Questioning Stan Porter on Peter O’Brien and Plagiarism (Skinner)

obrienI didn’t get a chance to mention this last week, but last Monday several of my friends on social media shared a blog post by Stanley Porter in which he appeared to come to the defense of Peter O’Brien in the midst of recent revelations about O’Brien’s plagiarism across three of his commentaries. A number of my friends shared this post (several approvingly), but in my opinion, Porter’s response was simultaneously condescending and tone deaf, and in places, a bit self-righteous. I’d like to respond to a few excerpts and wonder aloud about what Porter was thinking….

First, in case you missed it, here’s a portion of the statement from Eerdmans:

“Eerdmans editors compared the text of The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary, 2010) with various secondary sources and submitted findings to external experts for verification. Summing up the findings, Editor-in-chief James Ernest said, “Our own editors and our outside consultants agreed that what we found on the pages of this commentary runs afoul of commonly accepted standards with regard to the utilization and documentation of secondary sources. We agreed that the book could not be retained in print” (emphasis added).

Now let’s look at the first excerpt from Porter’s post:

 “I believe that the acceptable convention of commentary writing today is essentially to repeat what others have said before you, even if you massage their words in various ways. Therefore, I find it hard to fathom that there is so much self-righteous indignation over Peter O’Brien’s supposed plagiarism in several commentaries. I think that O’Brien, if he did plagiarize (and I wish to question this), may well have simply been following the convention of current commentary writing—an inevitability that has become an accepted norm. From my experience of reading commentaries, I suspect that many commentary writers would not like anyone looking too closely at how they have written theirs, simply because the use of other commentators is exactly what writing a commentary (unfortunately) has become.”

My first response would be to say that I think Porter is guilty of overstatement here. In fact, he appears to indict this current generation of commentators of being guilty of the same sort of infraction committed by O’Brien. But, let’s just for the sake of argument, grant that Porter is not guilty of hyperbole here. I think we can all agree that it is unprecedented, at least in recent memory, to have a major publisher in the field of biblical studies completely pull not one but three commentaries from circulation. Remember, this decision was arrived at through a collaboration of Eerdmans editors and outside consultants. So when Porter says, “if he did plagiarize (and I wish to question this),” he sounds more than a little arrogant. Surely a cadre of experts both within and outside of Eerdmans’ editorial staff can be trusted to adjudicate this matter fairly, can’t they?

Porter continues:

“I find it interesting that the notion of plagiarism has developed into what it has become. If the New Testament authors cite or closely paraphrase Old Testament writers but without attribution, we consider this a meaningful citation or allusion and engage in all sorts of exegetical gymnastics (and write endless books) to ascertain their meanings and motives—but we do not accuse them of plagiarism. Why? Because that is the convention of the ancient writers (as I believe the convention is for contemporary commentary writers). This is also true of more recent authors. If Shakespeare uses Holinshed’s Chronicles or earlier versions of the story of Hamlet, we don’t call Shakespeare a plagiarist, we instead call him the most brilliant writer of the English language who ever lived. If a contemporary author invokes an earlier author, such as Shakespeare or any number of others, we may spend hours determining the nature of the invocation or its purpose—but again we don’t call it plagiarism, we call it literary allusion and commend the learnedness of the author (as in the allusion to T.S. Eliot above).”

Let’s call this paragraph what it is: sheer editorializing on an unrelated issue (viz., the trajectory of our understanding of plagiarism across literary history). We are not in living in the 16th century when Shakespeare wrote and we are not living in the first century when the apostles wrote. There are clearly delineated understandings of what constitutes plagiarism and theft of intellectual property. “Writing” and “borrowing” are not regarded in the same way today as they were during the time of Shakespeare or biblical writers. This entire paragraph is simply a red herring (and a bit of grandstanding). A real and substantive offense was committed here and we should laud Eerdmans for their response. Let’s remember that O’Brien didn’t deny these accusations. In fact, the plagiarism was deemed so blatant that Eerdmans was willing to (1) discontinue the commentaries, and (2) replace the books with other volumes for those who wanted to send their O’Brien volumes in.

Porter continues:

“[U]nfortunately, there are fewer and fewer scholars really competent to comment upon the text but ever-increasing demands to write new commentaries to fulfill the demands of publishers. There are plenty of scholars willing to unload their theologies and other agendas on each and every biblical text, but few that I have found who are equipped to wrestle in new and distinct ways with its very language. As a result, it is not only easier but has become the norm to use the previous work of others.

So let me get this straight? This type of “not-really-plagiarism” is part and parcel of what commentary writing IS, HAS BEEN FOR YEARS, and CONTINUES TO BE and is therefore not necessarily a bad thing. But, this state of affairs is ALSO the result of shoddy scholarship by a newer, younger group of scholars who aren’t really up to the task of commentary writing? Which is it? I’m not sure Porter can have it both ways. It sounds to me like he’s speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Perhaps the problem is not that there are too few scholars currently capable of writing good commentaries but rather, that a handful of luminaries—especially within evangelical circles—consistently wind up with multiple commentary contracts (and their concomitant deadlines) and are simply unable to meet the demands in a fair and intellectually honest way?

I understand loyalty and I can appreciate not wanting to kick someone when they’re down. I also understand the instinct of one senior scholar wanting to give the benefit of the doubt to another senior scholar (especially one from similar race, gender, and theological demographics). However, we need to be able to call a spade a spade, and wholesale quotations from someone else’s commentaries that are unattributed amounts to plagiarism, pure and simple. Perhaps the reason why there has been so much “righteous indignation” (Porter’s words, not mine) over this issue is that many in this field (myself included), are passionate pedagogues who wish to hold our students to the highest standards of academic conduct. I have been teaching in higher education for the past twelve years and I have caught plagiarized work nearly every semester during those twelve years. How can we hold the students to such a standard if the experts won’t do it?

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