Is Alister McGrath a plagiarist?

Posted on 10/02/12 38 Comments

I’m not much for suspense. The answer is yes, McGrath is a plagiarist. The remaining question is, to what degree?

This is no small matter. Alister McGrath is one of the world’s foremost Christian theologians and apologists. He is also one of the most prolific theologians writing today with dozens and dozens (and dozens!) of books to his credit. Over the years I have profited from reading his works. Last year I also opted to adopt his book Christian Theology: An Introduction (5th ed; Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) as a textbook. Little did I realize it was a choice I would come to regret.

The problems started a couple weeks ago when one of my students approached me with a question. She had identified what she thought was evidence of McGrath citing without quotation someone else’s writings. However, she did not have the original book but only a quote from it that she had read on the internet. So it was left to me to follow up the charge. More on that in a moment.

But before I tell you the rest of that story I did a quick google search on McGrath and plagiarism and came up with an article by a fellow named Dan J Bye called “How to be prolific: The cut-and-paste theology of Alister McGrath“. Bye’s essay focuses on identifying instances where McGrath plagiarizes himself.

Plagiarism and Self-Plagiarism

Perhaps it is time to pause and talk about plagiarism and self-plagiarism. Plagiarism is constituted by the presentation of the thought, words or ideas of someone else as your own. It does not require that one establish intention to deceive. Plagiarism could arise from a misbegotten carelessness, but it is plagiarism nonetheless.

In light of the definition of plagiarism that I provided, self-plagiarism may sound like a contradictory concept. Here we get into a finer distinction: the presentation of your own previously written thoughts, words and ideas as if they were new content. As Bye notes,

“Set against the obvious crime of theft from the work of others, self-plagiarism is often seen as a minor problem.  But while I agree that there are worse failings than reusing your own words, doing so without disclosing that you are doing so is nevertheless a clearly unethical scholarly practice.”

Bye’s correct. Self-plagiarism does not carry the same degree of stigma as plagiarism simpliciter. But it is still a very serious offense. Over the last few months the world of journalism has been shaken by several high profile cases of plagiarism. Among the most sensational was the case of Jonah Lehrer who plagiarized himself. In short, Lehrer recycled old content from his blogs and essays at Wired at his new job at The New Yorker. In an excellent overview of Lehrer’s actions, Josh Levin of Slate asks “Why Did Jonah Lehrer Plagiarize Himself?” Here’s an excerpt from Levin’s essay:

Self-plagiarism is not the same as plagiarism—for one thing, Lehrer is unlikely to demand that The New Yorker retract his own stories. Still, it’s not a victimless crime. Lehrer’s readers deserve to know whether the stuff he’s representing as new material was first published in Wired in 2009. And his New Yorker editors surely won’t appreciate that he’s been passing off old copy as brand new. As Hamilton Nolan wrote on Gawker, “A good rule of thumb for writers who are concerned about whether they’re reusing too much old material is to simply ask themselves, ‘Would my editor be okay if I told him how much of this is reused?’ The answer will be ‘no,’ so then you can stop reusing things, you lazy bum.”

Most writers will reuse research, illustrations, analogies and even the occasional sentence or two. That’s inevitable. Not everything can be created de novo. However, Levin is right that a writer must consider whether their editor would be happy with the degree of recycling. The question might equally be asked: would a reader be satisfied with the degree of material recycled?

McGrath’s Self-Plagiarism

Bye identifies several instances where McGrath plagiarizes his own material. I quickly scanned his list (a disturbing list, to be sure) and then set it aside, pulled down my own copy of McGrath’s Christian Theology off the shelf, and went to work. What I did was hardly systematic. My method was simple: feed random sentences from McGrath’s textbook into google and see what I came up with.

