cracks in the dam(?)

Dedicated readers of this blog will know at least two things: 1) I am poor at posting consistently, and 2) a number of posts have dealt with the problems of plagiarism. Many of the instances of plagiarism I highlight tend to come from students who either fail to abide by the rules of proper citation or are ill-informed about such rules, or from (more or less) popular writers/authors–and often for similar reasons. In the main, I can excuse such things because they can be seen as rookie mistakes. Thus, I tend to get over those instances rather quickly. I see it. I gripe about it (usually to myself, sometimes here). And then I move on.

But there are times when I don’t move on as quickly. And these times are related to when I discover plagiarism in scholarly work–either personally or I hear/read about it from others. Recently, two seasoned scholars have been criticized for plagiarism in their respective commentaries, and both have admitted to the regrettable causes for it (e.g., pressures of publishing, time-crunches) and it appears that both commentaries will be pulled from circulation. This bothers me, in part, because scholars should know better–or at least they are better informed about what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it. But as we’re discovering, that idealistic view is being rattled by reality. And what I fear is that this kind of rattling is creating cracks in the dam, which if it gives way will bring about disturbing and disruptive consequences.

I still remember one of the more disturbing instances I encountered: it was in 2011, while I was doing some follow-up research during my doctoral studies. Specifically, I was reading a published dissertation on a theme in Pauline theology.¹ I first suspected it when the writer made an argument that was surprisingly similar to the scholar he cites. The differences in wording were minimal at best (e.g., transposing two words, alternate spelling on a Greek term, an elision of one minor clause). However, I became concerned because the writer did not place the argument in quotes, despite the minor differences. Though, to his credit, he did cite the scholar’s work with an in-text reference, but the citation gave the impression of an allusion to the other’s work, not one that signals explicit reliance upon it. So I ultimately let it go as a one-off, one that might be debatable and thus not sufficient for further thought.

But then it happened. When reading an earlier portion of this same dissertation, I found an explicit use of another’s work without proper citation–let alone quotation marks. In this second example, the author presented an explanation of a particular Greek term and this explanation carried on for nearly 120 words (essentially the length of the preceding paragraph in this post). Only at one point did the author place a portion of the explanation in quotes (5 words, to be precise), followed by an in-text reference. However, by looking at the argument found in reference cited and comparing it with what is found in the dissertation, it is obvious that the author lifted more than the five quoted words. In fact, nearly the whole 120 words were lifted from the source used. But again, since there were no quotation marks around this larger section, thus signaling the use of another’s work, one would not suspect that the larger section was boosted. The only reason I knew of the similarities is because I had read the source used only the day before. Thus, when I came to this portion of the dissertation, things sounded far too familiar.

Not knowing what to do, and being a mere PhD student at the time, I decided to ask a professional. His initial response was this: “From your description it sounds to me like carelessness rather than deceptive plagiarism (i.e. there is a reference to the source material, but the wording is too close to the source without being acknowledged as citation). And it is not uncommon. Deceptive plagiarism (if no source/reference is given, and large portions are found to be derived from an unacknowledged source) is a different matter and would perhaps warrant some further probing.” Even though this distinction and criteria for making it were a touch different than what I was used to, I heeded his follow-up response, which was (paraphrased): I’d leave it alone. You don’t want to start your career as being the one who outed an established scholar and professor for plagiarism.

To borrow from Ron White: “I told you that story to tell you this one”. This morning, while doing some research for a sermon series I’m doing, I came across the following:

img_6603

The book on the left was published in 1978, while the one on the right was published in 1993. (I am going to leave the authors for these two works unnamed for now). The parallels in the larger description are close enough to raise an eye-brow, though such material might be said to fall into the category of general knowledge, which is not necessarily required to be cited. (I would debate some of the nuances of that escape clause, especially in this case, but point taken). However, it’s the smaller paragraph that bothered me. The wording is exactly the same, with the exception of one qualifying phrase (i.e., “of the guild”). But there is no reference. No footnote. Nothing. There’s not even a entry in the “Further Reading” list of the newer book for the older one. This should not be happening, especially by a scholar who is known for thoroughness and precision.

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¹ I’m being intentionally cryptic at the moment because I am still torn with how to proceed with this.

2 comments

  1. I think an appropriate next step would be to notify the publisher of the plagiarized material. It would be interesting to see how they proceed, especially given the prominence of the scholar question.

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