Author: Incense Dragon [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: January 20th. 2013
Times Viewed: 2,061

There are a variety of popular and legal definitions for the word “plagiarism” that can be found on the web and on discussion groups the world over. I don’t want to discuss those definitions nor do I want to talk about particular cases of plagiarism (if interested, I suggest starting at a good site like www.plagiarism.com) . For the purposes of this article I will define “plagiarism” simply as “copying the work of others without giving appropriate credit.” What I want to discuss here is not what meets the definition of plagiarism, but rather how plagiarism impacts our community.

I think that in the multitude of debates and discussions about what is and is not “plagiarism” that most of us have forgotten why the issue matters. It is important to understand that to any legitimate writer or author, the accusation of plagiarism is one of the most upsetting things that can ever happen. Not surprisingly, legitimate writers tend to react very strongly to such a suggestion. Unfortunately, there is a class of “authors” who not only are unconcerned with the charge of plagiarism but who actually make their living from stealing the work of others and claiming it is their original work. Be very careful about leveling the charge against anyone unless you have absolute proof.

So how does plagiarism (regardless of form) harm you, your family, and your community? Why is simply copying the work of someone, without citing that original work, something that should concern anyone? There are many reasons, some of which you may have never considered.

Honesty
The Pagan community generally embraces the need for honesty and trust in our workings. The phrase “in perfect love and perfect trust” is a reflection of the way many in our community practice their spirituality. Can you trust the word of an “author” who takes credit for the work of others? As a community, we generally honor and respect our teachers but can that apply to a teacher who practices fundamental dishonesty? Whether you see plagiarism as a lie or a theft, you can see that elevating a plagiarizer to a high position within our community is, in essence, making a “con artist” into a community leader. It’s easy to guess how that could go wrong.
Virtually all spiritual teachers and leaders ask that some things be accepted purely on the basis of their word or teachings. If there is documented evidence that this person has stolen the words of others and claimed them for their own, we have to ask if this is the type of person who should be in a leadership role or in any position where authority might be exerted over another.

Integrity of the work
Beyond questions about the person who perpetrates this type of fraud, as readers and learners, we also have to consider the impact of plagiarization on the work itself. It isn’t much of a leap to think that those who blatantly copy the work of others would not be fastidious in their copying. In other words, the information has been stolen anyway, so why would it matter to such “authors” if there were errors in what is copied?

Many of the plagiarizers of Pagan work (whom I have investigated) intentionally change the occasional word in the material that they copy. Most commonly, they modify a word or two to make it fit with their own terminology. A perfect example is one rampant plagiarizer who publishes “eBooks” and replaces virtually every noun with the word “Witch”. While the original text might say, “Celtic belief teaches us that…”, the plagiarizer would change it to say “Witch belief teaches us that…” As clumsy as that phrasing is, it is very common to see such poorly constructed sentences in plagiarized material. The attitude seems to be completely nonchalant about a change that could significantly alter the meaning of the original author’s words. That is only the start of the potential impact.

Another good example would be from someone who recently plagiarized one of my books on incense making. This “author” copied from several Scott Cunningham books, several popular websites, and from my first book. It is obvious when reading the book that this “author” had no understanding of the material as he moved from talking about loose incense into talking about self-combusting incense and then back again. This is a natural outgrowth of just pasting material that you do not understand. The core meaning, the basic integrity, of the work is compromised due to ignorance on the part of the “author”. That leads to one of the primary concerns with plagiarism.

Confusion
The situation I cited in the last paragraph exemplifies my biggest personal concern with plagiarization. Put aside everything else and think about those who are just beginning on their spiritual path (or who have just begun to explore Paganism) . Imagine such a person running across one of these books created from plagiarized materials. The work can be chaotic and difficult to follow. There is no cohesion in the writing so it is very disjointed. Worst of all, plagiarized material is often filled with poorly understood or incorrect information. If someone is just exploring this spiritual path, they might easily take the incorrect information as valid. This could result in being completely “turned off” by Paganism or, even worse, could lead someone into practices that are not only ineffective but also truly dangerous. Such copy-and-paste books (perhaps the most extreme example of plagiarized materials) can even contradict themselves because the “author” didn’t bother to read, or was unable to understand, the materials she or he used to fill the space in their book.