The results were shocking. Approximately half of the time I would discover that McGrath had published the content elsewhere. And we weren’t just dealing with single sentences here. In some cases several pages had been published elsewhere in McGrath’s books or essays. Here are some of the random examples that I collected. In each case the majority of the text is copied verbatim with sections being paraphrased. I encourage the interested reader to follow up and confirm each of these cases. I also note that it is not always clear where the text originally appeared. (That is, is McGrath plagiarizing other books in Christian Theology or is he plagiarizing Christian Theology in other books?) Given that McGrath has written dozens of books, many with two or more editions, to establish the direction of plagiaristic dependence in each case would be a large task. Suffice it to say, given that McGrath is the author in all cases, the order of dependence in each specific case hardly matters. So without further ado, here is my very limited selection of instances I identified:

Christian Theology (5th ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 56-60 also appear in Historical Theology (2nd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 136-141.

Christian Theology, pp. 69-71 also appear in Historical Theology, pp. 187-189.

Christian Theology, p. 182 (the section beginning “Thomas Aquinas’s “Five Ways””) also appears in Historical Theology, p. 271 and Christianity: An Introduction (2nd ed.), p. 103.

Christian Theology, p. 198 (the section beginning “Is God Male?”) also appears in Historical Theology, p. 256 and Christianity: An Introduction, p. 118.

Christian Theology, p. 322, large sections of the second column paragraphs that begin “The use of sacrificial imagery” and “The New Testament and early church” also appear in Historical Theology, p. 223-224.

Christian Theology, p. 339, the paragraph beginning “On the basis…” also appears in Christianity: An Introduction, p. 266.

Christian Theology, p. 351, sections of the second column paragraph beginning “For Augustine… ” also appear in Historical Theology, p. 68.

Christian Theology, p. 384, two paragraph sections from the first column also appear in Historical Theology, 207.

Christian Theology, pp. 400-401, a paragrah also appears in Theology: The Basics (3rd ed.), p. 158.

Christian Theology, p. 422, a sentence also appears in Theology; The Basics, p. 169.

Christian Theology, p. 243, the section titled “The problem of visualization: analogies of the Trinity” also appears in McGrath’s essay “The Doctrine of the Trinity: An Evangelical Reflection” in God the Holy Trinity, ed. Timothy George, pp. 32-33.

In total I identified more than ten instances of plagiarism which cumulatively add up to more than ten pages of text that had been published in four other sources (three books and one essay). Remember, I do not have to establish where the text first appeared to know that in each of these cases McGrath has plagiarized his own words.

If this is the shocking result after my scattershot hour of investigation, one can only imagine how frequently McGrath might be recycling sentences, paragraphs, even entire pages across his vast corpus of writings. (As we saw, in at least two instances McGrath used the same text in at least three separate writings.)

The brazen degree to which McGrath copies and pastes his own writings is truly astounding and, if I may be candid, completely nauseating. I can’t imagine that Wiley-Blackwell (McGrath’s primary publisher) is aware of this fact. (Needless to say, if they are aware of it then shame on them.) Remember that self-plagiarism destroyed Jonah Lehrer’s career. This is a serious academic and moral offense and should be treated as such.

McGrath’s Plagiarism of Another 

This brings me finally to the case of plagiarism that started it all. Remember, this case involves an alleged instance of McGrath plagiarizing from another source, the entry on “Natural Theology” by J. Van Engen in Walter Elwell’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker, 1984), 752. (Note the early publication date of Van Engen’s essay. This makes it manifestly clear that insofar as plagiarism exists it is not Van Engen plagiarizing McGrath.)

Given the heightened nature of this charge, I’m going to embark on the laborious task of quoting verbatim from both texts while highlighting in red the places where McGrath plagiarizes through the verbatim quotation or paraphrasing of the words of the Van Engen dictionary entry.

Elwell (ed.), Dictionary of Evangelical Theology, p. 752

Nearly all Catholic scholars of natural theology have built upon, refined, or qualified the position first articulated by Thomas. In doing natural theology, first of all, they do not mean to have reason replace faith or philosophical discourse the grace of God revealed in Christ. Faith and grace remain primary for all believers, but natural theology offers the opportunity to establish certain truths by means common to all persons. Second, those truths are not taken to be “grounds” or “foundations” for aditional, revealed truths. Yet if these truths are established, it can be seen as “reasonable” to accept revealed truths as well. And thus Catholics are in fact inclined to see a continuum between natural theology, that which is known of God by the light of natural reason, and revealed theology, that which is known by the light of faith.

