Thoughts on Research and Note Taking After O'Brien and Eerdmans

Recently Eerdman's released a sad and tragic statement regarding some of Peter O'Brien's commentaries. They said

Eerdmans editors compared the text of The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary, 2010) with various secondary sources and submitted findings to external experts for verification. Summing up the findings, Editor-in-chief James Ernest said, "Our own editors and our outside consultants agreed that what we found on the pages of this commentary runs afoul of commonly accepted standards with regard to the utilization and documentation of secondary sources. We agreed that the book could not be retained in print."

Examination of the same author's Letter to the Ephesians (PNTC, 1999) and Epistle to the Philippians (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 1991) found them less pervasively flawed but still untenable.

Peter O’Brien responded with a heartfelt apology,

In the New Testament commentaries that I have written, although I have never deliberately misused the work of others, nevertheless I now see that my work processes at times have been faulty and have generated clear-cut, but unintentional, plagiarism. For this I apologize without reservation.

From the outside looking in this seems to be a situation where an honest mistake (a big one at that) occurred and, if I were to guess, it happened at the level of research and note-taking where personal writing and quotations/notes became conflated and sources were lost. This situation really could happen to anyone and it has caused me to rethink my research and note-taking strategies. In an age where information is at our fingertips and there are a thousand ways to organize, research, and write in a digital format it can be easy to get lost in it all. This is where a research workflow becomes vitally important so you can stay organized, cite correctly, and write efficiently.

Most broadly, there are three ways that research and note taking occurs:

  1. Direct quotations
  2. Summary
  3. “Original” thoughts1

When you are researching and doing steps 1 & 2 you always always always need to keep the citation with your writing. This is where an application such as Zotero can come in handy. Anytime I have any new research documents I add the citation in Zotero. Then when I am writing and taking notes I can just copy that citation from Zotero and just paste it in my writing document. I also find it helpful to use an app such as Evernote, Ulysses, or other writing software to keep a file for each document that I am using for research and tag it with the specific project.

For example, I am reading through Brant Pitre’s excellent new book, Jesus and the Last Supper. I currently have a document with the title of the book and all my notes go in there. After each entry within the note I will now put in parentheses (quote, page #) or (summary, page #). Quote will mean that this is a direct quotation from the book and summary means that I have modified it in some way. This also means I need to be careful to not conflate summaries and quotes in my notes or if I do to identify them correctly.

If I am writing some thoughts that are not quotes or summary from the book I will write (original, page or chapter). This way I can trace back to when I am writing my “original” thoughts. If I am reading chapter 2 of the book and I end up writing a paragraph or two sparked from what was said in that chapter I still want to document my thinking process even, if, in the end, I don’t need to cite it depending on how much dependence comes from Pitre.

All in all, I think this is a sober warning to all students and full-time researchers to document your research carefully. Yes, it takes more time and can be annoying but it is vital in the research process.

If you have any other thoughts or workflows I would love to hear them in the comments or via Twitter (@renshaw330).

  1. I put original in quotes because nothing is new under the sun but there is a difference between summarizing someone’s work and writing your own thoughts ↩︎