Plagiarism: Alternate explanations?

Is it possible to duplicate the words of another without it being plagiarism?

Kevin L. Morgan pastors the Warrensville and Wilkesboro Seventh-day Adventist Churches in North Carolina, United States.

Accusations of plagiarism often fly when similarity of wording is noted between two authors. This was the case in the late 1970s when Walter Rea discovered similarities in writing between Ellen G. White and the life of Christ writers who preceded her. In this article, we will examine ways in which a person may duplicate the words of others without it being plagiarism.

How do we know if similar passages are related to one another?1

“In two novels published by two different publishing houses and issued on or almost the same date, there were two paragraphs which were not only in meaning but in phraseology and in reference almost precisely identical.”2

A stanza of a poem published in May 1900 was the same as an unpublished poem written in January 1899.3

A writer confronted a critic who accused her of “borrowing” the title of her poem from another. The writer’s poem had been published years before the alleged original. Yet, “not only were the poems identical in name—that name constituting their refrain, an entire line, oft repeated—but their burden was the same, and the rhythm—very irregular, identical also. The critic was dumbfounded.”4

How could this be? Often two people come to strikingly similar conclusions without having collaborated with one another.

“The discovery that your discovery has already been discovered is surprisingly common, said Stephen Stigler . . . there is the oft-told story about Larry Shepp, a famous mathematician at Rutgers University. Dr. Shepp, when told that a piece of work he thought was his discovery actually duplicated another mathematician’s breakthrough, replied: ‘Yes, but when I discovered it, it stayed discovered.’ ”5

“Hus and Wycliffe seem to illustrate the phenomena of an idea developing in two minds along parallel lines to results that are surprisingly similar. This is to history what ‘unconscious plagiarism’ means in letters.”6

Cryptomnesia—unconscious plagiarism

To a person who is fairly well read and who writes much it is often a serious question whether something he has written is as purely original as anything can well be, or whether it is the aid of the subjective mind that suddenly interposes with its stored-up knowledge and furnishes just the words and thoughts needed from the unconscious (to the objective mind) memory of the subjective mind. And the more he tries to discriminate and remember, the less he knows about it.

And the very state of the absorbed and earnest writer aids the unconscious plagiarism and subconscious action, because he becomes so absorbed in his work that the objective mind is almost unconscious of its surroundings, thus making it an easy matter for the subjective mind to interpose its ready memory aid without regarding the storm of criticism or cry of plagiarism that the act may entail.7

Researchers Marsh, Landau, and Hicks conducted a study that showed that “recollection of information and the ascription of its original source can be separate cognitive acts.”8

Alan S. Brown and Hildy E. Halliday have noted that “dramatic and serious incidences of cryptomnesia do exist.” 9 Jung “noted that 20 years elapsed between Nietzsche’s hearing a folk story to his using it in a novel”; Helen Keller heard a story and three years later wrote it as her own short story; Freud heard a friend talk about a theory and, two years later, “inadvertently claimed the idea as his own.”10 Authors Brown and Murphy mention a man named Daniels, who described knowing that he “had an extraordinary ability to remember material when I wanted to, but I have never before realized that I did it unconsciously.”11 (A reporter, who listened to a presentation of Ellen G. White that was “interspersed with instructive facts . . . she had gathered in her recent visit to foreign lands,” called attention to her “remarkable memory of details.”)12Linda Hutcheon concludes, “Literary criticism has been somewhat slower than literary theory to acknowledge the role of these other players.”13

Evidence of Ellen G. White’s independence of thought

Similarity is not the whole picture. “To notice similarities is only the first step in the study of literary relationships. One must also catalogue the differences, and then, even more importantly, ask what use the second author made of the first author’s work. In spite of the fact that she [Ellen G. White] used Melvill, her writings are far more than a replay of his teachings.”14

Since Ellen G. White had written “most of the ideas which are common to her and Dr. Stowe at a time prior to the writing of” Manuscript 24, 1886, and because “there are significant differences between the theories of revelation presented by Dr. Stowe and Mrs. White” she was not “appropriating the ideas of another man.”15

Consider her borrowings from Conybeare and Howson. After doing a “parallel study of Ellen White’s Sketches from the Life of Pauland Conybeare and Howson’s Life and Epistles of St. Paul,” Denis Fortin says:

w e . . . [ f o u n d ] e v i d e n c e s that Ellen White did get some materials from these two authors. However, we must recognize that her borrowing was not done in a mindless manner. She borrowed geographical, archaeological and historical information to supplement her thoughts and descriptions of the events she was describing. Sometimes she loosely paraphrased what she borrowed, other times the paraphrases are more substantial, still sometimes the passages borrowed are almost word for word, or following the same line of thought. Yet, it also seems evident that she borrowed what she needed and left out what did not fi t her thought. One draw back of this comparative study is the fact that long sections of Ellen White’s chapters are not mentioned because there is no parallel with Conybeare and Howson. Furthermore, one should note that Ellen White often rearranged Conybeare and Howson’s outline and thoughts, she took materials from different pages or chapters and lined them up in her own way. Most students doing research today do not take the time to rework someone’s thoughts and outline to that extent. This study shows that Ellen White knew what she was borrowing and did not borrow material mindlessly, simply to fill a page. She interacted with the material which to me indicates she was not plagiarizing.16

