P.T. O’Brien and Plagiarism

Over on Aquila Report, I just read the article on P.T. O’Brien and the plagiarism that was found in his commentaries. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it can definitely be said that he should have been more careful with how he used his information. Now, no details were given in the report as to the person(s) he plagiarized and where in his commentaries. So, we need to be cautious about how much we can say.

On the other hand, plagiarism might just be the easiest thing to do in commentary writing. Indeed, in some ways, it seems endemic to the genre. I read my commentaries in chronological order so that I can get a sense of the history of interpretation on a particular passage. Unattributed references to ideas introduced by previous commentaries are everywhere. Honestly, I am fairly certain that I see this every week. Sometimes, they fall into the category of things that they all say, and can fairly be categorized as forming part of the common stock of knowledge. Many other times this is not true. All it seems to take is one unattributed instance of copying, and then subsequent commentators seem to think that the tidbit is fair game.

This makes me wonder whether someone has it in for P.T. O’Brien and just pointed out what just about every other commentator does all the time. Take the Ephesians commentary, for instance. First of all, it was published 17 years ago (the Philippians commentary is 25 years old now!). Why hasn’t any expert in the secondary literature on Ephesians (or Philippians) caught that plagiarism until now? More importantly, why didn’t D.A. Carson, one of the most well-read and erudite New Testament scholars of the present age, catch the plagiarism when he edited the book? Why did Carson continue to recommend these commentaries so highly in his book on commentaries? The Ephesians commentary is one I’ve read all the way through, and I don’t remember having any of those moments where I thought to myself that O’Brien had plagiarized anything, and I read at least 30 commentaries on Ephesians when I was preaching through it. This is suspicious to me.

What I would rather have from Eerdmans is a chart listing the instances so that I can make up my own mind about it, because there is no way I am giving my O’Brien commentaries back to Eerdmans for a refund. They are just too good to give up. A chart would be far more helpful to scholars and pastors so that they will not perpetuate the plagiarism, but will track down the ideas back to their original source and attribute properly. With the current policy, the O’Brien commentaries will live in a sort of no-man’s land, with people not sure what to do with them. I am quite sure that there is still plenty of O’Brien left in his commentaries, and it would be a pity to waste it. Eerdmans, please let us sort out the wheat from the chaff. Do the pastoral and scholarly world a favor, and let us see the findings for ourselves. That way, we can still salvage what is good from his commentaries, and there is a lot of that.

25 Comments

  1. deejayem2 said,

    August 20, 2016 at 9:26 am

    http://exegeticaltools.com/2016/08/17/three-favorite-evangelical-commentaries-tainted-plagiarism/ – this shows one example that someone found.

  2. greenbaggins said,

    August 20, 2016 at 9:53 am

    Thanks for that, David, and welcome to the blog.

  3. August 20, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Very interesting response, bro. Not quite what I expected, but it seems clear, after reading it, that I should have expected something like it. It’s definitely something to think about.

  4. Mark Horne said,

    August 20, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    This is a very pastoral response to pastor’s reading the commentaries and Eerdmans as well.

  5. Mark Horne said,

    August 20, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    sorry the above should have read “..a pastor’s reading of the…”. (Brain faster than my typing)

  6. August 20, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    Interesting. I have seen what you describe above in commentaries. From now on, I will attempt to take note of it.

  7. Steven Carr said,

    August 20, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    Throw Jude out of the canon! He obviously plagiarized Peter. “I could care less” is my usual response to plagiarism charges. We’ve piled on too many laws for citing sources that it makes it too easy to commit plagiarism. I would be entirely surprised if P T O’Brien intentionally committed plagiarism. And if he did it unintentionally, I still could care less because the ideas he wrote down can by no easy means be proven to have originated with whomever he quoted without citing.

  8. Frank Aderholdt said,

    August 20, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    I couldn’t help but think of the quotation attributed to Igor Stravinsky, the greatest composer of the 20th century: “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”

    (OK, I know we’re talking varieties of apples here, if not exactly apples and oranges. I’m in a “music mood” today and just couldn’t resist. Mr. Green Baggins himself will no doubt crack a smile.)

