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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Writer, Beware the Plagiarist

Images: Johnnyberg & GiniMiniGi

For a college professor like me, plagiarism is always a concern. But problems aren’t limited to the classroom. Every writer needs to be wary—both so you don’t accidentally plagiarize someone else, and to guard your own work against plagiarism.

The internet has made it so easy to copy and paste material into one’s notes—or even right into one’s manuscript—that many people do exactly that, either forgetting that they lifted the material or assuming no one will ever figure out they didn’t do the writing themselves. Others assume that if they change a few words here and there that they’ll never be caught. And sadly, the fact that it’s so easy to copy leads some people to assume that it must be okay.

Take former Harvard student and William Morris Agency client Kaavya Viswanathan, for example, who signed a two-book contract with Little, Brown and Company for an alleged $500,000 advance. Within a few weeks of the book’s release, readers were finding passages that had clearly been lifted from Megan McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries, Sophie Kinsella’s Can You Keep a Secret?, Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused, and even Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Wikipedia compares dozens of passages from these books with Viswanathan’s novel, but here’s one sample to give you an idea:
McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts: Though I used to see him sometimes at Hope's house, Marcus and I had never, ever acknowledged each other's existence before. So I froze, not knowing whether I should (a) laugh (b) say something (c) ignore him and keep on walking ... 'Uh, yeah. Ha. Ha. Ha.' ... I turned around and saw that Marcus was smiling at me.
Viswanathan’s novel: Though I had been to school with him for the last three years, Sean Whalen and I had never acknowledged each other's existence before. I froze, unsure of (a) what he was talking about and (b) what I was supposed to do about it ... 'Ha, yeah. Uh, ha. Ha.' ... I looked up and saw that Sean was grinning at me.
As soon as the first accusations were made, Little, Brown released a statement from Viswanathan saying
I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words. I am a huge fan of her work and can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious.
The publisher of McCafferty’s novels shot back,
We find both the responses of Little, Brown and their author Kaavya Viswanathan deeply troubling and disingenuous. Ms. Viswanathan's claim that similarities in her phrasing were 'unconscious' or 'unintentional' is suspect. We have documented more than forty passages … that contain identical language and/or common scene or dialogue structure from Megan McCafferty's first two books. This … is nothing less than an act of literary identity theft ... it is inconceivable that this was…youthful innocence or an unconscious or unintentional act.
And Viswanathan isn’t the only one who’s plagiarized and been caught.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books called out bestselling author Cassie Edwards, who has written over 100 romance novels, when she lifted material directly from nonfiction resources for her 2007 book, Shadow Bear.

For example, Edwards’ novel says,
It is said that their [black-footed ferrets'] closest relations are European ferrets and Siberian polecats. Researchers theorize that polecats crossed the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska, to establish the New World population.
The passage is almost indistinguishable from the one Paul Tolme wrote in the summer of 2005 for Defenders Magazine: 
Their [black-footed ferrets'] closest relatives are European ferrets and Siberian polecats. Researchers theorize polecats crossed the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska to establish the New World population.
Signet, who published Edwards’ book, argued first that many of the sources were so old that they were fair use, but later decided to review each of Edwards’ books in search of plagiarism. According to the Wikipedia entry on Edwards, “In April 2008, Signet stopped publishing Edwards' books ‘due to irreconcilable editorial differences.’ In an interview, Edwards said that she did not know she was supposed to credit sources, and her husband stated that Edwards gained ideas from her reference works but did not ‘lift passages’.”

(For an extensive, ongoing, and incredibly damning comparison of Edwards’ books with plagiarized resources, download Smart Bitches, Trashy Books’ massive Cassie Edwards PDF.)

If these sorts of things are a concern for published authors, imagine how often this must happen among unpublished writers. That means you need to be extra vigilant as an unpublished writer.

First, you must know exactly what plagiarism is so you never do it yourself. According to plagiarism.org:
All of the following are considered plagiarism:
* turning in someone else's work as your own
* copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
* failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
* giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
* changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
* copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not (see our section on "fair use" rules)
Most cases of plagiarism can be avoided, however, by citing sources. Simply acknowledging that certain material has been borrowed, and providing your audience with the information necessary to find that source, is usually enough to prevent plagiarism.
Second, you must choose your critiquing partners carefully. If someone takes your work and puts it in front of an agent or publisher first, what will that do to your chances of ever getting published yourself? We’ve heard stories about people trusting a critique partner with their material—from queries to nonfiction proposals to novels—only to hear from a third party that they’ve been plagiarized. In other words, a reader who sees both your work and your crit partner’s “work” realizes that your crit partner is stealing your material! And in some mind-blowing situations, plagiarists have even sent their plagiarized material to the person they stole from for critique!

