Sunday, January 20, 2008

Plagiarism and Me

By now, I'm sure you all have read about multi-selling romance-writer Cassie Edwards being accused of plagiarism by Smart Bitches who Love Trashy Books and other sources. It appears she crimped major research sections on Native American life from published, copy written nonfiction and even fiction.

If this is true (and it does look as though it is), it is bad. It is especially bad because it is lazy writing, and there is no excuse for laziness when you are being paid to write.

As I seem to say too often, publishing is not heart surgery. It usually takes nine months for a completed manuscript to go from type-written form to published book, so there is always ample time to make changes. And even if you are under deadline, if you need an extra 24 or 48 hours to put something in your own words, I can't imagine the circumstances under which your editor would put you so under the gun that she (it usually she, especially in romance writing) won't give you those extra days. You could always say something like "the section on ferrets will need some work, but you can read through the manuscript for plot and character as is."

So there is just no excuse.

One of my authors recently received an email from an editor we have a series of books with saying that some of the research information in a forth-coming nonficiton book is too close to the Wikipedia entry. They checked. They aways check. Or should. And you, as a writer, should always feel that you will be found out.

In my author's defense, Wikipedia had been cited in the footnotes, and had been cut out in editing.

I am not sure that all of you know that I was trained as a journalist, which means I have a degree in journalism from NYU, where I actually taught in the undergraduate program. I was the publisher of a Manhattan newspaper for 4 years. I have NO patience for plagiarism.

When I was teaching feature article writing to 20 odd-year olds in the late 80's, I had a fairly talented student from California who would cut class two out of three times but always hand in pretty good stuff. Before the end-term project of working with two or three other classmates and doing an investigative feature article, he would have received an A- if he had attended all classes. I thought he would get a B+ because I do not think it is fair to give a better grade if you don't put in the time like the rest of the students. So I already knew he was lazy.

When the papers were handed in, he did not work with the team he was assigned to. Instead, he wrote a near-brilliant article about the border patrol in San Diego. It was so good it could have run in The New York Times. So I checked. It did run in the New York Times (and those were the days when I had to go to the big public library and research back articles on film). I failed him.

That was not the end of it.

He called me at home and told me his mother was a 4th grade teacher and would never have failed her students for "copying." I explained that a Junior in NYU's journalism program was doing a lot more than copying, and that he should have learned about plagiarism by now, but that if he hadn't, I was hoping that this would be a memorable lesson.

He came to my job and tried to talk to me.

I called the head of the journalism department and had him removed from the journalism program. He had to choose another major to get his BA.

I have no idea what happened to him, but I also have no regrets on how this played out.

Plagiarism is stealing.


AK writer said...

Just watched "Shattered Glass". I wonder if you also saw the movie and it prompted you to write this blog about plagiarism.

Anonymous said...

Back when I was teaching C++ computer programming, I had a student hand in an assignment that was an exact duplicate of another students. This was also a group of 20-25 year olds in a post-secondary college.

I failed her on the spot. She continued to show for classes and made a formal complaint to the schools head.

He backed me up 100%

Michael Carr - Veritas Literary said...

You probably saved him a career-ending incident as well as humiliation for his paper at some point down the line. Of course, he's now probably operating on some guy's heart having cheated his way through medical school. :)

Anonymous said...

The kid was allowed to stay at NYU? I can't understand a university having any tolerance whatsoever for plagiarism. Hand in work that isn't yours? It's like cheating on a test or lying about your credentials. It should be grounds for immediate expulsion. The kid is not just trying to steal something for himself, he's stealing from others if his classmates are graded on a curve.

ryan field said...

My degree is in journalism, too. I think this background makes writers more aware of details, and getting those details as perfect as possible.

Tyhitia Green said...

I absolutely agree with you. I have always loved being different my entire life. I would never want my work to emulate any other writer. I am too dissident to want or need to copy anyone else's work.

Anonymous said...

Wow. A fourth-grader who doesn't know better and accidentally plagiarizes is worlds different from a journalism student doing the same thing. Some universities kick students out for plagiarism. When I was teaching middle school and high school, I failed plenty of students for plagiarism. They were almost all shocked that I had discovered that they had copied. It's not difficult. Plagiarists often like to use brilliant work that is totally beyond anything they could do otherwise. It gets attention. And if you're plagiarizing, you really don't want to end up on the teacher's radar.

EldonHughes said...

Amen and well done!

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