A Case of Major Plagiarism

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.

  1. Under pressure and in a time of weakness, the author of the article intentionally plagiarized content from the author of the theology book.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.

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9 Responses to A Case of Major Plagiarism

  1. LaRosa Johnson January 10, 2009 at 10:24 pm #

    I’m glad you posted this because for those of us who do a lot of studying & writing, it’s a good reminder for us to make sure that we’re properly quoting our sources and not plagiarizing the work of others.

    I’m definitely hoping he had a good explanation and/or has repented.


  2. Donovan January 11, 2009 at 12:59 am #

    I appreciated this blog as it is a good reminder that in this digital age of being able to access so much information and be able to “copy and paste” that we need to appropriately attribute credit to any one else’s work that we may want to cite or use. Good blog.

  3. A Concerned Christian January 11, 2009 at 11:54 am #

    Hey Phil, I’m wondering if you jumped the gun in posting this. You don’t specify when you sent your email, or how long you’ve waited for a reply. I think that biblical principles require that the person in question be afforded the benefit of the doubt and the right of reply prior to such a post.

    • Phil Gons January 11, 2009 at 2:26 pm #

      A Concerned Christian,

      Thanks for your note. I’d totally agree—if I had identified the individual. Since I didn’t, can you think of any biblical principles that my post might not be in accordance with?

      How long would be reasonable to give the individual to respond before posting about it? A week, a month, a year? And when would it ever be appropriate to post about it? If he had already repented? If he repented in response to my email? If he refused to repent?

      I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I think the anonymity of my post alleviates any of the problems. If you disagree, I’d love to hear your feedback.

  4. Mike Breen January 12, 2009 at 6:17 am #

    Interesting. I have noted many redundancies as between systematics treatises where the ideas are the same, and are couched in similar language. I suspect that part of this is due to doctrinal ideas becoming integrated in theology, and part due to an inability/unwillingness to find a better form of expression. Let us know how this turns out.

  5. A Concerned Christian January 13, 2009 at 5:38 am #

    I think your questions are valid and I don’t claim to have answers to them. However, the anonymity is a thin veil that could be torn away by anyone with a few extra minutes using the digital tools you mention.

    As for a biblical principle, 1 Peter 4:8 comes to mind, “Love covers over a multitude of sins”.

  6. Phil Gons January 13, 2009 at 8:32 am #

    Anonymity is a thin veil that could be torn away by anyone with a few extra minutes using the digital tools you mention.

    Really? Are you genuinely serious? Is that not at least a tad overstated? Okay, I’ll give you three minutes. Go. . . . Times up. Who is it?

    Seriously, what did I reveal that would make it easy for “anyone with a few extra minutes” to figure out his identity? You’ve got a theology book and an article, both relating in some fashion to my trinitarian studies. That’s a HUGE body of literature. (I’ve got 70 pages of bibliography, and that’s far from exhaustive.) And I’d assume that most readers of this blog have enough spiritual maturity not to waste hours (rather than a few minutes) of time just so they can say they know the identity of someone who plagiarized.

    Does 1 Pet 4:8 really prohibit talking about others sins, even if anonymously? I don’t think so. In fact, it was 1 Pet 4:8 that led me to “cover” his identity, fulfilling the very words of the text you cite.

    FWIW, I wrote this to a friend when he asked me about my post:

    My first response was to blog about it without anonymity for the plagiarizer, but Shanna [my wife] wisely and gently rebuked me and challenged my motives for doing so.

    “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” (Prov 10:12)
    “Whoever covers an offense seeks love.” (Prov 17:9)
    “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Pet 4:8)

    So I chose not to share his name publicly so as not to harm his reputation further if he had already repented (or if he hasn’t, assuming that he does).

    Thanks for challenging me on this; though I disagree, I appreciate your perspective.

  7. Mike Stover January 14, 2009 at 1:54 pm #

    In the past I have seen more than a couple instances of supposed anonymity being easily uncovered by searches or accidentally uncovered based on later information. But in this case I agree with Phil that anonymity is preserved.

  8. Mark V January 26, 2009 at 3:12 pm #

    By day he is a mild-mannered marketing guru at a small-to-mid-sized software company. By night he stalks the internet superhighway, fighting for justice and proper footnoting. This fall… Phil Gons is… The Plagiarism Terminator. You’d rather die, than plagiarize!