Christian Theology, pp. 159-160.

Two points of particular importance emerge from these later discussions. First, the recognition of a legitimate role of natural theology does not mean that reason has replaced faith. Nor does it mean that philosophical reflection has displaced the grace of God revealed in Christ. Faith and grace remain primary for all believers. Natural theology, however, offers the opportunity to establish certain truths by means common to all persons. It plays an important apologetic role. It is important to remember in this respct that Thomas Aquinas’s Summa contra Gentiles is thought to have been written partly in order to help Islamic readers gain an understanding of Christian faith through shared beliefs based on reason.

Second, whatever can be known of God through nature is not to be taken as the “grounds” or “foundations” of additional, revealed truths. Catholics are generally inclined to recognize a continuum between natural theology (that which his known of God by the light of natural reason) and revealed theology (that which is known by the light of faith). In contrast, many Protestants tend to accentuate the distinctiveness of natural and revealed knowledge of God at this point.

So there you have it folks. McGrath is guilty of a dizzying number of examples of self-plagiarism as well as at least one documented instance of the plagiarism of others. And note that all these examples are drawn from one single book among the dozens and dozens that McGrath has published.

Now for the really important question. If plagiarism to this degree is enough to sideline the career of a staff writer at The New Yorker, what should be the impact on the career of a self-described theologian and apologist for Christianity?

A special thanks to my student Marjorie who identified McGrath’s plagiarism of the Van Engen text, thereby precipitating my fuller investigation.

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  • Crude

    Randal,

    So there you have it folks. McGrath is guilty of a dizzying number of examples of self-plagiarism as well as at least one documented instance of the plagiarism of others. And note that all these examples are drawn from one single book among the dozens and dozens that McGrath has published.
    Now for the really important question. If plagiarism to this degree is enough to sideline the career of a staff writer at The New Yorker, what should be the impact on the career of a self-described theologian and apologist for Christianity?

    I’m rather ignorant of the standards used to determine this sort of thing, but right away something seems amiss.
    The New Yorker staff writer, if I recall right, was recycling whole articles on a regular basis, and the articles were expected to be brand new. McGrath’s recycling was, apparently, small portions in an otherwise large (400+ pages?) book, and the content wasn’t expected to be cutting edge.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Whether or not McGrath was expected to be “cutting edge”, he most certainly was expected to use new content, not copy and paste entire sections from other books.

      Let me give you an example. I have an essay in David Marshall’s new edited volume “Faith Seeking Understanding”. In the essay I wanted to refer back to a paragraph length illustration I used in a previously published work, my book “Finding God in the Shack”. So I paraphrased the section and footnoted the reference to the original place the illustration appeared. This is considered de rigueur in scholarly practice. You don’t copy and paste pages of text without informing the reader that you’re doing so. Indeed, for the most part you don’t copy and paste pages of text, period. McGrath’s actions are not only lazy and deceptive, they are downright immoral. Heck, he’s a theologian so let’s not shy away from a theological term: his actions are sinful.

      • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com Jayman

        Whether or not McGrath was expected to be “cutting edge”, he most certainly was expected to use new content, not copy and paste entire sections from other books.

        Is this always the case? If not then I see nothing morally wrong with someone plagiarizing themselves. And if it is then the moral problem seems to be not honoring one’s agreement to create new content.

        So I paraphrased the section and footnoted the reference to the original place the illustration appeared. This is considered de rigueur in scholarly practice.

        Speaking as a reader I’m not much concerned with whether you followed a particular scholarly practice on this matter. In fact, if your paraphrasing made your point harder to understand (maybe your original wording was better) then you are doing a disservice to the reader. Plagiarizing someone else’s words is another matter.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          “Is this always the case?”

