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A plagiarism incident involving Ann Voskamp shows the new dynamics of Christian publishing in a digital age

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(pablohart/iStock)

WORLD has received a bunch of letters asking about popular Christian writer Ann Voskamp, “Is she a serial plagiarist”? The short answer is “No,” but a couple of examples of minor plagiarism should give authors and publishers new determination to take great care in attributing stories and wordings to their creators.

One area of talk about Voskamp arose out a paragraph in Chapter 1 of her best-selling book The Broken Way (Zondervan, 2016), which explains how personal brokenness is often essential for spiritual progress. It’s not a new thought, but Voskamp conveys it poetically, and climaxes the theological musing with a homely lesson about seeds that her farmer-dad gave her: “For a seed to come fully into its own, it must become wholly undone. The shell must break open, its insides must come out, and everything must change. If you didn’t understand what life looks like, you might mistake it for complete destruction.”

It wouldn’t be surprising for Voskamp’s dad to say something like that, but the problem is that the words attributed to him matched almost word for word the writing of author Cynthia Occelli on her social media pages. It appeared that Voskamp (or perhaps a researcher for her) had copied the seed quote from Occelli and then put those words into her dad’s mouth.

When Occelli found out, she contacted Zondervan. She was particularly upset by a Zondervan promotional video featuring Voskamp telling the seed story as coming from her dad: “The passion and drama with which she speaks my stolen quote are nauseating.” Occelli has an uphill battle to reclaim the quotation, because Occelli has 60,000 Facebook fans to Voskamp’s 488,000. (Voskamp turned down my request for an interview, and Occelli did not respond to my attempts to contact her.)

Four months after the plagiarism came to light, Voskamp to her credit acknowledged it in a blog post: “What I attributed to my father appears to have originated with author Cynthia Occelli, was used without correct attribution or permission, and I humbly apologize for any confusion, and am profoundly grateful to make the correct attribution to Cynthia Occelli.”

Jonathan Bielaski

Ann Voskamp (Jonathan Bielaski)

The problem: Some readers probably missed Voskamp’s apology, submerged as it was in a long scroll of a post concerning a family trip to Israel, a Tim Keller talk, a Mister Rogers quote, Instagram photos from fans raving about her books, and more. The item’s burial was too bad, because this was a teachable moment about likely dangers at a time when internet files can be copied and mislabeled so readily, with unclear attribution. It’s not hard months later for a popular writer, under intense pressure to fulfill fans’ and publishers’ demands, to throw into the breach a story that her dad could have told—but it wouldn’t be word for word from what someone else wrote.

That wasn’t the only time Voskamp has without attribution used the work of others. In January she wrote a blog post about sexual abuse and listed “nine theses for assault in the church,” using a list from seminary professor Wade Mullen with only slight rewordings, and did not attribute any of it. In this case Voskamp apologized quickly in a blog post several days later. She said she was in “vulnerable grief” about sexual abuse in the church when she wrote the post, that she “lyrically paraphrased and used some phrases” of Mullen’s, and that “my heart sincerely and humbly and relentlessly apologizes.”

Inexplicably, that post where she apologized is now deleted (the archived page was still available on the Wayback Machine). The blog Jules’ Diner documented this and some other minor incidents, like a 2017 talk where Voskamp appeared to use some ideas from philosopher James K.A. Smith without attribution. When someone brought up the similarities of her speech with Smith’s writing, Smith tweeted, “I’m sure there’s a footnote in her heart.”

CynthiaOccelli.com

Cynthia Occelli (CynthiaOccelli.com)

Given that talk about Voskamp’s errors was spreading, I ran the plagiarized section of The Broken Way through iThenticate, the plagiarism detection software that is publishing industry standard, and caught no other unequivocal cases of misappropriation. I ran Voskamp’s five major books through another plagiarism software, Grammarly, which checks materials against what’s available online. Bottom line: No other instances of plagiarism popped up in her books.

The Voskamp file suggests that publishers and writers both have responsibilities in this brave new world. Zondervan, caught red-handed with The Broken Way’s plagiarized passage, deleted the plagiarized part from digital editions entirely—this is apparently common practice when publishers find instances of possible plagiarism. If you download a Kindle edition of The Broken Way today, it will not have the story about Voskamp’s dad and the seed.

Zondervan also removed the YouTube video promoting the book where Voskamp told this seed story about her father. Zondervan, owned by HarperCollins, declined to comment for this story.

