Plagiarism is every scholar's nightmare. It is a continuing and persistent problem in academic study, and all kinds of processes are now in place to deter students from passing off someone else's work as their own. But when plagiarism is confirmed in the work of a senior respected academic scholar, and those works are published by one of the most reputable Christian publishers in the world, then it is imperative that the issue is treated with seriousness and integrity.
Yesterday Wm Eerdmans, one of the largest and most reputable publishers of Christian scholarship in the United States, released a statement about plagiarism in three book which sit in the flagship section of the publisher's catalogue. You can read the full statement on the Eerdmans blog over here.
There are several consierations about all this, and they go beyond the personal tragedy of a scholar's ruined life's work and a publisher's honest and firm addressing of the consequences.
As all academic teachers know, plagiarism is established by the weight of evidence which demonstrates the work of someone else is being presented as the student's or the scholar's own work. In the field of education it is not relevant whether the unattributed material is there because of deliberate deceit and stealing of someone else's work, or whether it is carelessness, even sloppiness in research discipline that led to the omission of quotation marks and footnotes with reference to the original author. An essay, assignment or book has been presented as the original work of the author and has been shown to be someone else's work without due attribution. That is plagiarism.
As to motive there are all kinds of pressures for students in the learning and teaching environment. Deliberate plagiarism is an intellectual own goal, the undermining of the very purpose of education. Put bluntly it is cheating, and a level of self-regarding dishonesty which if unchecked will seep into those other areas of life which flourish only where there is trust, integrity, and love of those things that matter for their own sake. Where it is carelessness, oversight, confusion of one's own notes and quotes from others, or sloppy research disciplines, these are equally failures of integrity and honest work. In the case with Eerdmans this has happened in the three major works of this author, and repeatedly in each. This is a habit, a way of working, and one which only meticulous attention to detail and an equally meticulous attention to intellectual ethics would have avoided this.
When academic work is published, reviewed and establishes its place in the field as an authoritative source, it is in turn consulted, cited and referenced for credit to the author of the authoritative written piece. The assumption is that such credit is conscientiously and carefully embedded. The problem with texts compromised by plagiarism is that it sets off a form of academic contamination. Every time a plagiarised book is cited it confirms the lie, reproduces the error, perpetuates the injustice of intellectual knowledge being credited to the wrong scholar. The best scholarship thrives on the trust and integrity and reliability of the texts on which research has been built; indeed the academic and scholarly community flourishes only where intellectual standards of integrity and transparent learning are upheld as primary values.
That is why Eerdmans are to be commended for their swift and decisive action. It means a previously renowned scholar's life work is ruined in terms of its admissibility to ongoing debate and discussion; but it also means the publisher can be trusted to mean what it says on the publisher's data at the front of every book - that the copywright refers to original work by the named author.
So this morning I find I have three substantial commentaries on three New Testament books, which I have used often, and one of them worked through carefully, and I don't know what to do with them or what to think of them. Such is the spoiling effect of plagiarism, giving a new slant on the phrase "hermeneutic of suspicion". And one final thought. Self-righteousness is an unlovely, and unloving disposition, and perhaps all of us who write and publish should have, alongside that checklist of how to reference and attribute other people's ideas, a note reminding us, "Let those who think they stand secure, take heed lest they fall."