There have been claims that Ellen G. White constructed several chapters of her books out of Daniel March’s book, Night Scenes in the Bible.17Drs. Brand and McMahon’s book, The Prophet and Her Critics, contains an exhibit that shows that Ellen G. White was far less dependent on March in Prophets and Kings than critics allege.18

While we would have to agree with Douglas Hackleman that the 2.6 percent literary indebtedness in the Cottrell and Specht study of The Desire of Ages is low due to its being based on William Hanna’s work alone, the assertion that 80 to 90 percent of Ellen G. White’s writings were copied is wildly overstated.19The Veltman project, which was set up to find any possible literary dependency, surveyed more than 500 works for possible sources and documented only 31 percent of possible literary dependent sentences for the representative chapters in the study. Discounting the quotation of Scripture, that would mean that 61 percent of the sentences in those chapters in The Desire of Ages were independent.

A recent study by Jean Zurcher cites eight instances of Ellen G. White’s correctness in describing the Waldenses and Albigenses, despite claims that she was merely copying information from misinformed historians.20 Albert Reville explains why she contradicts certain historians: We are reduced to descriptions given by adversaries, by some apostates, and to depositions gathered by the tribunals of the inquisition. Some are disparaging, others suspect, so that we have to beware especially of the tendency of these judges or of these historians, equally biased, to present as direct dogmas or as beliefs positively professed by the Cathari, many ridiculous or repulsive eccentricities which are only the real or assumed consequences of principles admitted by them. Nothing is more deceptive than a method like this.21

Borrowing not an argument against inspiration

Was Walter Rea justified in his reaction to the similarity of The Desire of Ages to other life of Christ writings? Alden Thompson reviews Rea and observes:

Biblical scholars will observe fascinating parallels between Rea’s reaction to his data and the nineteenth century reaction to the “critical” study of the Bible. In the nineteenth century, initial reaction to the discovery that the biblical writers used sources was violent. Only after many decades did it become possible for mainstream scholarship to emphasize the finished product as being more meaningful than the bits and pieces. As part of that concern with the finished product, biblical scholars today emphasize the importance of what the author added and deleted (redaction criticism).Rea betrays his lack of awareness of modern research methods when he exclaims in evident disbelief that the defenders of Ellen White are finding it significant to study “that which she didn’t include when she copied.”22

Inspiration cannot be determined merely by the percentages of borrowed and unborrowed material in a given article or book. Ministry magazine in a well researched inset takes up the point:

The amount of borrowing is not the most important question . . . An instructive parallel is found in the relationship of the Gospels. More than 90 percent of the Gospel of Mark is paralleled by passages in Matthew and Luke. Even so, contemporary critical Biblical scholars are coming more and more to the conclusion that although Matthew, Mark and Luke used common materials, each was a distinct author in his own right. Thus even ‘higher critics’ have a more analytical approach to the study of literary sources than does The White Lie.

At one time in the infancy of ‘source criticism’ the Gospel writers were thought by higher critics to be little more than ‘scissors and paste’ plagiarizers. Now critical scholars realize that literary studies are not complete until they move beyond cataloging parallel passages to the more significant question of how the borrowed material was used by each author to make his own unique statement.23

“If the ‘inspired’ authors of Scripture could ‘borrow,’ how can Ellen White’s borrowing be an argument against her inspiration?”24

 Peterson’s comments are significant:

Plagiarism is a narrow, technical term which simply does not apply in the case of Mrs. White . . . Any literary scholar can tell us that “source studies” are among the most treacherous tasks to undertake, for merely establishing a similarity—even a marked similarity— between two literary texts is not sufficient evidence of borrowing. One must also demonstrate (a) that text B was written after the publication of text A (the presumed “source”), (b) that the author of text B could be reasonably supposed to have had access to text A, and (c) that the ideas or even the language of text A have not become sufficiently dispersed so as to be, in effect, the common literary property of the age.25

Issuing a verdict

A legal claim of copyright infringement against Mrs. White could never have succeeded. While Mrs. White’s compositions may bear resemblance to other writings of the same genre, the evidence shows that their similarity is often due to mutual dependence on Scripture (which isn’t copyrightable), that many of the words and phrases determined by the original Life of Christ Research Project to be literary parallels of the “sources” were merely extensions of verbatim and thought material in her earlier writings,26 and that the amount of material she borrowed without credit does not exceed that borrowed by other writers of her genre.27 Moreover, she was not even threatened with suit, though the accusation of plagiarism circulated during her lifetime.

