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?

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

    1. Dave, I appreciate you coming here to defend your friend. I posted this on social media and nearly everyone who has commented on it (99% NT scholars teaching in institutions in North America, UK, or Australia) have given a hearty amen to what I’ve written. I don’t think I have missed Stan’s point at all. I think that he comes across quite pedantic and condescending and many many others feel the same.

      1. I would also say, Dave, that it was difficult to understand any point that Stan was trying to make because he seemed to be speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Would you like to point out specific ways in which I (and others) have misread Stan’s piece?

      2. Christopher, I think you should read my comment again carefully too; I’m not defending anyone here. I just think you missed his point and made an inaccurate assessment (and response). His point was not so much in defending O’Brien, or condoning plagiarism, but it was sort of tongue-in-cheek. He really used the incident to comment on modern commentary writing conventions–actually to critique them–and to say that something needs to change in modern commentaries. We all know plagiarism is wrong–but how different is *most* commentary writing these days from plagiarism? That’s his point.

        That’s an incredulous percentage of NT scholars over three continents! 99%! Kudos to you man. Keep up the good work.

        Jonathan, same here man. Hope you’re doing well. Hope the above answers your question too.

    2. Dave,

      Always good to interact with you. You’re definitely one of the people that I miss from my days at McMaster. That said, I wonder if you could give some substance to your objection. Exactly what did Dr. Skinner miss?

      1. Dave,

        Again, good to hear from you, and thank you for amplifying your earlier comment. Sorry that I did not see your response until now.

        As I read it over, I can’t help but wonder whether the problem is that Chris failed to grasp Stan’s point as much as it is that Stan failed to make it. I read the same blog post as Chris, and it never once occurred to me that Stan was being tongue-in-cheek, nor have I read or heard anyone who has suggested that reading. The tone in fact struck me as very serious. Given that a goodly number of readers found the post to be a condescending insult to their intelligence, the response “You just don’t get it” seems to be doubling down on that sense of condescension and insult. Whether that sense is fair or not, it’s out there, and it’s not clear to me how doubling down like that benefits anyone. Much better, I suspect, to say “Okay, that wasn’t the intended tone, but I can see how it could come across that way. Many apologies from Domain Thirty Three for sending out such negative vibes, however unintended it might have been.”

  1. Christopher,
    I assumed, based on your previous posts related to Stan, that your response would be negative and belittling while claiming the high road for yourself. Check, check and check! The clincher, raising the race and gender cards for absolutely no reason based on the original post!


    1. Can you specify which previous posts related to Stan you are referencing? I have never so much as insinuated anything negative about Porter on this blog. Also, what “high road” am I claiming? I am offering a critique. I am not a participant in this original conversation so there’s no way for me to claim any “high road.”

      And for what it’s worth, gender, race, and theological identification play a much larger role in these discussions than you are willing to admit if you think that I have thrown them in for “absolutely no reason.” Still, I will wait for you to point out where I have said anything negative about Porter on this or any other blog.

  2. I don’t ‘take a side’ as it were, in this discussion, and I don’t understand what Porter is really defending if OBrien himself truly does not deny the allegations. But given that book publishers primarily exist to profit by selling books – and are part and parcel of ‘the media’, Stan and others have every right to question the judgment of publishers, regardless of which ones they might be and regardless if such skepticism of publishers’ judgment turns out to be unjustified. Correction cannot occur if it is not allowed, and the corrector in this case (publishers) must be open for correction by external scholars as much as OBrien should be open to correction by publishers.

  3. I respect/admire Porter’s academic works but his response shocks me and is laughable. As you noted it’s demeaning and makes scholars/academics seem pretty dumb.

  4. Porter’s response, as I’ve written elsewhere, with its laze faire attitude toward plagiarism negatively colors every book/monograph series Porter has edited. It also taints McMaster Divinity now. I wonder: are students ever examined and disciplined for academic integrity violations? Do they teach citation rigor or enforce it in student work (including theses and dissertations)? I can no longer confidently say “yes,” given their president’s now public remarks.That’s a shame. THAT’s why Eerdmans reacted so swiftly and stridently. It wasn’t an attack on a type of scholar or scholarship. It wasn’t PC bending to arbitrary will. It’s that, given the egregiousness of O’Brian’s plagiarism, if Eerdmans didn’t respond, the press would look lax in its procedures and policies regarding academic honesty and every book in their catalog would be diminished. I’m not at all evangelical, but I read Porter’s early work (on biblical Greek) with great admiration and respect. (I must admit, his non-Greek scholarship has been outside my interests). But now I must admit, I’m disappointed in him. I really do think less of him and his work now, and I really do wonder what sort of academic integrity and standard has been the rule at the divinity school he shepherds. Is this indicative of his program? That may or may not be fair, but it’s still the (inevitable) result of not only cheating, but of defending a cheater.

  5. Thank you for a reasonable response. As hard as the idea of *repeated and sustained accidental plagiarism* is difficult for me to believe, even if we take Prof. O’Brien at his word, no criticism of the state of commentary writing justifies improper citation.

  6. It makes me sad to see Christians having a worthwhile debate in a public sphere, but doing it through insults no one would be making if this conversation was face to face. I understand people have strong feelings on this issue, but c’mon guys! You can’t write stuff on a public blog you wouldn’t be willing to say directly to your co-worker. This doesn’t help Christians look like people of love and grace.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ryan L. I am not sure which “insults” you are referring to. Since I wrote this post as a way of discussing an academic and professional issue, I wrote it as if I were speaking to academics and professionals. What, in particular, came across as “insulting”?

  7. Good post on an unfortunate affair – and yes, Porter does come across as arrogant in his remarks.

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