Is there anything new under the sun?: Originality in academic writing and publication

by Anna Blanch on November 7, 2008

One of the fundamental tenets of education in the western world is helping students reach a level of independent thought. Originality is valued highly, so much so, that it is the basis on which higher degrees are granted – an original contribution to a field of study.

The internet has brought many good things to education, specifically access to information. But, the increase in access to information has led to a serious increase in brazen plagiarism. Although, admittedly it may not be that there is any more plagiarism but that the technology now makes it possible to determine with a certain level of accuracy if an act of plagiarism has occurred.

In any case, we are taught that plagiarism is bad and originality is good. Most, if not all of us would accept the validity of this statement as reflecting the holding of a belief that the individual has a right to credit for their original ideas and creations and, moreover, that society benefits from the holding of such a belief, – that protecting originality is beneficial, – because invention is encouraged and social order is maintained.

For his part, Benjamin Disraeli, ever modest and humble, is reported to have said (or written – my source isn’t clear):

“When I want to read a good book, I write one.”

If only I had the chops to say that, let alone the talent and discipline needed to back up that kind of statement. But what if what we want to say has been said before and by someone far more skilled than we are?

Elizabeth Engstrom offers the view that originality is not so much in complete originality of content but in combination of content and our unique “lens”:
I have come to believe that there are no new photos and few new stories, only unusual recombinations of things that have been told before. But what is new, and fresh and original is the author’s lens through which these situations are viewed. Our gift, and consequently our responsibility as writers, is to view life situation in our naturally unique way and report the truth about their meanings and values to the reading public so that they can have fresh insight into the human condition. We are each unique in the universe and, therefore, so are the stories we tell.

If God is creator, and man is created by God in his image, it follows that man possesses creativity and creative impulses. The originality of the expression of those impulses is intrinsically related our uniqueness as individuals made in the image of God.

For a wonderful discussion of God, Creativity, and Creators take a look at the 2008 New College Lectures by Trevor Hart, which can be found at CASE – the mp3 audio files of the lectures are available on the site (which is a bargain considering you would have needed to be in Australia in September to hear them in person). You can also find an interview which aired on Radio National Australia here.

You might also like to check out CASE Magazine no.16 which is on the same topic of God, Creativity and Creators. You can read about this at my earlier post – I also have an article in this issue on reading the arts theologically.

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  • Michael Eve

    "What if what we want to say has been said before and by someone far more skilled"?

    Retweet it?

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