Ethical Guidelines for Writers

By Wayne Jackson

Any writer is pleased when people value his work and wish to pass it along to others. Writing is a form of teaching, and a dedicated teacher wants his message exposed to as many people as possible. The Christian author rejoices, therefore, when his material is circulated widely.

When a writer has labored over a production long and hard, he cannot but be gratified when others find it of value. He wants to see it used, but not abused. Unfortunately, with some folks, the line between use and abuse is so fine they scarcely can see it at all.

As a matter of courtesy and journalistic ethics, we suggest the following.

When you use other people’s articles, give the author’s name and the source. Do not use that ambiguous “Selected” or “Copied.”

Do not rewrite the article to suit your own taste and style. No credible author wants to see his name attached to an article which he did not, in fact, actually write. While an editor has some license (correcting typos, grammatical mistakes, etc.), his power is limited ethically.

Do not abridge articles without the specific approval of the author. You might omit points that the author deemed crucial to the establishment of his case. No writer appreciates unauthorized surgery on his works.

I recently previewed an article by a notable brotherhood author. A few weeks later, the piece appeared in a prominent journal. Amazingly, a very significant and somewhat controversial portion of the original work had been omitted. Obviously, the magazine’s editor disagreed with the idea advanced, and so he determined he would not include that section. Unless he obtained the author’s permission to excise the paragraph, the omission was unethical.

If an editor does not agree with an article he receives, he may reject it. If he accepts it for publication, he should do so without significant alteration.

Do not reproduce for mass distribution another person’s writings without obtaining his or her permission. This is literary piracy.

Finally, it should go without saying that one should never produce another person’s work, in whole or in part, and attach his own name as author. This is called plagiarism. It is a form of theft. Plagiarism is defined as “to pass off as one’s own the ideas and words of another.” This form of compositional burglary manifests itself in a variety of ways.

For instance, it is not ethical to take another person’s material and weave it into your own, changing a few words along the way (e.g., altering “powerful” to “forceful,” “righteous” to “godly,” etc.), and then, in a generic fashion at the end, express gratitude for the use of material from -——, as though this constituted a sufficient reference for copying line after line from an author’s work, with no quotation marks, footnotes, etc. Such methodology is unconscionable though not uncommon.

I cannot but help recall an incident that occurred some years ago when I was teaching a course in Biblical doctrine to a class of prospective young ministers. I had assigned my class the project of doing a brief research paper on the topic of pedo-baptism (the term means infant baptism).

One student quickly, thoughtlessly, and in an obvious stupor, copied an article on the topic from a Bible encyclopedia. Unfortunately, he did not even read what he had copied very carefully, for he concluded with the original author’s antibiblical affirmation that “the practice of pedo-baptism is eminently scriptural.”

It did not take me long to find the source of his “essay.” In addition to the “F” he so richly deserved, he received a kindly admonition from his teacher—at no additional charge!

Every writer should remember this. Once he has compromised his status as a serious student and a researcher of integrity, he will forever be suspect. “Whose material are we reading—his or someone else’s?”

It behooves the Christian to be honorable in all things (Romans 12:17).

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.