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Consider the source

Recent plagiarism scandals have persuaded some Christian publishers to work harder at keeping unoriginal writing out of print

Consider the source

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

Radiological Society of North America

Plagiarism detection software iThenticate in use

Every few years, a major plagiarism scandal visits the Christian publishing world. In 2013, pastor Mark Driscoll acknowledged problems with a Bible study published by Mars Hill, Trial, that lifted material from InterVarsity Press’ New Bible Commentary. In early 2015, BuzzFeed reported on instances of plagiarism in then-presidential candidate Ben Carson’s book, America the Beautiful, published by Zondervan.

Most recently, at the end of 2015, Canon Press pulled A Justice Primer, by pastors Douglas Wilson and Randy Booth, after the publisher determined that Booth’s sections of the book contained plagiarism. Canon CEO Aaron Rench said his organization now uses software to check its manuscripts for plagiarism before publication.

Plagiarism, as Tyndale House defines it for its authors, is presenting another’s ideas or writing as one’s own. That can appear either as word-for-word copying without attribution or as inadequate citations for the source of an idea. The plagiarism stakes are high for publishers, in terms of lost revenue from a tarnished book, and for authors, in terms of lost reputation and potential loss of future book contracts. Despite efforts at prevention, plagiarism remains a danger for authors who become careless in writing or research.

“It’s just easier to pull stuff off the internet and use it or rework it,” said Andy Le Peau, who recently retired as head of InterVarsity Press’ editorial department after a 40-year career. “There’s this misimpression that because it’s on the web it’s public domain.”

Most publishers think authorial self-preservation, strict contracts prohibiting plagiarism, and a good team of editors will result in a plagiarism-free book. But when plagiarism is unintentional—a missed citation or a miscopied note from a research assistant or just sloppiness—those checks can be insufficient. That’s where plagiarism detection software can be helpful. To prevent future scandals, a few Christian publishers are turning to software in hopes of rooting out potential plagiarism before it sees print.

Using plagiarism detection software is actually not even a publishing industry standard, although it has been routine in the academic world for years. Big Christian publishers like Thomas Nelson (part of HarperCollins) and Tyndale don’t use software.

Smaller Christian publishers, more nimble than the “big five” (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster), have adapted to plagiarism scandals more quickly—though they have smaller budgets to cover expensive software. They can decide to change their plagiarism policy or use software without too much deliberation.

‘If you haven’t mastered the subject matter, you’re going to have to rely on someone else for your ideas. If you’re under a deadline, you might cut corners.’ —Collin Garbarino

“A few of us got together and said, ‘Hey, what should we do?’” said Le Peau about InterVarsity’s decision to use iThenticate, a top-of-the-line plagiarism detection software. “We tried it out, and off we went.”

This year Crossway began running its manuscripts through iThenticate. The safeguard is an investment: A professional subscription to iThenticate costs thousands of dollars per year and requires editors to do hours of follow-up research on whatever the detection service finds in a manuscript. Software can turn up false positives from material the author has written elsewhere, so editors have to check each part of a software report on a particular manuscript.

“Prior to this, we largely trusted that our authors were operating with integrity,” said Justin Taylor, executive vice president of book publishing at Crossway, in an email. “Then the next line of defense is an editor. But because it’s impossible to fact-check every sentence for originality, it was a largely subjective process with few genuine checks and balances.”

Canon Press began using software for its own manuscripts as a direct result of the Justice Primer plagiarism discovery in December. CEO Rench said he believes the publisher has run all of the new manuscripts this year through the software. Before the recent plagiarism came to light, the issue “wasn’t really at the forefront,” Rench said. When Canon looked at its manuscript process, it decided on software “for our own sake.”

It was actually a software check that first unearthed the plagiarism in A Justice Primer—but not Canon’s software check. Rachel Miller, the blogger who found and reported the book’s citation problems, bought a copy of A Justice Primer on Amazon, and then noticed sections that seemed plagiarized as she was reading. She typed up the sections and ran them through Grammarly’s plagiarism detection software.