Curiously, when I ran Voskamp’s plagiarized text from The Broken Way through iThenticate, the software did not detect the plagiarism. Others in publishing say it’s not unusual for software to miss such obvious cases. The situation underscores the ongoing difficulty with catching plagiarism in publishing, even with new plagiarism software that has vast digital resources to flag these problems.

“The best defense against plagiarism is good software combined with good editors,” said Ben McCoy, managing editor at InterVarsity Press. InterVarsity runs all of its manuscripts through iThenticate, but McCoy has found gaps in the software’s ability to detect plagiarism as well.

Multiple people in the publishing industry I talked to want better plagiarism software, but nothing appears to be in the works. Publishers tend to rely on authors to abide by their contracts, which include stipulations against plagiarism or poor attribution. And now in a digital age, they can edit problems post-publication without attracting much notice.

Two years ago WORLD investigated whether Christian publishers use plagiarism software, and at the time most of the “big five” publishers like HarperCollins did not as a matter of habit, while smaller publishers did. Zondervan said that it used software if editors found red flags in a manuscript, but not on every manuscript.

ZONDERVAN HAD ANOTHER RECENT PLAGIARISM ISSUE with an author with a big online following who appears to have taken material from a lesser-known author. In May, author Carey Scott filed a lawsuit against Zondervan, HarperCollins, and Zondervan author Christine Caine. Scott alleged that Caine had directly copied one section of her book, and in addition had copied her book’s “theme and presentation.”

Both women have written extensively about similar issues, such as women dealing with shame.

CareyScott.org

Carey Scott (CareyScott.org)

Caine is well-known in women’s ministry and founded the anti-trafficking organization A21 with her husband Nick Caine. Caine has a raft of books and 733,000 followers on Facebook—Scott has 4,300 Facebook fans. Scott has had a career in ministry to women but was a first-time author with her book that was in this lawsuit.

The lawsuit reads like the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First” routine. Scott alleged that Caine’s 2016 book Unashamed copied from Scott’s 2015 book Untangled. Scott further alleged that Caine’s 2017 book Unshakeable contains some of the same “infringing passages” from Unashamed, according to the lawsuit, including the part that was a direct copy in Untangled. Caine has other books titled Undaunted, Unstoppable, and Unexpected and Scott has two newer books, Unafraid and Uncommon, but happily for those parsing this lawsuit, those books were not implicated.

In late September, the parties reached a private settlement, although they were still in the final stages of handling that settlement and dismissal of the case in October. The lawyer for Zondervan declined to comment on the details. Scott’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

According to Scott’s lawsuit, she was a fan of Caine. She learned of the “infringement” of her work two weeks before Caine’s book released when she got a promotional email for Caine’s book that included a video with verbatim text from Scott’s book. Scott alerted Zondervan.

Thirty thousand copies of Unashamed had already been printed, according to the lawsuit, but Zondervan agreed to edit the section for future copies and also removed the promotional video with Scott’s text. Scott’s lawsuit said Zondervan had “immediately corrected” the direct plagiarism in e-book versions.

ChristineCaine.com

Christine Caine (ChristineCaine.com)

But then Scott alleged that Zondervan published Caine’s next book, Unshakeable, with the same directly copied passage from Scott’s 2015 book that Zondervan had edited out of the previous book, and says other themes and ideas from her book appear throughout Caine’s 2017 book. Caine did not return a request for comment.

For all of this, Zondervan has a reputation of responding quickly to plagiarism accusations. In October last year, Andreas Köstenberger reported his own plagiarism to his publisher, Zondervan—or what Zondervan called “a series of inadvertently unattributed references”—in a Biblical commentary on the Gospel of John. Köstenberger had failed to cite a commentary from D.A. Carson several times, a failure he attributed to inadequate note-taking.

Zondervan went through Köstenberger’s part of the commentary and found the problems were too “extensive” to fix. In December, Zondervan pulled the book out of print. Köstenberger issued a public apology, apologized to Carson, “my esteemed mentor and friend,” and also said he made “financial restitution” to Carson and his publisher.

Köstenberger had written about plagiarism in a 2011 book, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue. Addressing young Christian scholars, he wrote, “It is those engaged in biblical and theological studies who should hold to impeccable standards when it comes to respecting and referencing the works of others.”