          Yes. It is always wrong to incorporate paragraphs, to say nothing of pages, from one book or essay into another without noting the source of the material.

          “If not then I see nothing morally wrong with someone plagiarizing themselves.”

          Well I can’t speak for you as a reader, but I can certainly speak for myself both as a reader and as a writer who recognizes the fiduciary arrangement I have with an editor to produce new content when I am contracted to write a new book.

          I have no idea how much of “Christian Theology” is copy and pasted from other sources. I identified over ten pages in less than an hour. Essayists at secular magazines would lose their jobs for plagiarism on this scale. (Indeed, they do.)

      • Crude

        This doesn’t seem right.

        he most certainly was expected to use new content, not copy and paste entire sections from other books.

        Right. And he did, didn’t he? Again, my problem is that you’re comparing articles and books. At a glance I think there’s a major difference between recycling the entirety of an article’s contents for another “new” article, and recycling a portion of some articles for an in-total small section of a book.

        Again, I know little of this. I decided to look up the entry on the wikipedia for “self-plagiarism”, and I turned this up. I bolded the parts I think are particularly relevant:

        Self-plagiarism (also known as “recycling fraud”[50]) is the reuse of significant, identical, or nearly identical portions of one’s own work without acknowledging that one is doing so or without citing the original work. Articles of this nature are often referred to as duplicate or multiple publication. In addition to the ethical issue, this can be illegal if copyright of the prior work has been transferred to another entity. Typically, self-plagiarism is only considered to be a serious ethical issue in settings where a publication is asserted to consist of new material, such as in academic publishing or educational assignments.[51] It does not apply (except in the legal sense) to public-interest texts, such as social, professional, and cultural opinions usually published in newspapers and magazines.
        In academic fields, self-plagiarism occurs when an author reuses portions of his own published and copyrighted work in subsequent publications, but without attributing the previous publication.[52] Identifying self-plagiarism is often difficult because limited reuse of material is both legally accepted (as fair use) and ethically accepted.[53]
        It is common for university researchers to rephrase and republish their own work, tailoring it for different academic journals and newspaper articles, to disseminate their work to the widest possible interested public. However, it must be borne in mind that these researchers also obey limits: If half an article is the same as a previous one, it will usually be rejected. One of the functions of the process of peer review in academic writing is to prevent this type of “recycling”.

        Like I said, something is worrying me about your evaluation here. And I know little of the guy.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Crude, I already observed the propriety of presenting research in different settings. McGrath isn’t doing that. He’s copy-pasting entire sections from one book and plunking it down into another book with hardly any changes. Look at the two examples I provided in my hour long search where he incorporates three pages of text from one book into another book. That simply isn’t acceptable.

          One of the problems of your analysis is that you’re implicitly assuming some sort of percentage of permissiblity as if the longer the work the more you can plagiarize yourself. (Perhaps you get that idea from copyright laws that allow you to copy up to 10% of a book such that you’re thinking is you can plagiarize up to 10% of previous writings in any new publication. Thus, in a book of five hundred pages you can plagiarize fifty pages. Well I assure you it ain’t so. No such exception exists. We all recognize the permissiblity of reusing your own research sources, data, illustrations and the like, but reusing paragraphs and pages isn’t allowed.

          • Crude

            One of the problems of your analysis is that you’re implicitly assuming some sort of percentage of permissiblity as if the longer the work the more you can plagiarize yourself.

            I’m drawing a distinction between what happened at the NYT and what’s apparently happening with McGrath. In the NYT case, it was apparently a situation of large-scale recycling on what was supposed to be fresh news. In McGrath’s case, it’s smaller incidents of it in a book-length work. No, I’m not thinking of those copyright laws – I wasn’t even aware of them. I’m thinking in amateur terms of the difference in expectation between a book and a news article or essay.

