Worship with Your Words: Using Sources Ethically

Hopefully, over the course of your academic journey, the issue of academic dishonesty is addressed in some of your classes.  Often times, this involves addressing the issue of plagiarism–the stealing of ideas or exact wording from another source without giving that source credit.  Dishonestly treating someone else’s ideas as one’s own is certainly not appropriate, especially for Christians, who worship a God in whom there is nothing false, and who expects his people to speak only truth (Exod 20:16; Matt 5:33-37). 

Yet, there are other forms of academic dishonesty, such as misrepresenting sources.  Sometimes, misrepresenting the work of others means extracting their ideas from their context, and then misapplying them so that they appear to support your own conclusions.  At other times, misrepresenting sources takes the opposite form, where you may intentionally distort or detract from the argument of someone with whom you do not agree, in order to make your own argument appear more polished and more persuasive.   Both approaches are dishonest and inconsistent with Christian virtue.

It is of great importance, when we do research, that we do so fairly, that is with honesty and charity.  Keeping in mind the following will help us in doing so:

  1. View all of your academic work as an act of worship before God.  Practice the presence of God as you do your research.  Even if your research is just a paper for a class, that will never get published, and will only be read by your professor, who may never catch the misused information, God knows and sees all that you do.  All of this world belongs to God (including the academy ) and whatever we do (including our academic work) should be done in a way that pleases him (Col 1:16; Rom 12:1; cf. Ps 19:14).  God expects honesty from his people in all things.
  2. View your sources as people.  It’s easy at times to view our sources as merely words on a page, or simply ideas, with nothing human underlying them.  But this is wrong.  The books and articles you read are written by real people, who have (usually) invested time and hard work in putting together their ideas for us to consider.  They are made in God’s image, just like you and I, and are worthy of love, respect and, of course, fairness.  Making a strawman argument out of another person’s work is not only unfair, but unloving.  Remember that “Our Lord hates dishonest scales” (Prov 11:1). Love your authors as your love yourself; treat them the way you want to be treated (Lev 19:18; Matt 7:12; 22:39).
  3.  Be charitable.  Give your sources the benefit of the doubt, showing them respect.  If an argument seems to be unbelievably absurd after a first reading of it, you yourself have probably missed something.  Reread the work, and extend charity wherever possible. Remember that we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). Assume going into your research that your source has something to say worthy of consideration (even if you know you will probably disagree).  If something they say can be taken multiple ways, one of which is glaringly erroneous, assume they mean it in the most sensible way and treat it as such in your writing.  If an argument is unclear, and you still need to use it in your work, it’s okay to state that you believe that the argument needs more clarification.  Whatever the case, assume the author is an intelligent conversation partner; if he or she isn’t, then you probably should be using another source anyway.
  4. Finally, and closely related to my previous point, make sure that you actually understand what is being said by an author before using his or her work.  Other than my first point above, this is perhaps the most important thing to do in research.  Read works slowly.  Carefully evaluate their arguments.  What is their claim? What are their reasons that support their claims?  What evidence (data) do they use?  What information do they ignore?  Asking these questions is the safest way to make sure you are not twisting someone’s work to support your own agenda, or underselling it to make your argument look more appealing than alternative ones.  Only after carefully reading and considering an author’s claims are you prepared to cite his or her work.

As the semester wraps up and you are preparing your final papers, I hope you will keep these things in mind.  Blessings to you as you press on toward the end of the semester.

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