For those who say they would never plagiarize, he pointed to the easy pull of “laziness” about researching sources—leading to a last-minute rush to research and pulling from indiscriminate sources.

“Sin has a way of increasingly desensitizing and deceiving us as to its growth and consequences,” he said.

Bottom line regarding Voskamp, a wonderfully sensitive observer of life: She has now been sensitized on plagiarism, and she should now double-check all her new writing with the plagiarism shadow looming over her. If going slower to eliminate misappropriations causes her creative output to decline by 10 percent, that’s the tithe writers must pay to preserve their good name.

—with additional research by Brendan Ribera and Rachel Beatty

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

Comments

  • Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Fri, 10/12/2018 10:35 am

    "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal." (1 Cor 13:1)

    Voskamp and Caine rely on their highly public presence to sell their books. They should also publicly acknowledge their misdeeds openly (if they have truly repented) and not hide behind publishers and lawyers and bury so-called apologies in blog blatherings. Some may call it a minor issue, but it's still an injustice to the original authors however slight.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Mon, 10/15/2018 03:03 am

    We have to be careful in assuming the worst in our brothers and sisters in Christ - if we “love” them.  We can imagine scenarios where Voskamp did not plagiarize, where her father read the story in an old pamphlet, heard it in a sermon, or had seen it in some other place and told it to his daughter who dutifully retold the story in her latest book many years later. The other gal too heard the story and posted it before the book was published and automatically thought that it was plagiarized - an understandable assumption.  After hearing the accusation of plagiarism, the publisher would investigate it and contact Voskamp. Even if Voskamp had heard the story from her father, she would be required to take it out of her book and likely issue an apology. The offended party then would likely be paid some agreed upon amount from the sales of the book. Of course, lawyers and publishers would be involved in this process, but it goes without saying. 

    Another possible scenario may be she heard the story from her father years before but had forgotten the exact details. Voskamp then had her researcher look up stories about seeds, and the researcher found a list of them and Voskamp chose the one closest to her memories, giving reference to her father who she remembered said it so similarly. Again the same situation with the threatened lawsuit would play out and she would have to issue an apology and take out the story from her book. The offended party would be paid damages and the issue would be dropped. 

    I just say this because knowing you (based on what I have seen at the boards here at World), the last thing you would want to do is injure your sister in Christ.  And even if Voskamp - in the very worst case - due to pressures to get the book done, did use “literary license” and attributed a quote that she found on a blog to her dad, you would want to show her grace. I know how many times I have sinned, saying something stupid or letting my pride get in the way.  How much has Jesus shown me grace! I also mention the few times she has been accused of plagiarism in all the books she has written. She does seem to have interest in seeing others grow and mature as Christians, so I try to think the best in others even in spite of the wolves in sheep clothing - especially those attracted by money, fame and power - though I am not naive about it.

  • Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Tue, 10/16/2018 10:55 am

    Point taken, Cyborg3 ... thank you. I know I fall short of the mark more often than I'd like. My post was just a plea for "superstar" Christian writers, actors, musicians and even pastors to simply be honest and public with their apologies. Millions of Christians look to them for guidance or encouragement or even entertainment. If the facts of the incidents were accurately reported, and I believe World to do so, even if there was no intent to plagiarize, these authors and publishers responded to their Christian sisters as like the world.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Fri, 10/19/2018 12:37 am

    Yes, you make a good point too! Thanks!

  • Peter Allen's picture
    Peter Allen
    Posted: Sun, 10/14/2018 12:46 pm

    Regarding the “seed” story.  Refrenced in the bible, and in multiple sermons and books I have listened to or read.  And a great teaching story for children everywhere.  Bound to be told in a very similar way... not something an author can “own”

  • gndgirl
    Posted: Wed, 10/17/2018 06:25 pm

    I understand that plagiarism can happen by mistake. But how could Voskamp attribute a story to her own father, when it didn't come from her father, and not be aware of it? This makes no sense. (OK, I just read the previous comments, and I can see that the story could almost be considered public domain, but it still seems odd to attribute it to her father, as if he was the original author.) 

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Fri, 10/19/2018 01:42 am

    In reaching a settlement, the lawyers and publishers may force Voskamp to make a statement about wrongdoing, but to avoid a lawsuit her publisher may have agreed to post the statement even if it was not entirely true.  This would avoid a huge court battle that could be very expensive and damaging for all parties. I don’t know for sure if this was the case, but it could play out like this.