  9. reiterations said,

    August 20, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    Here is O’Brien’s statement, in its entirety: “In the New Testament commentaries that I have written, although I have not deliberately misused the work of others, nevertheless I now see that my work processes at times have been faulty and have generated clear-cut, but unintentional, plagiarism. For this I apologize without reservation.”

    I’d like to give O’Brien the benefit of the doubt here. Writing a serious, scholarly, detailed exegetical commentary is a complicated, meticulous, labor-intensive task, especially when the biblical book involved has a long history of written commentating already behind it. I can see how it would be very easy for even a conscientious scholar (as I believe O’Brien to be) to make a slip.

    I’ll pray for him, and hope that it doesn’t turn out, in the end, to be a case (or cases) of overt, deliberate plagiarism. That would be disappointing, to say the least. I trust that will not be the case.

  10. reiterations said,

    August 20, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    Writing a scholarly commentary is a long, detailed, meticulous, labor-intensive process that can take years, and is usually done only after years of previous reading and study. I can see how easy it would be for a scholar to inadvertently and unintentionally quote someone word for word without attribution, seeing as we are all fallible. This being so, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, unless and until evidence to the contrary turns up. I’ll pray for O’Brien, and hope that the plagiarism doesn’t turn out to have been deliberate.

  11. reiterations said,

    August 21, 2016 at 4:41 am

    I apologize for the second posting (#10). Post #9 failed to appear right away, so I thought I had to re-do it. Sorry.

  12. Ron said,

    August 21, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    “The Ephesians commentary is one I’ve read all the way through, and I don’t remember having any of those moments where I thought to myself that O’Brien had plagiarized anything, and I read at least 30 commentaries on Ephesians when I was preaching through it. This is suspicious to me.”

    I surely haven’t read nearly as many Ephesians commentaries as you but I’ve read PT’s through twice. I find it fresh, insightful and edifying. Definitely my favorite. Not too technical for me too. His treatment of chapter one alone is more than worth the price.

  13. rfwhite said,

    August 21, 2016 at 10:09 pm

    Looking at the statement of Eerdmans on this matter, I am a bit puzzled. The statement issued by the Eerdmans president and publisher contains the following assertion: “Our Bible commentary series, among the best of their kind, are authored and edited by the field’s top scholars.” If so, then the issues singled out should have surfaced in and been exposed in the editorial process. In other words, if the allegations are true (as the author concedes), the editors as well as the author should be held accountable. Will they?

  14. reiterations said,

    August 22, 2016 at 12:08 am

    Would it not be possible for Eerdmans to have O’Brien do a complete re-edit of his commentary, supplying all the lacking attributions in footnotes, and then re-issuing the commentary in a second edition? Since the Hebrews commentary is part of a series (I believe), it seems to me that that would be a lot less expensive and time-consuming than putting O’Brien’s commentary out of print and re-assigning the Hebrews volume in that series – especially since that means that it will be several years (at least) until the replacement commentary is ready.

  15. rfwhite said,

    August 22, 2016 at 9:22 am

    14 reiterations: there is no redemption possible for either editors who miss plagiarism or authors who commit it.

  16. greenbaggins said,

    August 22, 2016 at 10:04 am

    Fowler, I agree with your 13, but I don’t think that will happen. I can see how editors might miss it, even scholarly editors. Unless they have a habit of having the secondary literature memorized, it would be difficult to catch, unless they looked up every reference.

    Richard, that would be an ideal result. It would allow O’Brien to update all his commentaries, which would be a great boon to the scholarly world.

  17. Jason said,

    August 22, 2016 at 10:27 am

    I don’t have the heart to throw away my O’Brien commentaries. I will take advantage of the Eerdmans credits because I’m essentially giving up one page of commentary for some new books that could be helpful in my research. BUT—what if THOSE books are plagiarized? *cue ominous music

  18. rfwhite said,

    August 22, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    16 Lane: I sincerely appreciate your point. In my former life as an editor, I can say that I started from the premise that authors were not committing plagiarism. Then again, I never worked on a commentary series of this complexity of source citation, however. Still, the levels of editorial scrutiny for such a project would be more demanding. Some measure of editorial checking of secondary literature citation would be expected as a matter of course, at least spot-checking, to confirm the author’s responsible engagement in it.

