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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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I come for the theological discussion, but I stay for the John Cage references.

    You know, this reminds me of a post you made some time ago about a short story whose central point was that we haven’t encountered advanced alien life because, once a race has exhausted all their potentiality, there’s nothing to keep them going.

    There are a limited amount of notes on a scale and a limited amount of words in a language. As time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to produce something truly original in the sense that you can’t find an earlier analogue.

    Maybe what we should start doing is writing commentary companions instead of brand new commentaries. “I agree with everything Doug Moo said about Romans except what follows in this book.”

  • As you’ve pointed out in other posts, Bart Ehrman in “Forged” demonstrates that (counter to the glossing of many commentaries) plagiarism was certainly known and condemned in the ancient world. As examples, he cites four ancient writers denouncing the practice of plagiarism: Vitruvius, Polybius, Martial, and Diogenes Laertius.

    Bart D. Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011), 246-247.

    • Isn’t his focus there on forgery which, from one perspective, is the opposite of plagiarism? That is to say, one is passing off your own work as someone else’s, the other is passing off someone else’s work as your own.

      • No. Forgery is the focus of the book as a whole; but the pages I cited are a brief digression on the subject of plagiarism.

        I think you have forgotten that your own review of Ehrman’s book mentions this digression. According to James McGrath:

        “Plagiarism is also discussed, and Ehrman offers evidence that, contrary to what is frequently claimed, copying another’s work and passing it off as your own, whether in its original form or with superficial modifications, was condemned in antiquity, providing as examples Polybius, Martial, and Diogenes Laertius.”

        For example, Ehrman quotes Vitruvius as saying:

        “We are … bound to censure those, who, borrowing from others, publish as their own that of which they are not the authors.”

        Ehrman only provides this one quote from Vitruvius on plagiarism, but I looked it up myself (I hadn’t read Vitruvius since grad school), and found that he actually goes on at length about plagiarism in the Introduction to his seventh book on Architecture. He tells a story about Aristophanes shaming a group of poets who had entered poetic compositions into a contest under their own names. By pulling volumes from the Alexandrian library, Aristophanes was able to show that they “had recited things not their own”, and stated that the judges “ought to give their approval, not to thefts, but to original compositions.”

        Following this story, Vitruvius goes on to cite a long list of ancient authors, whom he credits for their earlier writings on architecture.

        • Thanks so much – as you could tell, I had indeed forgotten that he talks about this!

          • Grant

            Based on the criteria in the infographic, Vitruvius and if we assume authorship was known to the first Christians (e.g. as illustrated by Papias) then Matthew has plagarised Mark. Is that correct?

          • I would say it is plagiarism regardless. When an anonymous website reproduces content from Wikipedia without giving credit, it is still plagiarism.

          • Assuming (as per most scholars) that Matthew and Luke plagiarized Mark, it seems doubtful to me that they did so with the expectation that all of their gospels would eventually be available in a single text, side by side.

            Doesn’t it seem more likely that Matthew and Luke were separately attempting to alter the existing text: to change and control the narrative by altering and replacing it?

          • Perhaps, but I think that is a separate issue from whether they plagiarized.

          • I brought it up because, on one of his blog posts, Bart Ehrman questioned whether plagiarism was the right word for the synoptic gospels, given that they are anonymous and plagiarism is usually seen as “taking credit” for someone else’s work.

            I think I was trying to get at what motives replaced “taking credit” in this instance of plagiarism.

          • It is a fair point. I suppose I view the matter from the perspective of a modern author. I wouldn’t want my work copied and published by someone else, even if they did so anonymously.

          • I think I’d have to agree with you!

  • arcseconds

    John Cage used tables he had created using the Yi Jing (I Ching) to compose music in the past, and my understanding that 4’33” was composed using these tables, just without the ones for pitch and loudness. So at one point there was a score with silent notes, not perhaps unlike the In Futurum score, but demonstrably different!