July 24

Plagiarism? Well, I don’t know . . .

DriscollYou may have heard about the recent decision by Tyndale House Publishers to put the next book by mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll on hold, and not to reprint his previous one. Driscoll has been accused of plagiarism, because passages in his last book sound very similar to that of another author.

Even though I’m not a real fan of Mark Driscoll, I do wonder if he really was fully to blame, and if Tyndale should be assuming more responsibility for the problem. The passages would have been fine, the critics say, if they had been put in quotes and been footnoted. As an editor, I know that would normally be the responsibility of the author, but I also know that publishers who want to sign with a big-name author have to do a lot of the extra work, such as checking on quotes and footnotes.

So many of these preachers get books published which are little more than edited transcriptions of their sermons, and it is very common for quoted material in a sermon to be mistaken for the preacher’s own words. Sometimes a preacher will indicate that he is quoting by just his tone of voice; he thinks he is making it clear what he’s doing, but not everyone in the audience knows that he’s quoted someone else. Then the transcriber doesn’t always catch it, and then the editor, getting it second-hand or even third-hand, transcribed from spoken to written form, misses it completely, especially if the editor is not experienced with editing a transcriptions (a very difficult process, I can say from experience). And of course, in a sermon, a preacher would not quote someone and then say, “From the book, Faith, Hope and Love, by Joe Schmo, pages 53-54.”

Tyndale’s editors may or may not be at fault here, but one thing I can say for sure: editing transcribed material can be very difficult. I went crazy one time working with a transcription of A.W. Tozer sermons—I found that the transcriber even wrote out quotes from hymns and poems as regular text, making it look in the transcription like Tozer was saying it, not quoting it. I only caught those because they rhymed!

Mark Driscoll is quite controversial, and there are a variety of other issues for which he has fallen under criticism, all of which may be well-deserved. But as for this charge of plagiarism, I suspect he should be given the benefit of the doubt.

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Posted July 24, 2014 by Dave Fessenden in category "Uncategorized


  1. By Steve Dunham on

    I can’t judge this case, because I’m completely unfamiliar with it, but in general I would say that if you’re listed as the author, you’re responsible for the content. Yes, you may have had helpers transcribing it and editing it, but if they miss something you quoted, it’s up to you to correct that when reading the transcription, reviewing the editing, and checking proofs. You can pass off some of the work to other people, but you can’t pass off the responsibility.

  2. By Dave Fessenden (Post author) on

    I agree completely, Steve, when it comes to professional book authors, but Driscoll is a preacher, and the publishing house ought to be taking into account that he’s not going to know enough to take care of such things. And that’s how a publishing house sells itself to a “celebrity” author — “You just give us your material, and let us handle the details that you shouldn’t have to be bothered with.” If editors weren’t there to pick up the slack, no first-time authors (celebrity or otherwise) would ever get published without these kinds of errors. And you will also notice that these kinds of errors are prevalent in self-published material, because most of these authors do not get the advice of professionals.

  3. By Steve Dunham on

    I saw a comment last week on Liz Dexter’s Libro Editing blog about authors who don’t run a spellcheck: it can give the impression that “you’re the creative person with the big ideas and you’re sending it off to the paid help who will sort out things you’re too important to do” (http://libroediting.com/2014/10/29/my-work-is-being-proofread-why-do-i-need-to-use-spell-check/). That reminded me of your comment, Dave, about “how a publishing house sells itself to a ‘celebrity’ author—’You just give us your material, and let us handle the details that you shouldn’t have to be bothered with.’” This fawning over celebrities presumably produces sales but apparently doesn’t always produce quality writing.

  4. By Dave Fessenden (Post author) on

    You got it, Steve! Of course, it’s hard to resist the temptation to publish an author with a big name — when you just know that you’re going to get a substantial number of sales just because the name is recognizable. And, like it or not, this is a business. You can say very self-righteously that you will not publish “big names,” but you can’t publish any names if you go bankrupt. —-Dave

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