plagiarism

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:

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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.

sanctioning plagiarism?

Earlier this morning I found a few articles on the writing routines of great writers. (Mainly because I’m always trying to learn how to write gooder better). The ones on Immanuel Kant and Charles Darwin were rather interesting. Another article, from a different site, was not so much routines but tips for budding writers, offered by W.G. (“Max”) Sebald. What is particularly noteworthy is that the advice Sebald gives transcends the constraints of genre; much of what he has to say applies to all forms of writing.

However, near the end of his categorized advice (in “On Reading and Intertextuality”), I found this disturbing tip:

I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.

If I’m reading this right, and I’d like to think that I am,* Sebald is essentially sanctioning guilt-free plagiarism. (As an aside: when dealing with questions of style, Sebald says, “Avoid sentences that serve only to set up later sentences.” I cannot help but think that the second sentence quoted above [i.e. “No one will ever notice”] sets up what Sebald drives at in the third–especially the promise of guiltlessness). I can neither agree with nor accept this piece of advice as either good or accurate. Plagiarism is literary thievery, and given today’s technology those pillaging another’s ideas can be spotted (and caught). [That means you, Mr Driscoll.]

So, on this point I think I can and will follow Sebald’s final piece of advice: “Don’t listen to anyone. Not us, either. It’s fatal.” Done.

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* Props to those who noticed what I’ve done.

undergraduate theft?

To get the mental juices flowing this morning, I decided to skim Marsh-Moyise’s, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction (1999),¹ partly because I’ve never read it and partly because it was the first book I noticed on the shelf. It’s (so far) clear, concise, and useful in its basic summary of the key issues in Gospels scholarship. For those wanting to meander around the field, Marsh-Moyise’s book is a decent place to start.

The only hiccup (so far) is that some details are mentioned as though they are common-coin and therefore unnecessary to footnote. In other words: there is a bit of “assumed knowledge” in what Marsh-Moyise present. This is fine for those familiar with coinage but not entirely helpful for those unfamiliar the currency, the latter being the intended audience of the book.

For example: in the chapter on Mark’s Gospel, Marsh-Moyise point out that “[f]or much of church history, it [i.e. Mark’s Gospel] was thought to be an abbreviation of Matthew” (p.14) but say nothing about who historically held that thought. Again, this is well and good if you know the history but potentially frustrating (or at least unsatisfying) if you don’t.

I could remember from when I took a Gospels course in College (eons ago) that St Augustine maintained the “abbreviated” view of Mark’s Gospel (see De consensu evangelistarum 1.2), but I did not recall anyone else. So, after reading Marsh-Moyise’s chapter on Mark, I decided to dig around (quickly) to see what I could find. This cursory search revealed no other proponents of the “abbreviated” view; Augustine’s name was the only one that continued to emerge.

However, I did discover something that troubled me quite deeply, and that something became the reason for this post. Before stating what that “something” is, let me quote the opening paragraph of Marsh-Moyise’s chapter on Mark (p.14):

Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels, beginning at Jesus’ baptism (nothing about his birth) and ending at the empty tomb (no resurrection appearances). For much of church history, it was thought to be an abbreviation of Matthew and hence less important. Over 600 of its 661 verses find a parallel in Matthew, and although early tradition suggests that Mark drew on the memories of Peter (see Appendix), the fact remains that it was not written by an apostle. This probably explains why so few commentaries were written on Mark in the early church and the book fell into neglect.

Now, having read that, have a look at this. Look familiar? My only hope is that the website is unable to show documentation and that this person “mitch106” gave Marsh-Moyise due respect. However, the cynic in me thinks “mitch106” simply lifted the material, changed a couple of words, slightly altered the punctuation, and reordered some of the sentences hoping that the teacher/professor wouldn’t notice.

Shame.

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¹ Yeah, yeah, yeah; I know the link is to the 2nd edition and my reference is to the 1st.

jane’s addiction and webpages on the scythians

On odd combination, to be sure.  Here’s why.  While tootling around the internet this morning, feeding my brain with some general ancient history (namely the historical context of the emergence of the Persian Empire), I stumbled across what appears to be straight-up plagiarism.  I’ll let you decide.

Here’s the first link: ‘The Scythians‘, from something called the World History Center.  Here’s the second link: ‘The Scythians‘, from the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies.  The differences between the two are minor (e.g. word changes, formatting), but the similarities are . . . well, almost exact (aside from the titles).

Not really sure which site needs to be linked with Jane’s Addiction, mainly because of the overlap (and dare I say, ambiguity) in copyright dates, but there’s obviously some thieving going on here.

If it smells fishy, it probably ain’t good

Anyone who knows me and my ‘fussy’ eating habits will not be shocked by my aversion to seafood. I admit to the odd occasion when I have had seafood of some kind, but those are not exceptions that disprove the rule. It is sadly to the point where all I have to do is smell it and my stomach locks up like a high security vault and my taste-buds voice scathing threats.

On a completely different level (sort of), there are times when I can sense that something is not good–or that something is terribly afoul. The way in which my mind reacts to various things usually tells me something is wrong, and because of that reaction I proceed cautiously. I will then do all that I can to see if what I sense is indeed correct so that my claims are not based on mere intuitions, which may occasionally be correct.