In our last article, we will review evidence showing that Ellen G. White’s “sources” borrowed from one another without acknowledging their sources at least as often as she did.28

1 Jeffrey H. Tigay, “On Evaluating Claims of Literary Borrowing,” found online at
2 A. W. Harrington, “Other Cases of Unconscious Plagiarism,” letter to the editor New York Times (Oct. 20, 1900): BR10.
3 “Plagiarism,” New York Times (Jan. 5, 1901): BR10.
4 Sarah Jeanette Burke, “Other Cases of Unconscious Plagiarism,” letter to the editor New York Times (Oct. 20, 1900): BR10.
5 Gina Kolata, “Pity the Scientist Who Discovers the Discovered,” (February 5, 2006); found online at
6 “John Hus and His Times,” New York Times (Aug.14, 1909): BR485.
7 C. J. Greenleaf, “‘Plagiarism’ and Double Consciousness,” New York Times (Nov. 9, 1907): BR720.
8 Richard L. Marsh, Joshua D. Landau, and Jason L. Hicks, “Contributions of Inadequate Source Monitoring to Unconscious Plagiarism During Idea Generation,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 23/4 (1997): 887.
9 Alan S. Brown and Hildy E. Halliday, “Cryptomnesia and Source Memory Diffi culties,” American Journal of Psychology 104/4 (Winter 1991): 475.
10 Brown and Halliday, 476.
11 Alan S. Brown and Dana R. Murphy, “Cryptomnesia: Delineating Inadvertant Plagiarism,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 15/3 (1989): 432–442.
12 “Mrs. Ellen G. White’s Able Address. A Characteristic and Eloquent Discourse by This Remarkable
Lady,” Battle Creek Daily Journal, Oct. 5, 1887.
13 Linda Hutcheon, “Literary Borrowing . . . and Stealing: Plagiarism, Sources, Infl uences, and Intertexts,” English Studies in Canada 12/2 (June 1986): 229–39.
14 Ron Graybill, Warren H. Johns, and Tim Poirier, “Henry Melvill and Ellen G. White: A Study of Literary and Theological Relationships,” (Ellen G. White Estate, May 1982), iii.
15 David Neff, “Ellen White’s Theological and Literary Indebtness to Calvin Stowe,” (revised 1979), 22.
16 Denis Fortin, “Ellen G. White as a Writer: Case Studies in the Issue of Literary Borrowing,” Available
online at
17 For analysis of his work, relative to The Desire of Ages, see
18 Walter Rea, “The Paraphrasing Prophet,” http:// (Nov. 2005).
19 See the claim at that it is an “absolute proven fact that White plagiarized 80-90%” of her inspired writings and Dirk Anderson’s ambiguous claim, “Some studies have suggested that in some parts of her writings as much as 90% of her writings were copied from others,” at is based on Walter Rea’s statement posted at
20 Jean Zurcher, “A Vindication of Ellen White as Historian,” Spectrum 16/3 (August 1985): 21–31. Found online at
21 Revue des Deux-des, May 1, 1874, quoted by Deodet Roche, Le Catharisme, Vol. 1, 1973. In Zurcher, 30.
22 Alden Thompson, “The Imperfect Speech of Inspiration,” book review of Walter Rea’s book, The White Lie. Spectrum 12/4 (June 1982): 70. Found online at
23 “The Truth About the White Lie,” Ministry insert, 55:2 (August 1982), 2.
24 Alden Thompson, “Luke, A Plagiarist? ‘Are Adventists Afraid of Bible Study?’” book review of George Rice’s book, Luke, A Plagiarist? Spectrum 16/1 (April 1985): 56–60; found online at Thompson also
notes on pages 60 and 61 that double-column analysis tends to overemphasize similarities while understating or ignoring dissimilarities.
25 William S. Peterson, “Ellen White’s Literary Indebtedness,” Spectrum 3/4 (Autumn 1971): 78.
Found online at
26 “Only parallels demonstrating a clear verbal connection, including paraphrasing, were marked.” Ellen G. White Estate, “Ellen White’s Literary Sources: How Much Borrowing is There?” Available online at This is the reason the earlier Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1, had been overlooked.
27 Alexander Lindey, Plagiarism and Originality (Harper & Brothers, 1952), 6.
28 For details of the study, see




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Kevin L. Morgan pastors the Warrensville and Wilkesboro Seventh-day Adventist Churches in North Carolina, United States.

October 2007

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