A Project/Product with Individual and Institutional Impact

Eerdmans Publishing Deals with Plagiarism

“Thought leaders” and other public figures frequently spread their ideas by teaching workshops, giving interviews, posting on social media, and writing books. With the whole concept of “platform” that has developed in the digital technology era, these people become celebrities and they become a product that is consumed by the public. That is the current way of things.

But there is a kernel of a problem therein: What happens when a celebrity’s character and behavior disqualify him/her from having a role of influence – at least, according to moral and ethical standards related to “do good plus do no harm”? For instance, if you were head of a publishing company and one of your authors acknowledged incidents of adultery with multiple women, what would you do? Or if one of your authors was accused of plagiarism, and evidence proved it to be true, what would you do?

During a Facebook conversation about these kinds of issues, my friend, Jonathan McCormick, who works as a seminary lead librarian, chimed in. He suggested that publishers have three options for dealing with books of authors who end up in disrepute due to character issues and/or misconduct:

  1. Openly defend their author as if nothing is wrong.
  2. Quietly take the author’s book(s) out of print, perhaps selling out the last of the stock.
  3. Openly recall the book(s) and destroy the copies.

Jonathan mentioned that the third option rarely happens, and typically happens when there are ethical violations (such as plagiarism). He gave as an example of “the nuclear option” what happened in August 2016 with Eerdmans Publishing Co. They had to deal with three Bible commentaries by Peter T. O’Brien that allegedly misused secondary source material.

Read their full statement and analyze it for specifics of how they addressed the seven parts of their publishing systems: people, principles, practices, partnerships, processes, products, and impacts. Their full statement is online here: Eerdmans Statement on Three New Testament Commentaries. (My analysis notes follow the screenshot.)

Eerdmans Statement on Three New Testament Commentaries – Aug 15, 2016

Notes on Eerdmans’ Statement of August 15, 2016

Here’s what I see in how they chose to remediate the situation and restore confidence, in terms of the seven elements in systems — people, principles, practices, products, processes, partnerships, and impacts. Eerdmans undertook a multi-step systems approach within six weeks of receiving the allegations of misuse of sources/plagiarism. They:

  • Investigated and made a determination on the three books according to academic and ethical standards. (products, principles)
  • Gave the author an opportunity to respond. (people)
  • Issued an public apology from the head of the company for the negative impact of these products. (impacts)
  • Stopped sales on those books. (products)
  • Removed and destroyed their copies. (practices, products)
  • Offered credit to individuals and businesses who’d purchased them. (processes, people, partnerships)
  • Reiterated their ethical/quality control standards to the range of individuals involved in their publishing processes. (practices, partnerships, processes)
  • Stated their openness to media and others who had questions. (people, principles, processes, impacts)

I may have missed something, or interpreted the statement slightly different from how others might, in terms of systems solutions. But, overall, I don’t see how they could have done things any better. Their intentionality and comprehensive set of solutions show significant integrity and transparency in dealing with these proven situations of plagiarism. And they addressed concerns of all seven elements in their publishing system.

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Case Studies in Toxic Solutions to Plagiarism Problems

Unfortunately, there are too many examples of Christians “gaming the system” of publishing, whether to get on The New York Times Bestseller list, or with failure to acknowledge sources, or outright copy-and-paste or barely-paraphrase the intellectual work copyrighted by others. I will add here publishing and plagiarism cases you can use in applying the seven-element systems approach to analyzing.

Zondervan and Christine Caine. Without Apology, Zondervan Settles Plagiarism Case Involving Christine Caine, by Warren Throckmorton (October 11, 2018).

Christine Caine, Tim Clinton, Mark Driscoll, and Anne Voskamp. Does Plagiarism Matter to Christians?, by Warren Throckmorton (October 12, 2018). In his blog post, Mr. Throckmorton summarizes multiple cases of plagiarism and links to related articles on these four celebrity Christian writers. He also presents some options for better standards, and offers insights into why and how plagiarism is an ongoing problem in Christian communities.

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