Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘plagiarism’

The Demon in the File

I worked as an acquisitions editor for eleven40seven: TCU’s Student Journal of the Arts (www.1147.tcu.edu), so I had the privilege of reading all the submissions and recommending the picks that would appear in the journal that semester. As a creative writer, I had a pretty okay knack for separating the wheat from the chaff, an ability I used later as an acquisitions assistant at TCU Press (www.prs.tcu.edu). One semester, I read a short story fiction piece about a selkie–a seal that lives in human form. I liked the story, as did my fellow editors, and was curious about what a selkie was and its place in mythology, so I did some googling and found a Wikipedia page about selkies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selkie). The plot line of the short story I was considering was almost identical to that of the movie The Secret of Ronan Inish. Although the plot points weren’t exactly the same, the two were close enough that I knew the writer had stolen the story line from this movie. I informed the editor-in-chief, and we did not select the piece for the journal, as we almost had.

The specter of plagiarism had reared its ugly head. The editor-in-chief and I had half a mind to send an e-mail to the writer warning him or her (I can’t remember the writer’s gender) about the dangers of plagiarism and how had we had reported this piece to the university authorities, he or she would have been promptly placed on academic probation at the very least and at the most expelled. I am not sure if the writer was consciously plagiarizing, accidentally blurring the line between intellectual property and “creativity,” or really had no idea that what he or she was doing was definitely unethicial and possibly illegal. The faculty advisor for the journal had never encountered such an issue, and he was flabbergasted than anyone would so brazenly plagiarize another’s work and submit it to a journal.

I work at the Center for Writing at TCU, and I often work with students who are shocked to find out that they are violating all kinds of rules in their papers when they do not properly cite their sources or even paraphrase. I am not sure where this ignorance comes from, as works cited pages and MLA format are standard fare for high school English research papers, but I occasionally have to put the fear of God (or at least the law/student handbook) into these students to get them to realize that plagiarism is a big big deal. Professional writers do it, sure–but they get severely penalized for it. I had a friend at SMU who wrote papers for other people for a fee; the practice disgusted me, but not my university, not my problem. I find myself saying over and over, “You have to cite your sources; the issue is non-negotiable, unless your professor already knows all your sources from course readings and has no reason for works cited.” I give the spiel about ethos, credibility, and a paper trail for other readers who might be interested in the research, but I emphasize the whole, “this could get you expelled or a whole lot worse” bit. Their eyes widen a little, and they listen a little more intently when I tell them how to cite their sources depending on the style guide.

I bring up the issue because today I read an article that concerned a totally different topic but discussed plagiarism in the publishing industry and the subsequent recalls that result from a publisher realizing, “Oh my dear Lord, we just sent out 50,000 copies of a book that is plagiarized” (full article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/how-to-make-a-book-disappear/262469/). Anyway, Maria Konnikova cites several instances of publishers having to recall books because of plagiarism:

“1999, to take one example, was a particularly impressive year. In September, Grove/Atlantic junked 7,500 just-printed copies of James Mackay’s I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones after “an absolutely scathing indictment” of plagiarism (apparently, Grove/Atlantic hadn’t cared to investigate the fact that only a year prior, John Wiley & Sons had to withdraw Mackay’s biography of Alexander Graham Bell and pulp all remaining copies, for the very same reason)….More recent examples abound. In 2006, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan made headlines for plagiarizing her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life; Little, Brown promptly recalled the 55,000 copies that had already been shipped. 2009 saw the recall of the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization—a recall its editor likened to the “first instance of mass book-burning in the 21stcentury.” In 2011, the new thriller Assassin of Secrets, by Q. R. Markham, was found instead to be an assassin of other people’s work—and all 6,500 copies were recalled by Little, Brown. And just this summer, David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies was recalled by publisher Thomas Nelson—apparently, it contained one too many lies itself.”

I know I’m incorrectly block quoting here and thus becoming a hypocrite (WordPress is kind of limiting when it comes to formatting), but plagiarism is not a thing of the past–it is a ghost that haunts every writer, every publisher, every student, even if they don’t realize it’s there. I don’t know if we need to have an awareness campaign out there or just plain better education at the high school and collegiate level, but people need to realize it’s not just a legal issue, it’s a moral issue.

My next post will probably concern the opposition’s argument about new media, the strangling effects of copyright law on creativity, and the electronic marketplace’s changing of the scene of intellectual property. I agree to some extent, but as a writer myself, if I found someone plagiarizing my work, I would sue that person for all he or she was worth until they paid through the nose for violating my intellectual property, even if that idea/term is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. But, a post for another day.

The article also discusses how some memoirs have gotten the shaft for not being memoir enough. There has always been a fine, fine line between what is creative non-fiction and what is fabrication. I’ll readily admit that I have manipulated certain parts of my past to better fit a story line, to be more entertaining, to allow me to skip over giving background information and just keep moving along. But creative nonfiction writers have to be wary that at some point, putting too much fiction in the work moves it from memoir to a novel. A Million Little Pieces is famous for this controversy when Oprah took James Frey down a notch when he appeared on her talk show.

It’s not a news flash that not everything that appears in a memoir in completely, one hundred percent true. For one thing, memoirs are subjective, not objective. If you want reality and truth, go for an autobiography that’s more about relaying truth (a debatable idea in our post-modern world) than about entertaining. For another, memoirs are based on memory, and psychologists have proved that our memories are faulty and suggestible. Every time we call up a memory, our brain slightly modifies it and stores it away in the new, revised form. This problem has led many judges to start disallowing eyewitnesses from testifying in court–we just can’t trust their memories to be accurate. For another, memoir makes no attempt to avoid bias. After all, it’s about a story, usually a piece of a person’s life (for example, if I were to write a memoir, it would not go from childhood to now–I’d focus on a specific aspect).

I’m not defending memoirists who fabricate an entire life that never happened or include so much sensationalism that they abandoned the basic outline of the past a long time ago. But let’s cut some memoirists a break–they’re not claiming to give the whole and absolute truth, nothing but. Memoir is an incredibly difficult genre to write well. It’s not hard to write out your life story, but it’s damn hard to make it well written and effective. Many professional writers don’t even attempt it, and I would argue that it’s the most difficult genre to write well. I think the whole reality vs. fabrication is a little more shades of gray than the plagiarism issue. After all, a memoir is a recollection, and a memoirist is a writer first–we concern ourselves with tweaking the truth for a better piece of writing.

I’m not a memoirist; I’m an essayist. However, I do include personal writing in my works, and I’ll be damned if someone cries wolf because I changed a scene to include me cutting tomatoes rather than just sitting at the table during the conversation to add drama. But I’ll also be damned for taking someone else’s work and claiming it’s my own. We should all know better.

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