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.

Triangulating curriculum design

The only useful thing I ever learned about curriculum design was at a staff development day while in Mongolia. Thankfully the presenter spoke in English and it was translated for the Mongolian staff. I say, “thankfully”, because this (a) reduced my overall cognitive load, and (b) meant I could process the material twice.

Anyway, the big take-away I had was designing your courses backwards, and triangulating three things:

  1. Goals
  2. Methods
  3. Assessments

Goals are what you think your students should know/be able to do, at the end of the course. It’s the point B you’re trying to get them to. Working out your point B (and, for any possible course that has real or implicit prerequisites, the point A they start from), is essential because you can’t get students where you want them to end up if you don’t know what that is.

Then you need to work out appropriate methods to get to those goals. It’s no good saying you want to get to B, if you teach via a method that leads to C. For example, if your goal is grammatical analysis abilities of Greek in English, then teaching communicatively in Greek only will not get you there. And, vice versa, if your goal is an oral ability in Greek, then written translation exercises will not get you there. And so on.

Then you need to design assessments that will test whether you got to those goals. In effect, you are testing (a) did the student(s) reach your goals, (b) did your teaching get them there? That is, assessment assesses both students and teaching. It’s important to get this right because (i) if your assessments don’t actually assess your goals, you have no idea whether you reached them, and (ii) how you assess inevitable influences what students do.

That first issue is part of what I was driving at with the NT translation post – does translation function as a useful assessment for most NT Greek courses’ goals? No. It would be perfect if the class’s goal were translation though, say, a class in translation!

That second issue is also incredibly vital, especially where a lot of student “time” is directed by the students. What a teacher does in 2, 3 contact hours constitutes one part of the teaching method, but students will inevitably shape their own practices around how they will be assessed. So if you have, say, communicative methods in 3 hours of teacher-led interaction, but the class is tested on translation and vocab tests, guess what students will spend their time doing? That’s right, prepping for translation and rote-learning vocab.

Which is why you need to triangulate all three of these things, to make them line up perfectly. And, because that’s going to fail, to do it iteratively. That is, to get to the end of a course of teaching, and evaluate as a teacher whether you reached your goals, and why it is you failed: were the methods wrong? did the assessments do what they were meant to? Did the assessments corrupt your methods and mislead your students? Were there other factors? How to fix these?

(Of course, I have zero control over all three of these factor in almost all my current variety of roles, so don’t blame me!)

Assessing NT students on translations of NT texts is a waste of time

Asking New Testament students to provide a translation of a known (chapter/verse) NT text in an exam or exegetical paper is a waste of time. It tests nothing and it discriminates nothing.

Every student ought to be getting 90-100% on this part of an assessment anyway, because either:

  • they are smart enough to check any translation they do with several English versions and realise their errors beforehand
  • they are smart and a little unscrupulous and are just going to vary an existing English version anyway.
  • if it’s an exam situation, and it’s a set text, then all we are testing is their preparation, not their ability to read Greek.

Why are we even asking them to do translations anyway? They are unlikely to create a translation that is genuinely better or meaningfully different from the hyper-abundance of English versions already in existence. And, assuming that this is a paper and not an exam, as an examiner I gain almost zero insight into their Greek ability or their understanding of the text, unless they stuff it up horribly. Even on an exam, I am testing an unrealistic environment and their ability to read Greek under pressure but with the real question of “what did they prepare and how well?”

Consider what translation is meant to be testing.

  1. Their ability to read Greek.
  2. Their ability to translate
  3. Their understanding of grammar.

In reverse order:

Understanding grammar: Yes, it’s true that asking someone to translate something is a fast and relatively effective way to see if they understand it. But a set translation doesn’t do that, and a set text doesn’t do that either. Knowledge of the English is too strong an interference.

And, if we are asking students to translate in a way that demonstrates their knowledge of the grammar (as I unfortunately have to instruct some of my tutoring students to do), we are training them to be bad translators.

If you want to test explicit grammar knowledge, just ask explicit grammar questions. It’s that simple.

Ability to translate:

Translation is a skill, and it’s a high order one, not a low order one. It requires a real and comprehensive ability in both the source and target languages. Most translation exercises are a test in the students ability to reproduce “Biblish” English.

If we genuinely wanted to test (and train!) translation ability, we would set translation tasks/assessments in which the translation target was specified in demanding ways: Basic English, Anglish, a specific Flesch Reading Ease score, Poetry, highly idiomatic, highly regionalised, etc., etc..

Ability to read Greek:

In some ways it’s difficult to easily, accurately, and comprehensively assess someone’s ability to read Greek. It’s certainly possible to, for instance, ask questions in Greek. But then you are also testing their ability to comprehend the questions. And, you run into ‘form’ problems – if you understand the form of the question, and the answer, you can answer a foreign language question without actually understanding the question or its answer. I did this a great deal in Mongolian because of my “fake it till you make it” philosophy.

I think you might till test this via translation, if you want to, but by varying a few factors. Firstly, in exams simply remove all chapter and verse markings. maybe even punctuation. You don’t need to make them read undivided uncials though, unless you are cruel.