            What I did was check out the (admittedly, shakily reliable) wikipedia to see what they had to say about self-plagiarism. I quoted the portions I thought were relevant, and I think they mitigate against what you’re offering up here. Does it mean McGrath did nothing wrong? No. But I think talking about McGrath being engaged in some serious violations (you drew a direct comparison to the NYT author’s career being over, and implied the same should happen to McGrath) warrants putting things in perspective, especially with that comparison itself.

            More than that, I found the claim of you jumping from ‘I consider this to be an ethical violation’ to ‘McGrath is a sinner!’ to be ridiculous. It’s over the top, and really, it reminds me of those idiotic ‘You wouldn’t download a car? Then why would you download a CD?’ anti-piracy campaigns that try to equate IP violations with flat out physical theft, when the reality is that the subject is a bit more nuanced than that to say the least. (My understanding is that by some economic theories – Austrian school? Again, out of my depth here – the very idea of intellectual property of the sort we see nowadays is rejected.) You don’t need to go that far to make a valid criticism.

            We all recognize the permissiblity of reusing your own research sources, data, illustrations and the like, but reusing paragraphs and pages isn’t allowed.

            Sure it is, so long as you cite them and it’s reasonable.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              Congrats, Crude. You were the primary catalyst for a follow-up post based on which I established that an additional 110 pages from “Christian Theology” was used in other publications (and vice versa). I am not sure what your threshold is for the immortality of writers recycling arguments under the aegis of novel work, but hopefully we’re getting close.

              I guarantee this: the majority of book buyers who are cosidering “Christian Theology: An Introduction” would probably not go on and buy “Historical Theology: An Introduction” if they knew just how much McGrath copies wholesale from the one text into the other. And yes, that is a moral issue.

              • JDPJ

                I own the text and am not scandalized by McGrath recycling whole pages from previous works. I didn’t buy the book in order to gain new insights into the depths of Christian theology. It’s an introduction, and as such it needn’t be an original work.

                I do, however, understand where you’re coming from. I just re-read the preface and came across McGrath’s claims that the book grew out of years of teaching and listening to students. No mention was made of how many parts of the book grew out of his other published works. This makes me a little uneasy.

                That said, I’m not going to go so far as to call his self-plagiarism immoral. In fact, I’m not entirely sure how the word ‘moral’ applies to academic standards. Honesty seems to be a requirement. As well as justice — i.e. giving credit where credit is due. But once we go beyond these standards, we’re leaving behind the realm of morality and entering the realm of the legality. As McGrath’s recycling isn’t necessarily a breach of either honesty or justice, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt…for now. As I said earlier, however, it does make me a little uneasy.

  • http://www.arnizachariassen.com/ithinkibelieve Arni Zachariassen

    I’ve heard rumours about McGrath being a bit shoddy with his scholarship and having read a number of his books, I knew that he has a habit of recycling topics and arguments. But I didn’t know it was this bad. Not cool.

  • http://wilkinsonweb.com Dan Wilkinson

    I’ve definitely noticed self-plagiarism within some of McGrath’s books: whole paragraphs being repeated virtually verbatim in different sections of the same book. I always just chalked it up to shoddy editing. But given your examples above it seems clear that this tendency for recycling texts is a far more serious matter. I guess McGrath’s enormous literary output was too good to be true.

  • Walter

    At least two of the original Evangelists also engaged in plagiarism of an earlier Gospel. Were they sinning when they did this or is this only considered problematic in contemporary times?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      No they weren’t sinning. The conventions of the day allowed for the practice of citation without reference. The same is true of the medieval scholastics who would frequently quote without reference from previous writers. But we do not live in New Testament or medieval times and thus we are not beholden to their standards.

      • John

        What is or is not a sin is culturally dependent, based on “the conventions of the day”, or timely standards people are expected to be beholden to?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          John, I am assuming you recognize that it is wrong for a university student to purchase a term paper and submit it as his or her own. Correct? But it isn’t necessarily wrong to do this. After all, it is perfectly easy to envision a society in which it is the norm for rich kids to purchase their term papers. (Of course we may wonder why such a practice would be considered normal but then cultural standards can be very weird. Consider neckties.)

