Just yesterday, a plagiarism incident was exposed that should cause all Christ’s church to pause and lament. And no, I’m not talking about whatever Melania Trump said at the Republican National Convention (which I didn’t watch)—though I partly wish I were instead.
The sad story I have in mind is here on the Eerdmans website, and I also put a copy of it here on archive.org. The press release states that respected New Testament scholar Peter T. O’Brien seems to have committed unintentional (but significant) plagiarism in his recent commentary on Hebrews and also (though to a lesser degree) in his works on Ephesians and Philippians. As a result, Eerdmans is taking all three titles out of print and offering credit to those who own copies. The author himself freely admits his error and issues an unqualified apology in the statement.
I’d like to use this incident to speak to the issue of pastoral ethics. Since I am writing so soon after hearing this news, I do not pretend to have reached a settled conclusion on all of the questions involved. But the exercise is important, I think, painful though it be.
Perhaps the biggest question here is what we should now do with O’Brien’s books. My own gut reaction, and that of many friends I’ve asked who are in pastoral ministry, is that while we certainly wouldn’t want to cite O’Brien’s work for academic research, we could probably still use it to study the biblical text personally and for preaching. Last night, I printed a copy of the Eerdmans statement to stick in the front of each book (I actually own all three of the discontinued titles), and wondered if I could just leave it at that.
But I’m not sure doing so fully appreciates what is actually at stake. Significantly, the Eerdmans statement does not tell us what material in these works has been plagiarised from whom. Sean Winter goes as far as to suggest an example in this post, but as he also notes, the important question now is “what ought to happen to the various copies of these works that are still available to students in university and seminary libraries.”
I suspect that the results of the inquiry have been withheld at least partially because it is about the only thing Eerdmans can do to preserve something of O’Brien’s otherwise worthy reputation. (As an example of the respect with which O’Brien is held in the scholarly community, consider that he was honored with a Festschrift including contributions from heavyweights such as D. A. Carson, Moisés Silva, Graeme Goldsworthy, and others.) Of course, it’s not really our business anyway, but not knowing what came from where creates other problems for us.
Certainly the ideas in these commentaries can still help us to understand the biblical text as we produce an exegetical sermon. But knowing that the commentary contains plagiarism means that, effectively, we cannot properly attribute any statement in these works to the original source. In other words, as long as I know that there is an attribution problem with these commentaries, I simply can’t cite anything from them and consider that to be a proper acknowledgment of the original source. Verbally acknowledging O’Brien as the source of an idea or statement would undermine my credibility to those who know about the problems in these works.
An important, and frightening, thing here is that merely changing a few words while preserving the basic structure and argument of a quoted source is not enough to avoid plagiarism. If your idea is not original to you, then you are responsible to show where you got it, unless it is demonstrable that your idea is “common knowledge.” A couple helpful resources for understanding what is (and isn’t) plagiarism include Andy Naselli’s interview with Justin Taylor and this page on plagiarism.org. I will not repeat these ideas here any further because doing so isn’t necessary. Oddly, though the definition of plagiarism may formally be “common knowledge,” it is also commonly misunderstood.
It’s certainly true that citation standards are somewhat different (at least in form) for sermons than in standard academic writing. But I believe that faithful preachers should still give some form of credit where it is due, even if it’s somewhat indirect—i.e., while I might say “as one commentator has said,” I would most definitely cite it in my written manuscript with something like, “(O’Brien, Ephesians, 323).” Even here I am not the first person to suggest this. The form of the words in this paragraph are my own, but the idea probably comes from this post by Kerry McGonigal—I honestly don’t even know.
And as we know, plagiarism in sermons is another huge problem of its own. I have heard of preachers who may have re-used sermon outlines from others without attribution. In my own experience, I remember approximately where I was in the pew when a guest preacher’s message suddenly seemed unusually eloquent—and after Googling a few of the key words that I had just heard on my smartphone, it was obvious that this preacher had lifted (without verbal acknowledgment) four or five paragraphs from a well-known blog. (For this and other reasons, I’ve stopped bringing my phone to church most Sunday mornings.)
So what should a conscientious (but also busy) pastor do? Here are a few ideas:
- Even when sermon preparation time is limited, consult multiple sources to avoid depending too much on the insights of one author. You already know that, but I know the very real pressure that comes from the fact that “Sunday is always coming.”
- Use your own words as much as possible. If you can’t explain what your source says in your own words, you probably don’t understand the original idea that well anyway. (Although it’s true that often your source will express the idea better.)
- When quoting or using another’s idea, acknowledge your source in some form verbally and in your written notes. You simply can’t be too careful, as Justin Taylor has said. These days, there are many tools available to make this easier.
Preachers of the Bible which commands that “you shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15 ESV) should be especially careful to properly acknowledge their sources. We stand on the shoulders of many others who have studied God’s word before us. May God help us all to faithfully do that, and forgive us for the words we may have stolen unawares.