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Monday, August 19, 2013

Protecting Yourself From Plagiarism

Parody image of movie piracy commercial.
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 or violate their copyright, 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.

There are so many examples of literary and journalistic plagiarism that it's hard to choose a couple to focus on, so let's look at two famous (and disastrous) examples in fiction.

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!

Something else to look out for: It's not plagiarism, but it can be just as devastating: the "beta reader" who releases your story to the world when it was not their place to do so. Stephenie Meyer was working on a novel called Midnight Sun, intended to be the Twilight story from the hero's point of view. One of Meyer's trusted readers leaked the story on the internet, and quickly made the possibility of Meyer publishing the book moot.

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.

* Full disclosure: This is a repost of an earlier blog entry.

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook


Stephsco said...

Great article. This extends to blogging too--I've seen a few pretty big name book bloggers get marred by stealing content and reposting as their own work. It's tough to keep putting out original content, but lifting it from another blogger is not the right answer.

Sharon Himsl said...

Good to know. Thanks!

Melissa said...

Great tips and a reminder to us all to be ever vigilant on both sides. I remember seeing the interview where Viswanathan gave her excuse and I wanted to believe her but that was before all the other similarities came up. I could see internalizing aspects of a book but not that many times and not with that exactitude. I still wonder if she believed her own story of how it happened.

It can be hard to know where the line is when copyrighting ideas. I followed a blogger who went on a bitter tirade against someone who she felt stole her ideas. I looked at both articles and felt that it wasn't plagiarism. They simply both blogged about dating outdoor men and both had different takes.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Great thoughts, everyone.

I agree, Melissa, it can be hard to know where the line lies, and Stephsco, it is definitely a challenge to continue to produce brand new work!

I also meant to mention how many websites there are now that will identify plagiarism. There are the paid academic sites (probably most notably TurnItIn), but when I was prepping this article I did Google sites, and there were a ton. So it's getting harder not to get caught!

Anonymous said...

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