Is Alister McGrath a plagiarist?
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?
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.