          However, we don’t live in that kind of culture. In our culture the standard is that you don’t purchase your term papers and submit them as your own.

          McGrath is an intelligent fellow. He surely knows that copying page after page from one book and pasting it into the manuscript of a new book without attributing the source is wrong. This is simply not an acceptable practice in our culture. There certainly could be cultures where it is, but ours isn’t one of them, and the ongoing scandals in journalism that I’ve already noted attest to that fact.

  • JerryRivard

    Perhaps he was inspired by this song from Tom Lehrer (not to be confused with Jonah Lehrer).

  • Bryan L

    How did McGrath respond when you told him?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I don’t know McGrath, have never met him, and have not spoken to him about this. But if he has a reply I’ll be most happy to post it.

      • Bryan L

        You don’t have any friends that know him? Nobody you know knows him personally? I always figured theologians were a bit closer.
        Have you considered trying to contact him? It’s kind of a serious charge you are publicly making about him? Wouldn’t you want someone to extend you that courtesy if they were going to make a serious public accusation against you? Of course you don’t have to but it just seems like the right thing to do.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          It may be nice to contact a person in advance of publishing a critique of them, but there is no ethical requirement to do so, certainly none of which I’m aware.

          You ask: “Wouldn’t you want someone to extend you that courtesy if they were going to make a serious public accusation against you?”

          The question of what I might like in that circumstance isn’t really relevant here since in that case what I would really like is that they not publish the critique at all. Personally, if someone was going to publish an article documenting plagiarism in my work, whether I heard about it the day before it was published or three days after would be a distinction without a difference.

  • http://twitter.com/SolasCpc Solas CPC

    How very very sad. That someone should waste so much time on something so trivial and so little. Talk about small minded and self-important. Does the phrase ‘get a life’ have any meaning to anyone here. Or is this really being taken seriously….absolutely pathetic.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Do you think The New Yorker was “small minded” for investigating and firing Jonah Lehrer?

  • John

    Every time a comedian tells a joke, he’s gotta tell you he first wrote it on a bar napkin late one evening and he’s told it x number of times before to paying audiences, of which you might have been a member?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      No, there’s no expectation that a comedian will do this. Surely you are aware of this!

      • John

        One’s material is one’s material – do with it what you’d like. No one owe’s you an owning up to the fact that they’ve rehashed something, do they? Would you want that, sure. Does your wanting it put an obligation on them?

        I think Michael Bay re-sued a special effects car crash scene from The Island in one of the Transformers films. I don’t think it affected my enjoyment of the Transformers film.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Actually, when you sign a typical book contract, the book becomes the publisher’s material. As a result, you don’t have a right to reuse the material in other spheres. That’s like selling somebody your motorbike, keeping a set of extra keys and unbeknownst to them helping yourself to a ride every now and then.

          • John

            So, now your issue is with violation of a contract, as opposed to re-using one’s material?

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              I make that as a general observation about how contracts are written. Here, for example, is an excerpt from one of my book contracts under the heading “Promotional Use by Author”:
              “The Author shall have the non-exclusive right to publish short excerpts from the Work (not to exceed 1,500 words or 10%, whichever is less) [...] In each instance, proper credit shall be given to the Work and the Publisher.”
              If McGrath’s contracts carry this kind of clause then the breach is a legal one and not merely a moral one.

              • john

                But is it a moral one if there is no violation of contract?

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  If McGrath were non-culpably unaware of the ethical standards that guide writers then there wouldn’t be a moral issue. But as one of the world’s leading theologians it is extraordinarily unlikely that he is completely ignorant of those standards.

