Plagiarism in Commentaries and Commentaries on Plagiarism

Plagiarism in Commentaries and Commentaries on Plagiarism October 21, 2016

Given that I’ve now had my first plagiarism case of the semester, the time seems right to comment on this topic. Let me begin with an infographic that explains different kinds of plagiarism and evaluates them in terms of their severity, since it seems that many people are still unclear on precisely what plagiarism is.


The above is by no means the first of its kind. Perhaps a useful exercise for students would be to have them compare plagiarism infographics and flow charts, precisely as an illustration of how one can say the same thing in one’s own distinctive way?

There have been a number of cases of academics (and other professionals) committing plagiarism recently. Eerdmans withdrew three commentaries by Peter O’Brien. Lexham Press withdrew William Varner’s commentary on James.

One response has been to try to excuse it or justify it, with reference to the old adage that borrowing from one person is plagiarism while borrowing from many is “research.”

But so-called “research” that borrows in copy-and-paste form with minor changes isn’t research. In my recent plagiarism case, I asked the student what the point would be of a professor asking students to write a paper, if this meant that they merely copied words from various sources, then changed some words here and there. The student did not have an answer, because there isn’t one. Research builds on what others have done previously, but precisely because the researcher is reading, understanding, and synthesizing that earlier work, they can produce something of their own. It will bear a resemblance to what has gone before, but must at the very least emerge from the author in their own words, and not represent mere combination and/or minor reworking of the words of others.

Nijay Gupta recently asked whether we even need more commentaries, and David Miller made a similar point specifically in relation to plagiarism. I think this question gets at the heart of why plagiarism has been turning up specifically in commentaries. Writing a commentary really only has one advantage to the author, which is that your own perspective gets included in a reference work that others will then pull off their shelf as they work on the text in question. One turns to them as the first point of call when one is interested in a particular verse or passage. And so if you write an article on that one verse in the text about which you have a unique new insight, it might or might not get noticed and cited by others, including in the commentaries they later write. Thus in order to get your view widely noticed, you may feel compelled to write a commentary of your own, much of which may feel like tedious work, since you are just presenting arguments that others have offered previously. And so one might be tempted in those circumstances to be lazy, sloppy, and/or dishonest. But on the other hand, precisely because commentaries are supposed to compile and summarize all the previous work on a text, doing so while giving the impression that one is giving one’s own perspective is that much less excusable.

Plagiarism is a risk for professors in other ways, too. Educators typically have to develop new classes quickly in our first year(s) of teaching. And so we might find ourselves drawing lecture notes heavily and sloppily from existing textbooks. When we later decide to write our own textbooks, we might turn to our lecture notes that we’ve used for years, forgetting where they came from.

Is doing the latter unforgivable? Hopefully not. But neither is it excusable or unimportant. It seems to me that the way we treat cases of plagiarism among professionals, as among students, should vary depending on how egregious and widespread it is – although professionals should absolutely be held to a higher standard than students. If someone copies and pastes a Wikipedia article into a Word document, doesn’t even cite the Wikipedia article, and submits it as their own work, they will fail my class, and I will probably write a letter to university administrators about the case. That is simply cheating. If someone has drawn on multiple sources, included them in their bibliography, and included words and structures of material from those sources which are not presented as quotations and cited to give credit to the source in their paper, then they will just fail that assignment. For some instances of what might be categorized “poor citation of sources” they might merely lose points on the assignment.

Interestingly, in this same class of mine this year, one student proposed “plagiarism” in response to a challenge to come up with something that is always wrong in all times and circumstances. The Gospels and many other ancient works of literature suggest otherwise. A while back, Philip Tite and Danny Yencich offered analyses of Melania Trump’s and Michelle Obama’s speeches a while back that utilized the methods scholars bring to bear on the Synoptic Gospels.

The same issue of the extent of borrowing exists in music. And this gives me the chance to work in a mention of a piece of music by John Cage, 4′ 33″, that was also referred to in my class this semester, which I’ve also mentioned here before. Did John Cage plagiarize from Erwin Schulhoff’s “In Futurum”? Compare these two performances and you be the judge.

Of course, when you compare them on paper, the similarities may be less obvious to an untrained eye…

In Futurum


Or could both derive independently from an earlier source – “Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man” ?

Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man

I am being somewhat facetious, obviously, with these last points. But I do want to highlight the importance of this subject, and of achieving balance on it. There are only so many different ways to combine words or musical notes within an accepted grammar. But there are also a seemingly infinite number of ways that one can combine them creatively in the context of larger works. When we see a phrase that is similar to another, it may be an intentional echo or a mere happenstance convergence. It is longer-scale agreement that shows that one is not merely remembering or echoing but copying, in ways that may be so substantial as to constitute theft. But how we judge such matters reflects our own textually-oriented and highly literate context. When writing was less common, people worried less, it seems, about others borrowing their exact words. The fact that we study ancient texts which plagiarized from one another should not desensitize us to the fact that what these authors did would be utterly inappropriate if done in our time.

Let me end this long blog post by highlighting my chapter on orality and intertextuality in the recently-published volume Exploring Intertextuality.

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