Sweeping plagiarism under the rug

In 2016 the sad news emerged that three commentaries written by Peter O’Brien, a respected New Testament scholar, had been pulled following an investigation finding them guilty of plagiarism. See Eerdmans’ post here.

Sad, because it’s clear to all who know him that Peter is indeed a formidable scholar and gracious Christian person, and this is a major academic transgression. But it was not treated as such. It was quietly ‘dealt with’. The books were pulled, a few people made some mutterings about how it was indeed possible to ‘unintentionally’ plagiarise, especially in the realm of commentary writing, and everyone ‘moved on’.

(No one who has taken notes ought to find it difficult to believe that poor note-taking practice could lead to unintentional plagiarism, but this is merely to understand the fault, not to excuse it)

More recently, and with much, much less attention, Andreas Köstenberger’s Baker commentary on John has been ‘declared out of print’ for the same reason (here). I only heard about this from Jim West, and the  accusation has existed since 2011. Nick Norelli quotes from Köstenberger himself on the vice of plagiarism here.

It’s worth repeating a key paragraph from Köstenberger here:

What is more, once a scholar’s reputation has been marred by plagiarism, it is virtually impossible to regain credibility. Even if those whom you harmed by plagiarism forgive you and you avoid losing your job and you avoid being expelled from an academic program or institution, you can never turn back the clock, and your reputation will likely suffer permanent damage. What is more, you bring dishonor to the God whom you serve and with whom you have chosen to publicly identify. Of all students, it is those engaged in biblical and theological studies who should hold to impeccable standards when it comes to respecting and referencing the work of others.

Plagiarism is a vice and transgression that would destroy a student’s career, but it is a blemish to senior scholars. Köstenberger is apparently working on a new commentary that will correct the misdemeanors of the tainted one.

Really, this simply won’t do for Christian scholarship. It’s not that I feel some sort of vindictive persecution of these two writers needs to take place, indeed I wish them no ill will of any sort. Nonetheless, this ‘go gently’ attitude of quietly removing books from sale, with an almost impossible to locate statement of the transgression, and no repercussions, is itself undermining the righteousness of all parties.

As for me, in my small corner of the world I deal with students still reading and utilising these works. No longer, I decided. My new policy is to (a) warn students that these works are condemned to oblivion, and (b) treat all citations and reliance upon these works as ‘unsourced material’, as if they simply failed to exist. While we may, and indeed ought, forgive authors their sins, to do so we must acknowledge (genuinely) the wrongness of the plagiarism done.

3 responses

  1. I saw this notice last year after having purchased the book. My thoughts on the matter were, and still are, that the publisher and especially the editors should bear some blame in this matter. What happened in the review process as the book was being prepared for printing?

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    • Probably, yes. I agree that the Publishing House has holds a duty of care not to publish works that commit plagiarism, but in the end the buck stops with the author. Which I’m sure you’re not disagreeing with, and we should indeed ask questions about how such things get into print. It’s harder than we’d like to admit to test everything for plagiarised content, though in theory mass-digitisation should make it easier to raise flags about material for closer inspection.

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