  • Gazelle17

    Having spent some time around McGrath personally, I think the issue is a bit more complex that it is being presented here. The man has an extraordinary memory. His ability to retain information is off the charts.
    RE: Self-plagiarism. He publishes many different kinds of introductory material. When doing so, he recycles material. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. I would be more concerned if he were publishing rehashed material as new research. McGrath is the master introducer. I don’t know how much new ground he has broken in his career. He is not as famous for that.
    RE: Plagiarizing others. My own thought is that he remembers so well, that at times he can’t remember whether the new thought is his own or if he read it somewhere. Again, from being around him some in Oxford, the man has incredible powers of retention. In my own life, I have sometimes come up with an idea or turn of phrase that I think is my own, but that I picked up along the way in all the books I have read. His voracious reading and incredible powers of retention contribute to this.
    Of course, I am giving him a sympathetic reading. Also, most of this sort of work is NOT in books that claim to be breaking new ground, but in introductory works. The whole book, by definition, is a survey of other people’s works.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I don’t understand the charge that my critique has failed to convey the “complexity” of the issue. By the definition of plagiarism and self-plagiarism, McGrath has committed both as I have demonstrated in this and two follow-up posts. Indeed, concerning self-plagiarism I have demonstrated that he has recycled literally dozens of pages from a single textbook in up to three additional sources. Your response to this is the following.

      First, you say he has a good memory. That’s irrelevant.

      Second, you suggest that this is unintentional. Grossly implausible, but also irrelevant since plagiarism does not require the establishment of intention.

      Third, you say the work is popular. This is also irrelevant. The prohibition of self-plagiarism does not apply only to “original research” as if one can freely and with impunity recycle popular material across multiple sources.

      As I already noted as well, a standard book contract includes a clause stipulating “Promotional use by author.” Here’s an excerpt of just such a stipulation from one of my book contracts:

      “The Author shall have the non-exclusive right to publish short excerpts from the Work (not to exceed 1,500 words or 10%, whichever is less) [...] In each instance, proper credit shall be given to the Work and the Publisher.”

      If McGrath has an exception in all his contracts to this standard type of stipulation, I certainly want to know about it. If his contracts do include this standard clause then he is in legal violation of his contract because he reuses material without attribution to the original source.

  • David Guretzki
    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I uncovered another case of plagiarism a couple years ago in the book “Exiles” by missiologist Michael Frost where he copied a paragraph from an essay by Andy Crouch which was originally published in “Christianity Today”. I informed Crouch and he contacted Frost who apologized and claimed it was a mistake. Perhaps it was, but it was a paragraph and if it had been a paper submitted in my class it would have garnered a failing grade. I shudder to think how much plagiarism goes on in the Christian academy.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/dan.bye.14 Dan Bye

    It’s worth noting that the back cover of Historical Theology (2nd ed) does explicitly say that it is based on the historical chapters of Christian Theology: an introduction (2nd ed). In which case, whatever we may think of the massive degree of recycling across McGrath’s work generally, he’s not guilty of self-plagiarism between those two books. The point being, attribution and acknowledgement is the correct approach. Elsewhere, there is no attribution or acknowledgement.

  • Poul F. Guttesen

    Perhaps someone has already noted this, but there is a slight problem with the definition of self-plagiarism used here, at least as it is understood in many circles.

    Here it is defined as ” the presentation of your own previously written thoughts, words and ideas as if they were new content”. However, a more accurate definition, at least in the academic circles I have traveled, is “the presentation of your own previously written thoughts, words and ideas, for which you already have received credit (e.g. in a course or dissertation), as if they were new content.” And this is a really important point, since self-plagiarism then is particularly related to student work and the idea that you cannot receive credit for work for which you have already received credit in another course. Authors, who already own the right to their work, are allowed to use their work as often as they want, to recycle, copy in new context, etc., etc. It is dead irritating as a reader but it is not plagiarism.

    Now, the other example you use. That is another matter. That is plagiarism, whether intended or not. In a prolific author’s work, one or two occasions of such obvious borrowing from another person’s work without due reference might be due to sloppy note-taking. But if it is a repeating pattern, it is a whole other matter.

  • Eric Sporer

    To say that McGrath crossed the line a bit is fair enough. But the overly-anal obsession with plagiarism in modern academic circles often wanders into the realm of palpable bullshit.