Doug Wilson’s Plagiarism Problem

Doug Wilson’s Plagiarism Problem December 15, 2015

Last Thursday blogger Rachel Miller revealed numerous instances of plagiarism in The Justice Primer, a book coauthored by reformed evangelical leaders Doug Wilson and Randy Booth and published by Canon Press. The accusations were so serious and so well substantiated that Canon Press immediately discontinued the book. In author statements released by Canon Press, Booth took all of the blame. For his part, Wilson merely noted that he “was disappointed to find out . . . that there are serious citation problems” in the book. Citation problems—that’s a rather fancy name for plagiarism.

Let me provide a quick word of background. Doug Wilson is a reformed evangelical pastor who has established his own denomination and Christian school association and written both books and school curriculum. Wilson has been under fire for decades for his 1996 work of slavery apology and his continued glorification of the Confederacy, as well as his extreme homophobia and endorsement of patriarchy and female submission, and, more recently, his mishandling of sexual abuse cases in his church. You can see everything I’ve written about Doug Wilson here.

With that out of the way, I should note that the evangelical World Magazine was highly critical of Wilson’s statement. “Wilson did not admit any wrongdoing in his statement,” writer Emily Belz noted, continuing as follows:

In 2013, Wilson wrote a blog post in response to plagiarism accusations against Mark Driscoll, the former pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle: “[T]he person whose name is on the cover of the book is responsible to put things completely right if a problem surfaces. He may not be guilty, but he is always responsible—as basic covenant theology teaches us.”

The point being, of course, that Wilson was doing exactly what he condemned Driscoll for doing—refusing to take responsibility for plagiarism in a book that bore his name on the cover, and instead pinning the blame on his co-author. Then, on Saturday, Wilson wrote a blog post in which he took full responsibility—sort of.

In the future, more might need to be said about this issue, and that might include some differences of opinion. But now is not the time or the place to try to anticipate that sort of thing. Right now, I simply want to acknowledge what happened, and take responsibility for all that I can.

. . .

Consequently, I want to take full responsibility for having my name on the cover of a book containing plagiarized sections, and where the contributions from the authors were undifferentiated. In such circumstances, when plagiarism is detected, the one who finds it has every right to look at the cover and decide right on the spot who is responsible. The names on the cover are the ones with the authorial responsibility, which is the primary responsibility according to contract, and the editorial imprint is the one with the publisher’s responsibility, also specified by contract. Further investigation might reveal where particular culpability lies, but the responsibility for the project flows (according to God’s design) to the names on the cover.

I appreciate that Wilson took responsibility—more or less—but this doesn’t relieve my concern. After all, as World Magazine noted, Wilson also said this in 2013, when speaking of the accusations against Driscoll:

It is quite easy for me to envision a situation where an author is responsible for plagiarism, misquotation, or a screwed up citation, but not be guilty of it. It is always proper to hold the author responsible, but if in the heat of controversy people are demanding that he acknowledge his personal guilt, as though [he] did it himself on purpose, his refusal to do so might not evidence a lack of integrity, but rather the opposite.”

Responsible for . . . but not guilty of? What in the world kind of definitions is Wilson working with? To plagiarize is generally defined as follows: “to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas.” Passing off someone else’s words as your own is plagiarism whether or not you did it “on purpose.” I’ve had time where I’ve taken notes sloppily, not noting what was a quotation and what was my summary, and I kick myself when I do that because I have to either go back and check or assume it’s a quotation and create a new summary to ensure I don’t plagiarize. But you know what? That’s called being responsible!

And no, I’m sorry, but refusing to own up to what you did as a reaction to people telling you to come clean is not integrity. It’s petty, and it displays a lack of leadership skills and a lack of integrity.

It is the responsibility of the writer to ensure that everything that should be cited is cited, and that the words of others are in quotation marks, period. There is no “I didn’t realize I did it” or “that was an accident” pass for plagiarism. If you passed off the words of another as your own, you messed up, and you need to take full responsibility for it—none of this “responsible for” but “not guilty” of bullshit. I’ve been in academia for a decade now, and this is basically drilled into you, because it matters.

More than this, though, this isn’t Wilson’s first brush with plagiarism. Take a look at this explanation from the World Magazine article:

Wilson faced accusations of plagiarism over a 1996 booklet he co-authored with Steve Wilkins titled Southern Slavery: As It Was. He later wrote about the accusations: “I won’t go into how it happened, but the end result was that some passages from a book that should have been cited weren’t cited (Time on the Cross), and it was entirely and completely accidental. It was an embarrassing editorial screw-up, not plagiarism.”

Um no, it wasn’t “an embarrassing editorial screw-up,” it was plagiarism—and blatant plagiarism at that. It’s simply false that it was only citations at issue, and not copied text (more here). Frankly, it is this track record—and this inability to really and truly take responsibility for the full depth of the problem—that makes me wary of Wilson’s statements in his current plagiarism scandal. After all, you would think he would have learned the last time how not to write a book. That he would repeat this mistake is more than embarrassing, it’s suggestive of a more longterm problem.

And more than that, Wilson’s alluding to “differences of opinion” and his discussion of further investigation revealing “where particular culpability lies” suggests that Wilson is still holding back, reticent to admit to the breadth of the book’s plagiarism problem or his full culpability in allowing a book with plagiarism issues to be published under his name, regardless of who wrote the passages in question.

It’s almost like in Doug Wilson’s world, Doug Wilson can do no wrong.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Canon Press has released a second statement stating that they’ve run the text through plagiarism-detecting software and that the plagiarism occurred in Booth’s sections of the book, but not in Wilson’s sections. This may indeed be the case. Still, Wilsons’ dissembling doesn’t give me a lot of hope that he either understands plagiarism or fully grasps the depth of the problem with the current book. And for someone with as high a profile as Wilson, that’s more than a bit concerning.

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