Like Viswanathan and Edwards, many if not most plagiarists swear they’ve done nothing wrong. Because they changed some words here and there or integrated your materials into their own work, they may argue that it’s all original. In fact, little may be original — plagiarists often steal from multiple sources.

In the book Man for Himself, psychologist Erich Fromm calls people like this “exploitative characters.”
Such people will tend not to produce ideas but to steal them. This may be done directly in the form of plagiarism or more subtly by repeating in different phraseology the ideas voiced by others and insisting that they are new and their own… Things which they can take away from others always seem better to them than anything they can produce themselves… Because they want to use and exploit people, they ‘love’ those who, explicitly or implicitly, are promising objects of exploitation, and get ‘fed up’ with persons whom they have squeezed out.
We’re not suggesting you become paranoid and avoid critique partners. Crit partners are invaluable, both to help you improve your manuscript and to help you improve as a writer. But it’s a good idea to pay attention to anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or violated.

A few clues that you’re dealing with an exploitative character:

* Fromm says, “They often make ‘biting’ remarks about others…[and they display] suspicion and cynicism, envy and jealousy. Since they are satisfied only with things they can take away from others, they tend to overrate what others have and underrate what is theirs.” In other words, look out for people who often gossip about others in a negative way, or who rave about how they’re going to write something “as good as [your story]” or whatever this week’s Big Novel is.

* Be wary of someone who’s absolutely paranoid that someone else is going to plagiarize them. People often fear others doing to them what they’re doing to others.

* This is a big one: Beware of people who are copycats in other areas of their lives. If they’re constantly regurgitating other people’s opinions as if they’re original thoughts, or if they jump on the bandwagon to try to get a little glory from other people’s new and fabulous ideas, beware.

* So is this: Exploitative characters will often come right out and say they’re using people, groups, or ideas, or plan to use them. They may boast that they’re only doing something because of what they can get from it. If you hear these things on a regular basis, run for your life (and your manuscript’s!).

Some other ideas to help you stay safe:

* Get referrals to critique partners from writers you trust.

* Ask other people in your writing community about a potential critique partner to see if anyone has caveats.

* Try sharing a few chapters at a time with someone rather than sending them your full manuscript. Then wait for a while before sending more and listen for anything that makes you uneasy.

* And always, always trust your gut.

Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is a clinical psychologist and professor residing in Columbus, Ohio. A published writer, she runs Archetype Writing: Psychology for Fiction Writers and an associated blog. She is often quoted by the media as an expert resource. 

Have a psychology/writing question? Send it to me (using my email address to the right) and you may see it answered on the QueryTracker.net Blog!


Stina said...

Wow, I'm speechless, and hoping I haven't accidentally made the same mistakes . . . especially with the sentence structure part.

There's a writing book out (I'm not going to say which one, though) in which the author (well respected author at that) suggests taking passages you admire from a book and, using the same form and structure, rewrite it to fit your story. Now I'm wondering about that advice. Of course, the idea is the style ends up being representative of your own, and not the work you're modeling. But still, you could so easily make the mistakes listed here.

Thanks, Carolyn, for the great advice! Now I'm going to be super paranoid.

Susie Bramble said...

I can't thank you enough for writing this. I know two people personally who have had their work plagiarized.

In one instance, the author's entire plot and characters were taken. Both the author and the plagiarist queried the project simultaneously. I'm happy to report that, in the end, the original manuscript found representation while the plagiarized version did not.

Looking back, and reading your list now, I can see about half a dozen red flags that should have served as warning. Your list is right on - and I'm so grateful you are saving unsuspecting writers from the heartache I've witnessed firsthand.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Excellent, informative post! Every writer needs to know this information.

Reesha said...

Wow. Good to know. Thank you.

I've also been told that if you snail mail your entire manuscript to yourself, making sure to sign your name over the seal of the envelope, and then do not open it when you receive it, that it can help prove you were the original author. (Since the date is verified by the post office, anything resembling your manuscript that can be proved to have come about at a later date is suspect.)

