The weekend before Christmas I was doing some reading and research on the Trinity (which is what I spend most of my weekends doing), and I stumbled across something in a journal article that sounded very much like something I had read in a systematic theology book. So I opened the book to compare, and sure enough it was verbatim (the only difference being a single word missing the italics from the original source).
So I turned back to the article expecting to see that the author was quoting a large portion from the theology book and that I was simply reading somewhere in the middle of the quote, but I saw no quotation marks and no mention of the author’s work. Perplexed I started comparing further, wondering if perhaps this was just a very long extended quotation. To my shock I discovered the the author of the journal article had reproduced without quotation marks nearly verbatim (somewhere between 95% and 99% identical content) the entirety of his 24-page article from the other individual’s theology book—almost a complete copy and paste with just a handful of very minor cosmetic changes. The only credit he gave to the author of the content was a mention in his first footnote where he listed a few sources on the doctrine of the Trinity. At the end of the footnote, he mentioned his particular indebtedness to the author whose content he plagiarized. (Most readers have no idea how indebted he really was!)
I was completely baffled, and I struggled to try to figure out if there was a better explanation than the one that was staring me in the face. But I could not—and still cannot—begin to fathom how major plagiarism like this could have happened inadvertently. I came up with only two possible ways to explain what I had found.
- Under pressure and in a time of weakness, the author of the article intentionally plagiarized content from the author of the theology book.
- A teaching assistant wrote the article for the stated author, and he intentionally plagiarized content from the author of the theology book (perhaps without the knowledge of the stated author).
A few thoughts:
- I realize that unintentional plagiarism happens quite frequently (I’ve come across numerous instances of it), but I thought that intentional plagiarism was the stuff of slacker high-school and college students, not pastors, professors, and published authors.
- None of us is above sin—any kind of sin. When I ponder the sin of others, I try to call to mind the words of Jonathan Edwards, who in his 8th resolution said, “Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.”
- Public sin, especially the kind that makes its way into print and digital resources and onto the internet, can have long-lasting consequences. “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num 32:23), especially digital sins that allow readers to harness the power of Google and Libronix.
I debated whether or not I should blog about this, but I thought it could prove to be a means of grace to those of us who research and write—or who struggle with sin of any sort.
I just emailed the author and asked him in as kind a way as possible to help me make sense out of the similarities between his article and the section from the other author’s theology book. I hope that either (1) he has a good explanation that is escaping me or (2) he has long since repented and made his sin right with the Lord and the author. I pray that if he hasn’t already dealt with this, that God would grant him the grace to humble himself before God and man and repent.
I may or may not post an update if he responds.
Update: After a week or so, I hadn’t received a reply to my first email. So I emailed him again, letting him know that I would be calling him if I didn’t get a reply. He replied immediately and rather curtly informed me that, though he had an explanation, it was none of my business, and since it happened so long ago it should be treated as ancient history. I replied with a gentle explanation of why I felt biblically obligated to email him and told him that I’d been praying for him. I got a slightly kinder reply this time that said I’d caught him at a bad time and that he’d be back in touch sometime down the road. After the first reply from the individual, I also contacted the author who was apparently plagiarized to see if it had been dealt with on his end, but my email was the first he had heard about this. He is now evaluating what he should do.