This has proven helpful on several instances in the past while grading papers for classes I’ve taught. The paper would all of a sudden sound all too familiar with either course texts or other works I know moderately well. (Sadly, on a couple of occasions, contextually speaking, the paper would be ‘okay’ and then become absolutely brilliant before returning to ‘okay’). A few weeks ago, I smelled fish in a particular individual’s writing–one who is intriguingly popular amongst a specific demographic of people–and I wanted to make sure that I was smelling properly before saying anything.

Unlike my usual respect for the students I’ve taught, which is to keep them absolutely anonymous when discussing their work, I will name this most recent individual–primarily because he is not a student of mine in any shape or form. Jack Kinsella is the leading writer for the Omega Letter website, which is nothing more than an extension the (wacky*) theological ministry of Hal Lindsay. As such, and admittedly so, the Omega Letter (and Kinsella) stands firmly entrenched in Dispensational views of Scripture and allows such views to dictate how they view and understand culture.

I came into contact with the Omega Letter and Kinsella only because I was referred to both by a well-intention individual, who also holds Dispensational views. The reference came to me in a ‘What do you think about this?’ sort of manner. I read through what Kinsella had to say, laughed a bit, shook my head alot and then responded kindly to the individual expressing my disagreement with Kinsella’s arguments. After my response, I decide to engage in a bit of mental masochism and continued to read through previous Omega Letters and then a few of Kinsella’s articles. It was when I began going through his articles–one in particular–that I began to smell fish.

The article in question was called, ‘The “Hidden” Bible’, which dealt with the interesting (at least for me) debate on the Apocryphal books–i.e. those not included in modern (Protestant) Bibles. At first, I expected his treatment of the topic to be rather polemical and dismissive, and then launch into a whole bunch of reasons why the Apocrypha is worthless for Christians (i.e. his usual approach to anything that he deems non-conservative). However, I was rather surprised to read through the first part of his summary; it sounded legitimate, historical, fair and even cogent (i.e. not like Kinsella’s usual approach). It then turned into a scathing treatment of how the Apocrypha is worthless for Christians.

It was those very features that caused me to wonder if these were Kinsella’s actual thoughts. Something about the initial summary was not jiving with me. First, he begins by saying ‘First,’ but then never comes up with a ‘Second.’  (One normally does not begin with ‘first’, as if making a list, without providing additional points). Second (ha-ha), is the fact that he uses ‘B.C.E.’ as a time designator, which by Kinsella’s normal reckoning would be a liberalising of chronology. Further, a couple of sentences later he uses ‘A.D.’ as a time designator which, for Kinsella, would be the proper Christian way of defining history. Thirdly (and finally for the purposes of this rant), the flow of logic, grammar and syntax were completely unlike Kinsella. All of these things (and a few others) just didn’t sit well with me. I knew something was wrong. I smelled fish.

I did a number of searches and found several websites containing the exact same description that Kinsella gives for the Apocrypha. (The most telling one is found here).  The logical assumption is that he simply did a copy-and-paste (i.e. stole) from these previous sources and created his own version (so to speak). In order to test this assumption, I did a quick text-critical comparison of these other sources and Kinsella’s version. It became quite clear that Kinsella restructured the order of material but kept the contents virtually untouched.  Moreover, it does not appear that Kinsella bothered to recognise or even change the details of the contents–hence, the use of ‘B.C.E.’ in one place but ‘A.D.’ in another.

Well, wait a minute: this switching needs explanation. My first guess was that Kinsella inserted his little comment about ‘the Rheims-Douay version (1582 AD)’ into the other material he copied (i.e stole). I assumed this simply because the Rheims-Douay comment does not exist in the description of the Apocrypha found elsewhere. But then I found this, which contains the exact phrase regarding the Rheims-Douay version of the Bible. Either Kinsella copied (i.e. stole) from Robert Sargent, or Sargent copied (i.e. stole) from Kinsella, or they both copied (i.e. stole) from an unknown source. Given that Sargent’s page has a time-stamp of 25-Apr-2008 and Kinsella has 30-June-2009, one of the three options is ruled out; however, neither of the remaining two are good ones.

This illustrates another key point. All of the sites I found were prior to Kinsella’s Omega Letter and nearly all of them had copyrights on their material. This raises obvious ethical questions for Kinsella. If he is going to write his Omega Letters as though they are his own thoughts and conclusions (which is precisely what he claims at the start of his letter), then he needs to own up to instances where he must borrow from someone or somewhere else. That’s just plain courtesy. However, if he is going to borrow from someone or somewhere else and pawn it off as his own (i.e. without proper citation, or at least a ‘most say’ comment), that’s plagiarism which is tantamount to theft–plain and simple. Moreover, presenting something in writing as though it is your own when it is clearly not, but wanting people to believe that it is your own, is lying. Either is Kinsella is guilty of plagiarism and lying, or he is not. The evidence, however, does not appear to be in his favour.

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* That’s really the nicest term I could think of at the moment.