On Plagiarism (…And the John MacArthur Case)

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Intended Audience: Anyone interested in plagiarism, academics, and publishing


I was recently mentioned in an article by the Roys Report on John MacArthur plagiarizing within one of his edited volumes. I wanted to write this post to clarify my thoughts, but also to inform others who may not be as familiar with this broader issue than those who deal with it regularly. Plagiarism is sometimes quite complicated, and has fuzzy edges.

Indeed, I deal with plagiarism about every 72 hours. Besides being a research faculty member at a university in eastern Europe, I’m on year three as a faculty member for University of the People, which is entirely online. I teach Microeconomics and Introduction to Economics every 10 weeks, and I have yet to witness a term where a student hasn’t plagiarized in their written “Learning Journals.” It’s particularly tempting and easy since online courses have plagiarism sites dedicated towards specific textbooks, quizzes, and assignments (e.g., Course Hero; yes, students pay money to be able to cheat). But it’s pretty easy to spot. In fact, our LMS (Learning Management System, in this case, Moodle) has a built-in plugin with advanced algorithms and AI to identify plagiarized assignments automatically so that professors don’t have to waste all their time trying to verify the hundreds of potential cases. (I confess, I still don’t quite know how to utilize all of it!)

Sometimes students report plagiarism to me that I may not have caught. But when I do catch one, most of the the time I just give students a zero a tell them to never do it again. Sometimes (or always, depending on the case) I report it to administration per the faculty guidelines. Sometimes a student is suspended because they just don’t realize that cheating through an entire course isn’t “education.”

An important distinction within plagiarism is unintentional and intentional plagiarism, though that line is not often as clear as you might imagine. Unintentional plagiarism happens often with undergraduate students who simply aren’t familiar with the rules of honest scholarship. Perhaps the most common is forgetting to put direct text quotations within quotation marks and excluding some kind of citation, so that in the end, it looks like they wrote it instead of the actual author.

But unintentional plagiarism can happen to graduate students and even scholars, who have been reading and writing so much for so long that they have phrases and quotes in their head that come out of their keyboard and into a published work without having any awareness that it came from someone else. That’s not an excuse, just something that happens. It’s more common that scholars and authors do know that a phrase or random quote in their head isn’t their own, and if they can’t figure out where it came from, they typically (or at least should) add a footnote saying something like, “this quote comes from an author I haven’t been able to recall or verify.”

Or, sometimes you may find a quote where it is impossible to find the source. For example:

“Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.” (Jacques Ellul)

I like this quote, and I recently used it in my presentation at the Annual American Academy of Religion Meeting (2021, San Antonio). But guess what? I have no idea where it came from—and neither does anyone else. I even emailed the Jacques Ellul Society and they had nothing to say. Two places on the internet attribute a specific source for it, but when I went to verify it, there was nothing there. However, I have read three books by Ellul and this sounds exactly like him. So instead of not using it at all, I chose to quote it, attribute it to him, and put in a footnote (for the written published version) saying “This popular quote is attributed to Ellul but I have not been able to verify its source. But from my reading of Ellul, it sounds very characteristic of him.”

This happened in another one of my publications (The Five Ls, a recent book you should buy) when I went to find the source of another famous quote:

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light. (Hildegard of Bingen…or was it? No, it wasn’t..)

This quote is cited virtually everywhere as coming from Hildegard of Bingen. Guess what? She never said it. Anywhere. Anytime (as far as we can tell). It comes from an article about Hildegard of Bingen, namely, Elaine Bellezza, “Hildegard of Bingen, Warrior of Light,” Gnosis 21 (Fall 1991). So after citing it, I inserted an endnote citing this work, and then saying, “This quote is misattributed to Hildegarde almost everywhere it is found on the internet.”

When people mis-cite Bingen, are they committing “plagiarism”? Well, not technically, because it’s “misattribution.” They aren’t giving themselves credit; they’re citing someone else, but that person just happens to be wrong. They are also falsely attributing the work unintentionally. This is not uncommon even in scholarly works (especially big monographs that are exhausting to proof).

It gets more blurry when it’s not a direct quote or specific phrase, but an idea. Most of our knowledge comes from other sources, but on the whole, we often don’t have the ability to identify where it came from. Maybe it’s an analogy that you’ve used so often you forgot where it came from, and can’t find it anywhere online.