Secondly, you could also provide texts that are single-manuscript sources, rather than eclectic texts. Students easily get used to the sanitised versions of ‘text’ that critical editions give them. Throw them into the wild and have them read something more like this:


ειπ]ε[ν ουν] αυτοις ο ι̅η̅· α[μην αμην λεγ]ω̣ υμιν̣ [οτι εγω ειμι η θυρα των

π̣ροβατ̣ω̣ν· παντες οσοι̣ [ηλθον κλεπτα]ι εισιν και λησται· α̣[λλ ουκ η

κουσεν αυτων τα προβατα[· εγω ειμι η] θ̣υ[ρ]α· δι εμου εαν τις εισ[ελθη σωθη

σεται· και εισελευσεται· και εξ[ε]λ[ε]υσεται· και νομην ευρησει· [ο κλεπτης

ουκ ερχεται ει μη ϊνα κλεψη και θυση και απολεση· εγω η̣[λθον

ϊνα ζωην εχωσι· και περισσον εχωσιν·


(John 10:7-10 from P45)


If they were classical Greek students tackling a NT class, you can be meaner. Convert a NT text into Ionian, or similar mean tricks.

Anyway, my point is simple – asking students to produce a ‘standard’-esque translation of a Greek NT text is not a very useful assessment tool because it doesn’t test anything very useful, and doesn’t provide any real discrimination among students. So it’s neither providing any valuable feedback to me as a teacher, nor is it spreading the student field in any meaningful way, so giving them all 10/10 is the same as giving them 0/10 for it. Yes, by all means students should probably go on translating NT texts as part of their studies, it won’t harm them (much), but let’s give up assessing them with it.

On being a “hard marker”

I am known as being a “hard marker”, apparently.

And I am coming to terms with that, not as a perverse badge of honour, as if I get some delight over punishing students with low marks. Actually, I work hard to grade consistently, in line with the rubrics I’m given, and with some eye to consistency across other markers. It’s not certain that I’m actually a hard marker, but certain student bodies certainly perceive me to be.

Good think I’m not in the States, where mark inflation means the actual marking range is about 10-15 percentage points higher than the Australian range. Here I make most assignments as somewhere between 55 and 90. 85 is my usual benchmark for amazing. 55 is a pass. Below that I usually need to mark it as a failure and make sure it’s below 47.

But all these numbers mean nothing, in the end, which is what I’m coming to terms with. If I give a 65, or a 75, does this matter, except relative to my own grades? That is, if I awarded you a 65 on one assignment, then a 75 on the next, that should mean something – that should mean that your second assignment was better. But if I award you a 65 and someone else awards you a 75 on something else, who actually cares? You do, because you put numbers on your self-worth as a student.

Most of my marking energy (and time) goes into commenting. I genuinely want students to succeed as students, to improve, to grow, and that includes the area of academic writing. So, yes, I’ll keep on commenting on every little thing you could do to improve, and I’ll keep on marking as I do, without trying to be a student-pleaser, but rather with an eye to overall consistency.

And if that means you think I’m a “hard marker”, all the more reason for you to be diligent, work hard, and earn my respect by turning in exceptional work.

The Schaff paradox

I usually give Philip Schaff a hard time, but let’s be honest – the ANF and NPNF series of translations (the former edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, the latter by Philip Schaff, and later with Henry Wace) – were amazing feats of translation and publishing for their times. They were, for the English speaking world, the Migne of their age, and animated with a little bit of the spirit of Migne, I would say. Let me quote from Schaff’s preface to the NPNF series 1:

My purpose is to furnish ministers and intelligent laymen who have no access to the original texts, or are not sufficiently familiar with ecclesiastical Greek and Latin, with a complete apparatus for the study of ancient Christianity. Whatever may be the estimate we put upon the opinions of the Fathers, their historical value is beyond all dispute. They are to this day and will continue to be the chief authorities for the doctrines and usages of the Greek and Roman Churches, and the sources for the knowledge of ancient Christianity down to the age of Charlemagne. But very few can afford to buy, or are able to use such collections as Migne’s Greek Patrology, which embraces 167 quarto volumes, and Migne’s Latin Patrology which embraces 222 volumes.[1]

The ANF/NPNF series, dating from the end of the 19th century, has now passed out of copyright, and been promptly digitised and made available in a number of places. It is also readily available in print volumes in libraries. And so it is now the most readily accessible translation of patristic texts available to most English-language readers.

Which is both its blessing and its curse. Because, just as with Migne’s PG and PL, and as similarly with, say, the Battles’ edition of Calvin, time is not its friend. There are better, more recent trnslations that deserve to be read, but they generally won’t be by most, because they cost money, and they are not digitised. I know that, even for myself, the quickest way to look up a patristic text covered in the NPNF series, is to use NPNF rather than anything else.