    Admittedly, in this case, we don’t know (and probably will never know) enough details to know what happened, at the editorial level in particular. Even so, if I had been an editor under Carson on these commentaries, I would be concerned. For myself, I can say that I could not and would not be putting this work on my resume until after the smoke clears and I had learned what happened and what, if any, complicity I had in it.

  19. reiterations said,

    August 22, 2016 at 8:34 pm

    15 Fowler – are you assuming that the plagiarism was deliberate? This post certainly read this way.

  20. Ron said,

    August 23, 2016 at 1:07 am

    I didn’t take it that way…Do you suppose this was deliberate?

    First the original, then the copy. The copy was by the person’s boss at the time. Compare the two respective paragraphs.

    Original exerpt from here: http://www.flowcontrolnetwork.com/qa-ac-vs-dc-magmeter-excitation

    Conventional AC systems remain more susceptible to zero shift than DC systems. This phenomenon is best understood by appreciating that Faraday’s Law cuts two ways. As previously noted, the voltage proportional to velocity is created by a conductor (i.e., conductive process fluid) passing through a magnetic field. It is equally true that nonmoving conductors — such as electrode wires — near to a changing magnetic field also produce voltage.

    In AC-excited magnetic flowmeters the continuous alternating current in the presence of a stationary conductors or couplings between the magnetic coils and electrode wires can create a varying non-flow induced voltage, which is electronic noise. In AC systems, if the noise and flow signals are out of phase with each other they can be distinguished with circuitry or software, enabling the pure flow signal to be processed and understood. Field affects that are peculiar to the installation and not present during factory calibration must, of course, be dealt with in the field. Accordingly, nonmoving insulating coatings that accumulate on the electrodes during normal process conditions (i.e. after zeroing the system in the field) can cause an apparent shift in zero in AC systems.

    —-
    It found its way into a white paper. Maybe a magazine too. Can’t remember.
    —-

    The copied excerpt:

    The primary weakness of conventional AC systems is this zero-shift. The phenomenon is best understood by appreciating that Faraday’s Law cuts two ways. As noted, the measured voltage is proportional to the velocity of the fluid passing through a magnetic field created by excitation. It’s equally true that nonmoving conductors, such as electrode signal wires near the varying magnetic field, also generate voltage.

    In conventional AC-excited magnetic flowmeters, the continuous alternating current in the presence of a stationary conductor (the fluid at zero flow rate) creates a varying non-flow induced voltage, which is electronic noise. Typically, noise created by fixed conductive electrode wires can be “zeroed out” by operators during start-up (or even eliminated by circuitry if the voltages are out of phase with each other). However, non-moving conductive coatings that accumulate on the electrodes during normal process conditions (after zeroing the system) often cause an apparent shift in zero in con- ventional AC systems.

  21. rfwhite said,

    August 23, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    19 reiterations: Good catch. Thanks for letting me clarify. No, not assuming complicity of any deliberate sort. Just complicity of the sort that’s inadvertent and comes with being finite and fallible.

  22. reiterations said,

    August 23, 2016 at 9:21 pm

    21 Fowler: Thanks for the clarification. I quite agree with you.

    I was in a bookstore today which had two of O’Brien’s commentaries for sale (Ephesians and Hebrews). While I was there, a clerk took a Hebrews volume (they had two) off the shelf to fill a customer order. That made me wonder: as word gets out that Eerdmans will let O’Brien’s three commentaries go out of print, I wonder how many Christians might be snapping them up at bookstores and online until they disappear?

  23. rfwhite said,

    August 26, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Given Bill Smith’s post in 23, maybe we should say “the plot thickens” or something similar — or gets murkier!

  24. reiterations said,

    August 26, 2016 at 8:30 pm

    That statement definitely muddies the waters, Fowler. O’Brien got accused when he got caught in the middle of a plagiarism spat with some Korean guy O’Brien had nothing to do with, because the Korean guy pointed to O’Brien and said, in effect, “See! He did it, too!” Weird.

    I definitely hope Eerdmans gives O’Brien a second chance, after this.


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