Sometimes, of course, it may not even matter. We can talk about “evolution” and “survival of fittest” without having to quote the sources for these phrases because they are now so commonly known—and the same goes for entire concepts. This gives rise to weird situations, like capitalist conservatives referring to the government as “Big Brother” without having a clue that George Orwell (the source of the quote) was a fascist-fighting die-hard socialist. (Some of the most interesting cases in this general area are in art.)

Something that also frequently happens is that an author (especially a historian) will make a general attribution towards a particular author or book for an entire page or section they’re summarizing. They may write in a footnote, for example, that “The following section is heavily influenced by ________ written by __________.” The risk here, of course, is that readers don’t know when or where the author is actually quoting that source directly (if at all). And sometimes historians and other scholars often write books with no internal references and only use quotation marks to show that someone else said it, and then include a bibliography in the back of the book where they’re pulling from. I’m surprised this still happens, but when it does, it’s usually a senior scholar who has done all the precise footnote stuff before and are now writing with a more popular audience that they don’t want to ruin the appearance with a bunch of distracting references. The risk here, though, again, is that we can’t easily track which quotations go to which author. This isn’t plagiarism, but, strangely, I wouldn’t accept it if college students did it.

There are all kinds of interesting studies of PhD dissertations that have plagiarism, or suffer from accusations of plagiarism. (I personally can’t imagine doing anything stupider in your entire career then failing to cite your sources where that’s literally your entire job!) I think of the cases of Monica Crowley and Martin Luther King Jr. This rarely happens, but when it does, it can be unintentional, intentional, or perhaps most of all: due to the fact that the author is extremely exhausted from years of graduate school, have impossible deadlines, and have a horrible advisor on top of that. Or maybe a combination of all of these things. Or maybe none of these things, and they’re just terrible authors.

There are other cases that may appear to be plagiarism when they are not. Perhaps an author has died and someone updated the manuscript and their name is on the front cover, not the original author, or maybe the editor’s name is on the cover of the work because they did original editing work of the manuscript in a market of many other editions of the same classical work. Or maybe an edited volume is out of print, and then gets picked up by a new publisher and gets revised by new editors, so the new editors names are on the front cover even though they didn’t originally put together the volume. Whatever the case, it’s usually very clear who, how, and why things are they way they are. For example, David Gushee and Glen Stassen wrote  Kingdom Ethics. They originally co-authored it. Then Glen died, and then Gushee revised the whole volume. Both names are still on the front cover, as they probably should be. I’ve had academic articles republished in edited volumes, and I’ve edited and published volumes that are transcripts of conference presentations, and I’ve been an editor and peer reviewer of several academic journals. Mistakes can and do happen in the publication process.

There are also cases of ghost-writing. A few years ago a mega-church pastor from Florida asked me to ghost write a 200 page book in 30 days flat. I said something like, “I may have written my doctoral dissertation in 11 months start to finish, but…are you insane? Is the world insane?” It’s a given in ghost-writing that the “author” didn’t actually write the book; she/he/they hired someone else to do it for them. The general idea, or general outline, may originate with the name on the cover, but the leg-work and labor of crafting sentences was done by someone else. That person (or team) may be mentioned in the credits (they should be!), or may not. But in all of these cases, there is mutual agreement and consent beforehand about all of these things. (Or at least, there should be.)

So yeah, sometimes it’s complicated, especially when looking for motivations and intent. But most of the time, it’s usually pretty clear what’s going on and why. The general rule for authors is simply to be as honest as possible about where you’re getting your ideas, data, and text from. This is what most authors and academics do, and it usually isn’t a problem. I have never plagiarized in my life, never been charged with plagiarism, have never been tempted to plagiarize, and have no idea why anyone would—except to pretend to be smarter than they really are. This is where intentional plagiarism comes in.

Intentional plagiarism is basically intellectual theft. Besides overlapping some of the above scenarios, it’s generally when an author (or editor, or whatever) has full knowledge of a source and uses it as their own with no attribution, no citation, no indication that it is anything else but their own. This was far, far more easy before the internet. That’s why I’m always puzzled when I hear of someone plagiarizing something today when it is (sometimes) as easy as doing a 5 second Google search.

College students do lots of intentional plagiarism. Some of my students are clever: they change one word to throw me off so that when I copy and paste a phrase into Google, it’s not an exact match. Other times, they just rearrange the syntax, knowing again, that it might otherwise help my search or trigger the anti-plagiarism software.