I’m not sure there is any easy solution to this, beyond the ongoing, vast, complex challenges fcing the ‘publishing industry’ in an increasingly post-print age. It is, perhaps, increasingly possible that we could make public domain or at least Open Access translations available free, online, for widespread use. Indeed, that is exactly what the texts that Roger Pearce’s tertullian.org site holds. And yet, of course, translation takes time, it takes developed skill, and in this case it requires the translator to forego both the financial gain of selling a translation, and the academic-prestige ‘profit’ of producing a translation for an academic market (e.g. monograph/series/journals/etc..).

Hence the Schaff paradox – we will all keep using Schaff et al. because it’s free, it’s accessible, even though it’s not best. Because free and easy will win almost every time.

[1] Philip Schaff, ed., “Preface,” in The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), v.

Collaborative Co-Annotation for Asynchronous Reading

I’ve very recently started some of that endless list of Greek reading discussed in the last few posts, joined by one brave soul determined to get along with some Greek with me while the sun yet shines. However, what happens when the sun shines at radically different times? What does it mean to “read” as a pair, or a group, when you are not together “reading”, and what would make that beneficial?

The typical classics class runs like this:

Teacher assigns a text, say our old friend Tacitus. Sections are assigned for each class. Each student diligently prepares (!) the set portion for the upcoming class. They met, and students take turns to read aloud the text in Latin, and then their translation. Queries about grammar are made, corrections offered, insights and learning dispensed from the instructor, and on to the next student.

I doubt this pattern differs that much from institution to institution, except for online contexts which necessarily must vary. I have all sorts of reservations about this as a useful pedagogical practice, but I’m yet to unearth a genuinely useful alternative for text-focused discussions.

Anyway, such a set-up is not really possible for asynchronous groups who can’t meet, even virtually. Nor is it really desirable if you’re trying to avoid a teacher-led set-up (I imagine it would the live version might work for groups with comparable high-level abilities and good group dynamics).


Enter collab co-annotation.


Here’s the basic set-up we’re using at present. The text is imported into a google doc. It’s already sectioned nicely, but for other texts you might need to section them up. Each of us takes alternating sections (1, 3, 5, etc.) as ‘ours’. We write notes, just like one would either on one’s own or for a class – noting anything that either we needed to figure out, or that we think someone else would need to figure out. So, that’s meanings, parsing, syntax, discourse-features, relevant historical or literary information. And some translations. We also write in questions in our notes, if there’s things we’re not sure about.

Then along comes your partner, who uses the helpful comment feature in google-docs, and highlights and comments on anything in your section  –  suggestions, critiques, questions of their own, alternatives. You can then come back, interact with those comments, carry on a discussion, and add/edit notes as necessary.


You still need to ‘do the work’ on other sections, but you aren’t the “lead voice” for those sections, so that alleviates some of the burden.

My thoughts

It’s very early days in how this is working for us, and we’re only two. But we’re also working with some other tools, and it’s part of a broader experiment in how to enable reading better/faster/deeper. I imagine that a similar process might work in quite a few situations, including small reading groups up to 4-5 people (I think past 5 the alternation might be too large).

I think this, or a similar process, has a lot of potential though. I’d be keen to hear feedback, thoughts, input.

I even wonder if this might not be a way to do collab on texts in preparation to make reader’s editions of them, a la Patristic Readers. I need to think more on this though.


If you think you might be interested in a collab-read-through of Cicero’s 1st Catiline, that text is currently top of my to-read list, so get in touch.

A Latin Patristic Reader?

If you want to read a nice selection of Greek patristics with some helps, there’s Rodney Whitacre’s 2007 A Greek Patristic Reader, which I had until recently forgotten that I owned. If you want to read Latin, tough luck, no one will help you.

Hence a recent tweet asking if there were anything, and the silence that followed.

I’ve been thinking, and tinkering, towards doing a Patristic Reader volume in Latin, but it’s been slow and neglected. One of the problems is work-flow. Latin has a lot more ambiguity in its endings, and this impacts the way I create vocabulary lists. For Greek, I can usually parse most forms in isolation. The only common confusion in Greek is between a 3rd singular verb ει and a cognate 3rd declension dative noun in ει. Latin, not so, so many forms could be either noun or verb, and have several options between them. Only context helps sort them out, but that reverses the process that I currently use to create the vocabulary lists.

Anyway, what if we made a Latin Patristic Reader?

Since I like side-projects and never-going-to-bed, I started to scrounge up a way to generate a suitable ‘selection’ of texts. There are 4 books of interest:

Willis, Collectanea Graeca et Latina 1865 – has a range of patristic selections in both languages

H.M. Gwatkins, Selections from Early Writers illustrative of Church History to the Time of Constantine 1897 – with texts in both languages and translations

R. Maloney, Selections from the Latin Fathers, 1900 – relatively brief but with selections from 6 Latin Fathers

Crehan, The Osterley Selection from the Latin Fathers, 1968 – too recent for me to get a public domain scan.


There might be more, and if you have them, I’d love to hear from you. My rough plan is to collate these selections and then start a slow process of ‘reader-ising’ them. I will probably invert the vocabularisaton process that I use though. I’ll release individual texts as free-standing pdfs as I go.