Such confusion will turn away the more skilled readers (possibly from Paganism as a whole) but may actually form the basis of a more novice reader’s new belief system. Poorly written or poorly edited books are a huge turn-off to most readers. A reader who is actively seeking a new path might easily turn away from a Pagan, Wiccan, Druid, Heathen, etc., path simply because the first book selected on the topic was one that was poorly copied or assembled. One of these terribly assembled books could take a reader away from literally dozens of potential spiritual paths. I can’t imagine that anyone wants that to be the result of publishing a book.

Money
I think, above all else, this is a case where “the bottom line is the bottom line”. In other words, the bulk of this problem ties back to money. While I do think there is a handful of misguided people out there producing plagiarized materials for what (to them) are good, valid reasons, the bulk of plagiarized materials seem to come from people out to make a buck.

Before I write anything else, let me explain that very, very few Pagan authors make a living from writing. Those who do must work extremely hard and travel a great deal to be financially successful. There are only a handful of authors in our community that have been able to accomplish this. Anyone who thinks they can become rich being an author in the Pagan world has definitely not done much research.

That being said, there are people who profit from plagiarism of Pagan materials. One of the “authors” that I mentioned earlier releases about one book per month and has over 50 books in print. Although I was able to put an end to the book where he plagiarized me, he has 50 more titles ranging from cookbooks to paranormal research to kitchen witchery. All of that work is plagiarized from other authors. When someone plagiarizes at that volume (I understand this is an even more rampant problem in the romance novel genre) , it is possible to make significant money even if the books are poor and impossible to understand.

Dilution of our Heritage and History
More than anything else, when plagiarism is not confronted and is left unchecked, it diminishes us as a community. When the words of historic personalities like Gerald Gardner, Scott Cunningham, Starhawk, and many others are plagiarized they lose much of their power and are in danger of being grossly misused or misunderstood. We can certainly see the historic results of merely having people (who belong to more mainstream religions) translate their established religious materials into English (compare the King James bible versus original Greek and Latin texts) . As with those other religions and spiritual paths, much of our foundational writing can be misinterpreted, copied incorrectly, or intentionally changed to support the plagiarizer’s point of view.

Imagine our community in another 100 years. Do we want the words of people like Gardner and Cunningham to stand as originally written? Can pale imitations, misquotes, and the changing of those original words (intentional or not) truly stand for future generations? Or, as I believe, should we preserve the written words from our past as well as words yet to be written, for future generations to consider and evaluate for themselves?

Conclusion
Even skilled, professional writers are known to plagiarize the material of others. As a writer, I find it difficult to believe that any professional writer would believe they could successfully plagiarize another author. However, sometimes the pressures of meeting a deadline or getting around writer’s block leads even admirable writers to, thankfully rarely, make this poor decision. “Accidental” plagiarism is virtually impossible, but I would leave some wiggle room in case some unusual situations might take place occasionally.

That being said, plagiarism is a significant problem that is growing daily. As more people create websites, blogs, and self-publish books, this will only become a more serious problem. There is a seemingly simplistic solution that just could work and preserve the knowledge and wisdom of Pagan thinkers from this plague of plagiarism. That solution is us. If, as a community, we refuse to accept plagiarism in any form, then there will be little motivation for the creation of this material. Avoid websites that plagiarize (Google is taking a critical step to help with this issue) and avoid purchasing plagiarized materials. You don’t simply have to accept that something has been plagiarized because someone has said it is, but you can use that information to verify the problem for yourself.

While few people realize it, there are dedicated members of our community working hard to stomp out Pagan plagiarism. These unsung workers, primarily authors themselves, are constantly trying to get web sites to comply with copyright laws and chasing down self-published books that blatantly plagiarize other authors. These people face constant public and private attacks for their efforts. I am honored to have worked with several such groups of people this year while chasing down the person I mentioned earlier who had plagiarized my first book. That situation was fairly quickly resolved and the offending book has been taken out of print. However, this opened my eyes to how massive the problem is. I am now pursuing another plagiarizer who has copied from Christopher Penczak, Scott Cunningham, and others and is selling their words as if they were her own (to my knowledge she has not plagiarized from me) . I am in contact with the appropriate authorities and providing them with detailed information about her plagiarism.

In many cases, plagiarizers fight back and attack those who disclose their copyright violations. This extends to personal attacks, false reviews planted, threats to the investigators and their families, and even the public posting of all kinds of personal contact and other private information. I hope that you will join me in thanking those unsung heroes. It is up to all readers to look for plagiarization and report it when discovered. That is the path forward to ensure that future generations of Pagans can reader the words of our thinkers as they were intended.





Footnotes:
http://www.plagiarism.com


Copyright: This is original work © Carl Neal, 2012



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