Sermon plagiarism is extremely common. When I was an associate pastor of a Baptist church back in 2010, I remember reading a chapter from John Piper’s Desiring God (which I was reading for the first time…and will never read again…) and hearing a sermon preached from one of its chapters a week later. It wasn’t the same theme, it was the same, specific content—so specific that there was absolutely no question where it was coming from. (And that wasn’t surprising: the pastor who was plagiarizing Piper’s book chapter for a sermon was the one who told me to read Piper’s book in the first place!) Similarly, I know someone who left their church in Australia because the pastor plagiarized all of John MacArthur’s sermons without admitting any fault, even after it was proven time and again by the church board.

Speaking of MacArthur…

JMac and His (Well, Whoever’s) Book on Counseling

As the Roys article points out, Dennis Swanson argued that John MacArthur stole credit for a FAQ chapter that he edited and compiled. Swanson’s name was on the chapter title page and in the table of contents for the 1994 edition of the book Introduction to Biblical Counseling (Thomas Nelson). But his name was replaced with “John MacArthur and Wayne Mack” (the volume editors) on both the title page and table of contents of the 2005 reissue under “MacArthur Pastor’s Library” series as Counseling (Thomas Nelson).

On first sight, I assumed that this was not a case of misattribution or plagiarism, but just an update on the chapter content by the general editors. In other words, the editors (JMac and Mack…sounds like something I might order in a pub) revised or added new content to the FAQ chapter that Swanson originally put together, so they replaced Swanson’s name with their own. And I would assume that they did this with Swanson’s full knowledge and consent. That would be no problem. Things like this do happen.

But Swanson says that never happened (and I have no reason to believe he’s lying). The chapter content is the same in the 2005 edition as it was in the 1994 edition, and no one contacted him about replacing his name as the editor and compiler. And in case one believes he was just borrowing from JMac to begin with, Swanson  also stated that “I crafted the questions and received original answers for each. I did not cull answers out of existing materials.”

In short, then, there is no explanation for why his name was removed, or why MacArthur and Mack’s was added.

So then we might assume this is simple misattribution. And this still might be the case. Perhaps the final redactor of the 2005 edition made a couple typos, and for some reason thought that the general editors of the volume should be listed as the editors and compilers of the FAQ chapter. In other words, someone was asleep at the wheel.

The problem here is, that’s improbable, and Swanson (a VP at the seminary) approached the admin and staff responsible for the volume (as I understand it) at the Seminary in 2005 when his name was removed, and they played dumb, basically saying “well it’s too late if there’s an issue,” and never really acknowledged a problem. Swanson said “(T)he only thing I’d like after all these years is an apology, but I rather doubt I’ll ever see that.”

We might recall that, (1) according to Swanson, John MacArthur didn’t even write his own popular Bible commentaries, (2) the Master’s College was on accreditation probation for two years for various reasons relating to board trust, interest, power, and creating a climate of intimidation on campus. In short, it is not uncharacteristic of JMac’s enterprise to disregard standard rules within academia and scholarship. The Master’s Seminary and University are (and have always been) more or less faux educational institutions, similar to other schools entrenched in fundamentalist ideologies, and (in my view) a public disgrace to both higher education and Christian higher education. (See my Christian higher ed recs at the bottom of here).


Whoever edited the 2005 volume (something we may never know), they either swapped names on both the table of contents and title page with the intention of (say) giving more praise to MacArthur (which makes sense given that the re-issue put the volume under the MacArthur brand; the whole approach in these kinds of pseudo-cult programs is to consolidate all of heaven an earth under the almighty throne of the charismatic leader) and not giving a three and two-thirds shits about Swanson—and in that case, they are plagiarizing someone else’s work through intentional misattribution of an entire chapter; they are claiming intellectual content that is not, in fact, their own.

Or, the editors made two honest mistakes, and for some odd reason aren’t willing to admit it nor willing to correct it in numerous reprintings over the past decade (the latest being 2022) even after being confronted. At least that’s how I see it. And since the former is far more probable, in my view, than the latter, I tweeted that this was plagiarism).

New information may come out, but it’s unlikely the editors and staff at the Seminary will do anything unless Thomas Nelson approaches them. And no matter what happens, the notoriously loyal fans of JMac will never, ever believe he did anything wrong.