Upon finding what looked like uncited material, Miller asked a professor whom she had worked with before, Valerie Hobbs at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, to check her work with a more rigorous program, Turnitin (the academic version of iThenticate). Hobbs ran the text Miller sent through the program and confirmed what she had found: In several instances Booth did not cite work from at least four authors, a finding Canon largely confirmed with its own research later. In several spots Booth unintentionally copied paragraphs of text from other sources, but he also forgot to include citations for certain phrases and ideas. Booth acknowledged all the instances of plagiarism were his own, not co-author Wilson’s.

Book editors I interviewed said plagiarism is more common the more distance the author has from the material, such as if he or she used a ghostwriter, or a research assistant, or material from old sermons and speeches where the sources weren’t noted.

Collin Garbarino, assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University, recalled that, when he was a research assistant, an author pasted his notes word-for-word into a manuscript. He was flattered enough that he didn’t say anything. Another time he was reading a commentary and found a section that was a word-for-word copy of an older, out-of-print commentary. 

“It’s not just a lack of training in research,” Garbarino said. “We’ve got some pastors writing books on topics that they only superficially understand. If you haven’t mastered the subject matter, you’re going to have to rely on someone else for your ideas. If you’re under a deadline, you might cut corners.”

Zondervan (also an arm of HarperCollins) and Moody Publishers said they use plagiarism detection software periodically. Publishers chiefly rely on authors to abide by their contracts, which typically include a section affirming they have properly sourced everything in the manuscript. Zondervan said its editors will run a manuscript through software if anything smells suspicious.

Zondervan Editor in Chief Stan Gundry recalled he had to reject a manuscript recently after Zondervan editors found unintentional plagiarism in it. The author made corrections, but when the editors ran the corrected manuscript through software, they found more problems. They decided they were done with the manuscript altogether.

Plagiarism detection software is not a silver bullet; it can only detect material that has been digitized. So the head knowledge of an editor is still the best firewall against plagiarism. Editors say their alarms will go off if they sense a slight change in writing style, for example, and then they do research on the questionable passages.

Ben McCoy, managing editor at InterVarsity, said a software check might be standard in academic settings but not in the publishing world because plagiarism is so much more common among students. In addition, professors don’t have time to scrupulously check student papers, while publishers have “10 different sets of eyeballs” scrutinizing manuscripts.

Canon Press has significantly tightened its plagiarism-checking process at significant expense, said Rench, from running all manuscripts through software to spending time discussing the issue with authors in the early stages of a book. Rench noted another precaution: Wilson will not have co-authors collaborate on his future books.

One thing is for sure. Canon won’t be the last Christian publisher to confront a plagiarism scandal.

“It keeps happening,” Le Peau said. “You think people would pay a little more attention to it.”

A disputed Primer 

Blogger Rachel Miller and University of Sheffield professor Valerie Hobbs ran sections of Canon Press’ A Justice Primer through two different plagiarism programs, finding instances of plagiarism. Miller published her findings in December.

Canon CEO Aaron Rench took issue with how they went about their work. He says individuals who want to run a copyrighted, published book through plagiarism software should first get permission from the publisher, because they would have to create a digital copy of the book to do so. He also says Miller and Hobbs should have informed Canon of their findings before publishing them.

Rench took the unorthodox step of contacting the dean of the English department of the University of Sheffield, Adam Piette, and accused Hobbs of piracy. Piette vigorously defended her. Miller’s perspective: “Published material can be legitimately scrutinized publicly. … That’s not an inappropriate use.”

Could a journalist get into copyright trouble for copying sections of a book to run through plagiarism software? Turnitin, citing several court rulings, says its software falls under “fair use” in copyright law. A federal appeals court also last fall ruled that Google’s practice of scanning and indexing copyrighted books was “fair use” and did not violate copyright—a practice that appears several steps beyond what plagiarism software does.

Still, the law in this area may not be settled. Lawyer Brian Flagler, whose firm Flagler Law Group works with Christian publishers, wasn’t sure whether plagiarism-checking qualifies as “fair use.”

Rench said he wants to focus on producing well-sourced books and isn’t pursuing the matter any further with Miller and Hobbs. —E.B.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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  • kennethos
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:22 pm

    I think it's worth noting that Rachel Miller is not exactly a fan of Doug Wilson. She wasn't behaving altruistically in exposing the plagiarism, though it needed to be done, and probably could have let Canon Press know privately before publicizing the matter. Even here, there are agendas at play.