Monday, September 5, 2016

On Plagiarism

This summer--before the Melania Trump and Peter T. O'Brien plagiarism cases made news headlines--I was asked to contribute to an academic honesty mini-course designed for incoming Briercrest College students.

You can click on the video if you want to hear what I said, though I should note that the best thing about it is the short talk at the beginning by recent Briercrest graduate, Breanna Bowker, on the importance of reading.

At the risk of subverting the point I was trying to make in the video, what I'd like to do here is add a little nuance:

 (1) Plagiarism in biblical (and related) scholarship: Plagiarism, unfortunately, is not limited to college papers. Two examples:
  • I recently encountered a major work by a prominent scholar (who shall remain nameless), whose summaries of alternative views routinely quote verbatim from the sources that are summarized, without quotation marks. This is plagiarism. I have no idea how it made it through the review process. 
  • Last month Eerdmans announced that it is withdrawing three major commentaries by Peter T. O'Brien that appeared between 1991 and 2010 in highly-regarded commentary series (more information here). O'Brien, now in his 80's, was until this point a respected New Testament scholar. O'Brien released a statement admitting to problems in his research, which "generated clear-cut, but unintentional, plagiarism," and apologizing for this not-on-purpose error. Based on what I have seen (here), the plagiarism is indeed clear-cut and totally unacceptable. (Those who attempt to defend O'Brien on the basis that all commentaries say the same thing, should conclude rather that we need fewer commentaries.) I don't pretend to understand what led to the plagiarism. People and their motivations are complex, and I am not in a position to judge O'Brien's intentions. (As I note in the video, however, intentions don't matter.) I am happy to grant that O'Brien's teaching and writing have contributed in significant ways to the church and to scholarship. 
(2) Accidental quotation: The page-proofs of an article I wrote failed to type-set a lengthy quotation in block quotes. If I had not proof-read carefully, the quotation would have appeared in print as if it were my own. It would have been a mistake of the type-setter, entirely unintentional, but still--according to the definition I'm using--plagiarism. I hope my readers would have granted me grace.

(3) Forgotten Influences:  In the abstract for a paper that I am currently completing I referred to "a perceived threat to Jewish identity." When I composed the abstract, I'm sure I thought my formulation was original, but I recently came across Robert Tannehill's comment that "the cry of the accusers in the temple [in Acts 21:28] is the cry of a people trying to maintain itself against a perceived threat to its identity" (1990: 272), and I expect it influenced me when I first began work on the topic. Then again, F. Scott Spencer's 1997 commentary on Acts says almost the same thing without any reference to Tannehill: 
Throughout the Greco-Roman world, scores of Gentile converts ignorant of the Mosaic law, at best, or prejudiced against it, at worst, have been incorporated into believing communities alongside Jews, thus creating a perceived threat to Jewish identity. (Spencer 1997; repr. 2004: 209) 

Is this the independent identical formulation of a commonplace observation or a sign of the pervasive--but unacknowledged and possibly forgotten--influence of Robert Tannehill?

(3) Unmarked quotations and oral presentations: Conventions are less-defined for oral presentations, and it can be difficult to know what is appropriate documentation. In the script that I composed and basically memorized for the video, I included quotation marks when I defined plagiarism as "a failure to acknowledge sources," but I did not indicate where I got the phrase. (I reasoned that a popular talk of this sort would be distracting if I added a footnote.) Does this mean my definition of plagiarism is itself plagiarized? Just to be on the safe side, I hereby acknowledge my colleague, Rhoda Cairns, as my source. (For the ethics of documentation in sermons, see this post.)

All this does not change how I will deal with clear cases of plagiarism that I encounter in the classroom. No one will get away by appealing to the examples in this blog post.

When I do chat with students, however, I always emphasize that plagiarism is a major sin in an academic context, and I try to keep matters in perspective. There are far greater moral issues than this particular kind of theft, including the deadly sins of pride, envy, and greed, to which academics are perhaps especially prone. Still, I hope my students learn assiduously to avoid the minor sin of plagiarism in any academic and other writing and speaking that they do.

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