A Christian Approach to Plagiarism I: Protecting the Powerless


When the Bible speaks of justice, it directs our attention toward the powerless: widows, orphans, aliens. It teaches us that justice involves looking out for those on the margins and protecting their rights.

If we are to react justly to classroom plagiarism, we need to recognize who has the power, and whose rights are threatened. Let’s look at three parties who are involved in classroom plagiarism: the author whose work was plagiarized, the student who did the plagiarism, and the teacher/administrator.

In a way the author has the least power because she has the least control over the plagiarism. There may be a copyright notice on the work, but that is not much protection against a student intent on pasting. The author is at the mercy of other people’s conscience.

Both the student and the teacher have more control over the act of plagiarism. The student has the power to take words without the author’s or the teacher’s permission. Since the teacher has direct contact with the student, the teacher can issue warnings and impose penalties that are harder to ignore than a copyright notice. After the plagiarism is done, the teacher (with perhaps the aid of some software or a search engine) is more likely to detect the plagiarism than the author. Of the three parties, the author is the one that most needs protection from plagiarism.

In another sense, the author is quite powerful. She is a published writer. Maybe she publishes academic articles in peer reviewed journals. Maybe she just publishes captions on cat pictures in a personal blog. No matter where the author’s work appears, the student most likely perceives the author’s English writing as superior to her own. Somehow the author has attained the confidence to participate in a form of public discourse in English. This author is part of the inner-circle that uses English for communication. This is the author’s power.

Most likely, the student does not see herself as part of this inner-circle. She may see her own writing as so poor that it must be hidden or replaced. Maybe she dreams of communicating in English, maybe not. Maybe she doesn’t imagine anyone would ever read her writing with interest. The student lacks voice.

The English teacher has much more power than the student. The teacher stands at the door to the inner-circle. If the student does what the teacher requires, maybe the student will be able to enter the inner-circle, or if that’s too ambitious, at least pass the class and graduate.

In both of these power relationships, the teacher emerges as a person with power. Granted this power, the teacher has responsibility to look out for the less powerful. The teacher must protect both the author and the student. Next up: Whose rights are violated when plagiarism occurs?

Heidi Nam1

Heidi Vande Voort Nam (MA TESL/TEFL University of Birmingham) teaches in the Department of English Education at Chongshin University in Seoul. She is co-facilitator of the KOTESOL Christian Teachers SIG.


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