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In 2017, WORLD named as its “Series of the Year” the Reformed Expository Commentary from P&R Publishing. Various Reformed pastor-scholars authored the volumes in the series, drawing from their own sermons, and P&R plans for the series eventually to cover every book of the Bible. We praised it because we found that good editing brought out the best in the sermons without being too academic.
P&R has now withdrawn from publication the series’ commentary on the book of Acts, written by Derek W.H. Thomas, the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C, part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Thomas, 66, is also a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Atlanta, a teacher at Ligonier Ministries, and author of more than a dozen books.
Last October an anonymous source sent research to P&R showing Thomas’ commentary had many instances of plagiarism. The Acts commentary was based on Thomas’ sermons, which contained some word-for-word plagiarism from talks by theologian Sinclair Ferguson. Ferguson preceded Thomas as senior minister at First Presbyterian, and the two are friends.
P&R, which investigated and confirmed the plagiarism, said in a statement the problem was a result of “unclear note-taking more than a decade before the commentary on Acts was written, and we believe it does not reflect intentional misuse on the part of the author.”
P&R Vice President Ian Thompson elaborated: He said that as soon as P&R had informed Thomas of the plagiarism charge and sent him documents for a response, Thomas “immediately called back and said he did not at that time know how it had happened but that he would comply with anything that we did—in effect he threw himself on our mercy. We were impressed by the humility and contrition expressed by Derek in response to our enquiries.” Still, because of the plagiarism, the publisher removed the book from print.
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Maintain social media platforms. Arrange public events. Attend conferences. Purchase paid advertising. Manage cash flow. Analyze data. Spot trends.
If that doesn’t sound like the job requirement for an author, think again. All authors have to do some marketing, but for self-publishers it’s crucial.
Shonna Slayton is one such author. She’s a homeschooling Christian mom and author of Spindle, plus other novels in the genre she calls “historical fairy tales.” After using a boutique publisher for her first three books, she’s now self-publishing through Amazon and Ingram. Slayton has learned that success in her writing “side-hustle” requires her to be both businessperson and writer.
Self-publishing isn’t a new concept. After failing to find a publisher for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter self-published in 1901. The next year a publisher that had originally rejected it picked up the story. Today Potter’s books sell more than 2 million copies each year. In 1931, Irma Rombauer and her daughter put together the illustrated cookbook The Joy of Cooking. Five years later Bobbs-Merrill Co. acquired the rights, eventually selling more than 18 million copies.
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How do celebrity pastors produce and market books? That question surfaced again over the past month as talk show host Janet Mefferd first criticized Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll for plagiarism, then under pressure removed evidence from her website and issued an on-air apology for the way she handled an interview with Driscoll—but without retracting her accusations.
The controversy began on Nov. 21, when Driscoll appeared on “The Janet Mefferd Show” to discuss his new book A Call to Resurgence, published by Tyndale House Publishers. Mefferd maintains Driscoll’s representatives initiated the request for the interview. As part of her preparation for the interview, Mefferd had encountered several passages in Driscoll’s book that turned out to be verbatim but not-in-quotation-marks passages from writing by Peter Jones, scholar in residence at Westminster Seminary California.
Mefferd confronted Driscoll in what quickly became an awkward and contentious interview on her radio program, syndicated by the Salem Radio Network, the nation’s largest Christian radio network. After the interview and in part as a response to criticism that Mefferd had unfairly criticized Driscoll for a “mistake” that did not rise to the level of intentional plagiarism, Mefferd put on her website more examples of Driscoll’s uncredited use of other people’s material.
On Dec. 4 Mefferd took down that material and became publicly silent on the matter. This fed numerous blogosphere comments that Tyndale House or other organizations had pressured her or Salem. Tyndale House issued a statement defending its author: “Tyndale House takes any accusation of plagiarism seriously and has therefore conducted a thorough in-house review of the original material and sources provided by the author. After this review we feel confident that the content in question has been properly cited in the printed book and conforms to market standards.”
But InterVarsity Press, publisher of the New Bible Commentary, released a statement saying “several paragraphs” of Driscoll’s book Trial: 8 Witnesses from 1 & 2 Peter “improperly” used the IVP commentary “without quotation or attribution.” Mars Hill—Driscoll’s church and publisher of Trial—pulled the book from its website and issued a statement saying in part, “We have discovered that during the editing process, content from other published sources were mistaken for research notes. These sentences were adapted instead of quoted directly. We are grateful this was brought to our attention, and we have removed that document from our website to correct the mistake. Additionally, we are examining all of our similar content as a precautionary measure.”
Many questions remain. In a day when many celebrity authors use ghostwriters, they may not have the close contact with development of their work that makes plagiarism less likely. Others only use researchers and do the writing themselves, but (as in the children’s game of post office) it’s easy in the course of transferring files numerous times for quotation marks and citations to disappear. Plagiarism suggests lying but ghostwriting suggests deception, and sometimes an evangelical celebrity machine leads to a mix-up of the two. WORLD had a cover story on this subject in 1993 and plans to revisit it in 2014.