The word “plagiarism” originated as a word for kidnapping. That’s the takeaway from a Baptist ethicist called to comment on plagiarism.

The idea of passing someone else’s work off as your own has moved into popular discussion after a Southern Baptist Convention official was found to have quoted material verbatim and at length, without citing the source, during a radio broadcast.

But the issue of plagiarism goes far beyond that single controversy.

The Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the organization tasked with accrediting seminaries, includes a section in their standards calling for academic integrity.

Section 3.3.5 of General Institutional Standards says: “The institution shall define and demonstrate ongoing efforts to ensure the ethical character of learning, teaching and scholarship on the part of all members of the academic community…”

Tisa Lewis, the director of Accreditation and Institutional Evaluation for ATS, said every school is expected to have written standards concerning plagiarism and other academic integrity issues.

“We don’t have specific guidelines for them to follow,” Lewis said, “but we do expect guidelines to be in place.”

Bill Tillman, a former professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Fort Worth, Texas, and at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, said SWBTS was serious about plagiarism when he taught there in the 1990s.

“The student handbook had content dedicated to institutional and student accountabilities,” Tillman said. “The catalogs form a contract between the parties, in fact … there are usually lists of the kinds of activities that would be understood as academic dishonesty, etc. For example, cheating on exams, using sources without documentation and so forth. And, yes, SWBTS did work against plagiarism.”

The current catalog at SWBTS also addresses plagiarism: “All research papers will be closely examined and submitted to an anti-plagiarism program for analysis. If a paper shows noticeable instances of plagiarism, the research paper will be rejected.”

That is only one possible penalty for plagiarism, though. Institutions of higher learning typically give discretion to professors in dealing with plagiarism; a zero on an assignment and failing the class are possibilities.

A student charged with plagiarism results in a permanent mark on a student’s transcripts, and even a first violation can get a student expelled from the university.

Tillman said the rules are strict because plagiarism has always been taken seriously in academia since it is the intellectual equivalent of theft.

“You know the basic derivation of plagiarism?” Tillman asked. “It’s originally an Anglo-Saxon word for kidnapping and more than implies a violent act against someone. The whole concept was made to order for an ethics professor to get students’ attention toward how we should relate to others, how much we should respect their words, and on and on.” contacted various current faculty members at SWBTS for comment about plagiarism. They declined comment.

But Wes Black, the associate dean for doctoral studies at SWBTS, clearly defined plagiarism in his “Suggestions for PhD Students.”

“Turning in a paper actually written by someone else but saying, ‘I wrote this.’ Buying a paper from a ‘paper mill’ and submitting it as if you wrote it … These are the most flagrant examples of plagiarism. There are other forms of plagiarism that are more subtle, but still unacceptable,” Black wrote. “Offering someone else’s words as your own – in any form – is still plagiarism.”

SWBTS houses the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement. Land, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, is also a visiting professor at SWBTS.

An ERLC committee is scheduled June 1 to release the findings of its plagiarism investigation of Land.

Land’s plagiarism controversy erupted when Aaron Weaver, a Baptist blogger and Baylor University doctoral student, discovered Land had used on his March 31 radio show about Trayvon Martin unattributed material from a Washington Times column by Jeffery Kuhner.

Weaver accused Land of plagiarism and later found another instance from the radio show of what he called plagiarism.

Land subsequently apologized for not providing “appropriate verbal attributions,” and a committee to investigate was formed. Last week, the committee’s chairman resigned.

The investigation is the first of its kind in Baptist broadcast circles, as plagiarism is usually discussed in publishing and academic contexts.

Land and the ERLC initially said they were uncertain if the same standards apply to broadcast media.

Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, framed the matter this way in a May 28 tweet: “Land’s plagiarism concerns more than his politics. Will how it is tackled set an SBC precedence for copied seminary papers, church sermons?”

GregHorton is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of philosophy and humanities. He lives in Oklahoma City.

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