Can this system be adapted to help prevent crit partners from stealing work? It would mean finding a fool-proof way of verifying the exact date that the crit partner received the material.

Annie Louden said...

This is a great post (and I love the picture). I know a few people who've been plagiarized, and it's terrible. One person is still finding his plagiarized story in collections years after he thought the matter was settled.

ali cross said...

Wow. I had no idea that such things might occur in the fiction world. Non Fiction I can see but . . . wow.

Excellent blog ~ I really appreciated it.

Pamela Hammonds said...

Another suggestion: If you meet in person with a critique group, make sure you don't allow anyone to leave with copies of your work. We print out copies, pass them around as the writer reads, and then collect them up again to review written comments. It's a good idea to make sure all the copies come back to you. I would never share my work online with someone I didn't know well.

RC Writer Girl said...

Well, here is my recent dilemma. I wonder what Carolyn would suggest to do with this.

I recently read a short story for a new member of my writing group. And it's got striking similarities to a novel I'm writing. Her overall plot (and this is a short story) is very similar to a tangential substory running in my novel. I mentioned when I returned my comments that her story was interesting, and it was similar to tangential plot in a story I was working on.

I'm not sure if I should say more or leave it at that. I would hate for her to think I stole the idea from her, but I don't really want to discuss my own novel (which is related) as I feel it's innovative.

Bethany Wiggins said...

Thank you for such an informative post.

Anonymous said...

Since when is it a problem being a cheat in the literary world?

James Frey may have made up his memoirs, but he's still getting a fantastic, six book deal with his new series.

Cassandra Clare may have plagiarized her internet writings, but they secured her a reader base and thus a book deal.

For all this talk of integrity, at the end of the day it doesn't matter if you can bring in the money.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

WriterGirl -- I'm not sure if you're saying she's writing something similar after seeing your material -- if that's the case, I'd hesitate to share anything more with her. If it's coincidental -- and that does happen -- the two of you might want to agree NOT to read each other's writing for these particular projects so you don't accidentally influence each other. I know some writers who had that happen.

As for GrooseMoose -- everyone's entitled to their opinion.

The cases mentioned in my article were humiliating for the publishers, and Kaavya in particular has been blackballed in the publishing world. I don't think James Frey is relevant to the discussion, because he didn't plagiarize. He did something unethical, but that's neither here nor there.

Do be aware that more and more publishers are running the manuscripts that are turned into them through anti-plagiarism software to make sure the material the author has turned in to them is unique and original. (And take it from someone who uses this software for classes -- you do NOT want to be found out this way. The software provides extremely damning evidence against you.)

Karen said...

Wonderful information. I'm having some difficulty with the following example falling under the plagiarism umbrella, however, unless the writer has very unusual sentence structure that would be recognizable in any form: "changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit"

The following sentence has the same structure, but surely wouldn't be considered plagiarism.

"All the following are considered cruel:

Soothing gerbils but frightening the guinea pig in a pen before providing food . . . "

RC Writer Girl said...

Yes, it was completely coincidental. She and I had similar ideas about one theme.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...


I think the problem is when someone does what Kaavya did (see the example in the article...I think it's the first set of quotations). That's the kind of thing they mean.

I also saw a case where someone used someone else's nonfiction proposal like Mad Libs...filling his information into someone else's proposal.

Crystal and Pamela said...

Thanks guys! I know from discussions in my college and grad courses that I've taken that many people plagiarize without even realizing it. And the internet only makes it easier. Thanks for highlighting this topic for us.

* * * *

We've chosen you for an award - The Kreative Blogger Award!! Thanks for keeping an interesting blog to read!

View more information here: http://twotowrite.blogspot.com/2009/09/our-first-award.html

Crystal and Pamela

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

i JUST posted about this on my blog today here. Stephenie Meyer seemed to copy L.J. Smith's The Vampire Diaries when she wrote Twilight . I'm amazed allegations didn't reach higher proportions than what they did.

great post. :)

The Character Therapist

Suzette Saxton said...

What a fantastic article, Carolyn. I appreciate the tips on how to identify a plagiarist. I feel very lucky to have a close-knit group of friends I trust implicitly. ;)

Anonymous said...

We interview for any new member in our critique and test drive them for a fit. We use the University of Washington critique method of reading 5 pages out loud, with members responding verbally and with notes on what they heard. No take home, but lots of support and helpful, critical attention.

Tess said...

Chilling. And sad.

but, good to be informed and good things to think about. thanks.