BYU Religion Professor Guilty of Plagiarism; University Yet to Take Action

Ethan Gregory Dodge

Ethan Gregory Dodge

Published

In 2003, Alonzo Gaskill joined the faculty of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University’s (BYU) College of Religious Education. Gaskill had just completed eight years working at the Mormon Church’s Institute of Religion, part of the Church Educational System (CES), in Palo Alto, CA teaching Mormon doctrine to college-aged adults.

He originally applied to teach in the Department of Ancient Scripture, but his application was denied. He subsequently applied to his current department where many professors with backgrounds in CES roles hold positions.

He was accepted for the position despite having earned his Ph.D. from Trinity Theological Seminary in 2000, an institution lacking regional or national accreditation. Presently, he is the only faculty member of the department without an accredited doctorate degree. According to his vitae, he earned a Master’s of Arts in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 1996.

The February prior to joining BYU, Deseret Book, the Mormon Church’s publishing arm, released a book penned by Gaskill titled, The Lost Language of Symbolism: An Essential Guide for Recognizing and Interpreting Symbols of the Gospel. In this book, Gaskill “explains the origins and meanings of the rich symbolism found in the scriptures . . .”

Upon investigation, it was found that many ideas and phrases in this book were directly copied from InterVarsity Press’s Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. While Gaskill cited the book several times in footnotes, verbatim words and phrases were not correctly attributed. For example, this assertion appears on page 28 of The Lost Language of Symbolism without quotation and can be found on page 43 of Dictionary of Biblical Imagery:

Depending on the context, the image of an arm in scripture can represent power in good or evil circumstances…The outstretched arm is always a symbol of God’s power being exercised, whether in creation . . . , judgment . . . , or deliverance of his people . . .

The University was made aware of this plagiarism on February 21, 2019 when the College of Religious Education and the Academic Vice President’s office received a document, written by a third-party, outlining the concerns. In an analysis “[constituting] only a few weekends”, the author of the document found Gaskill plagiarising from Dictionary of Biblical Imagery 11 times.

Additionally the document claims numerous cases of self-plagiarism in which Gaskill republished or reused ideas, phrases, and entire excerpts from his previous works without proper indication. The author suspects that many more instances of both plagiarism or self-plagiarism would be found in Gaskill’s work “if an exhaustive study was completed”.

The TTF was able to confirm the infringements described in the document.

Standards Broken

The BYU Honor Code, the standards that all students and employees agree to uphold while working or attending the institution, says the following about plagiarism:

“Intentional plagiarism is a form of intellectual theft that violates recognized principles of academic integrity as well as the Honor Code. Such plagiarism may subject the student to appropriate disciplinary action administered through the university Honor Code Office, in addition to academic sanctions that may be applied by an instructor.”

Gaskill addressed this standard in at least one of his course syllabi saying, “It is a violation of the Honor Code for a student to represent someone else’s work as his/her own.”

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the accrediting body to which BYU belongs, addresses plagiarism under their standards of academic freedom stating:

Individuals with teaching responsibilities present scholarship fairly, accurately, and objectively. Derivative scholarship acknowledges the source of intellectual property, and personal views, beliefs, and opinions are identified as such.

Past and Current Investigations

This is not the first time that BYU has dealt with plagiarism from this particular department. In 1998, Bruce Van Orden came under fire for copying the work of multiple authors in his book, Building Zion: The Latter-day Saints in Europe.

According to Deseret News, Van Orden stated the plagiarism was not a result of “malicious intent”, apologized to all the authors whose work he copied, and was permitted to continue teaching at BYU.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation claimed that both the present investigation into Gaskill and the 1998 investigation into Van Orden were delegated to Alex Baugh, the current Chair of the Church History and Doctrine department. They alleged that Baugh has neglected the current investigation and that an investigation is essentially non-existent.

Baugh was contacted in effort corroborate these claims, but did not return the request for comment. However, Carri Jenkins, spokeswoman for BYU, stated “We take these matters very seriously and are conducting a thorough review.”

It is unknown how much time is needed to conduct and conclude such an investigation. Each opinion given to the TTF varied. Ms. Jenkins was asked when the review could be expected to conclude and action taken. This article will be updated should she respond.

When contacted, Gaskill directed comment to the University.

Defense of a Forgery

In addition to this plagiarism, in 2014 Gaskill published The Lost Teachings of Jesus on the Sacred Place of Women, a book heavily based on Nicolas Notovitch’s 1894 book, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. Notovitch’s book is known among scholars as a forgery, but Gaskill fails to explicitly recognize this claim.

After public criticism, Gaskill addressed the concern, in which he blamed the oversight on the “reviewers” of his original manuscript who encouraged him to remove his original “[discussion of the] controversy surrounding the text.” Despite criticism, the claims were never retracted and the book remains in publication.

At the time, Gaskill held the position of Associate Professor, but has since been promoted in Full Professor. Nearly all the junior faculty members do not come from backgrounds in CES, whereas nine of the 11 senior professors do.


Update March 21, 2019 11:30 am: This article originally claimed that “many of the current Assistant Professors in the Department of Church History and Doctrine who have applied for promotions as tenured professors have been promptly denied.” This is not true. The TTF retracts the statement and regrets the oversight.


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