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04 May 2008 @ 11:18 am
Another Literary Scandal  
It's an unintentional theme this weekend.

I have a confession to make. I am a repeated plagiarist.

Oh, Okay, I have a further confession: It was 1974 or thereabouts and I was in fifth grade.

Our teacher that year announced that we were free to write book reports on any books we read for pleasure and we could get extra credit for them. I was already the class bookworm so it sounded like an easy A to me.

Problem was, actually taking time to write a report on the books I was reading would cut into valuable reading time. The solution was obvious! It happened that several of the books in my to be read pile from the last Scholastic book sale had really long blurbs on the back cover that pretty much gave away the plot and main details. Read it, read the last chapter, paraphrase the blurb in my own words with a paragraph tagged on about the ending and VOILA! I had a book report and I could get on with actually reading the book.

Yes, I was a strange kid. Thank you.

I did four or five before the teacher decided to put a cap on how many we could do.

Then a couple of months later she assigned a report for social studies or history or some such. It was LOOOOONG! Two whole pages! Two whole pages handwritten on notebook paper so there was a limit to how big you could get away with writing so looking back it must have been something like 500 words or less but it would take forever. *whine*

Then inspiration struck. We had a set of ancient off brand encyclopedias - 30 years old or more - and when I looked up my topic I realized that I could pick out a few choice paragraphs, paraphrase them just like I did for the book reports, and have my paper without ever having to bother digging through the card catalog* at the library. The teacher would never know because she wouldn't be likely to recognize anything from a set of books she may never have seen. And it worked! I think I got a B, nice solid passing grade anyway. Probably would have scored higher if I'd wrote smaller.

But the thing that I realized was, that when you got right down to it, it took me every bit as long to read enough of the entry to understand it, and nearly as much work to carefully re-word the material, as it would have been to find a kid's level book at the library, read it, and write something original. Plus, it was pretty boring.

And that was the end of my career as a plagiarist. The cost/benefit analysis came out in favor of just doing the work from scratch and in a year or two I understood the ethical issues and wasn't tempted to back slide.

At the time I didn't feel any guilt. The teacher got what she asked for and I learned about whatever the heck it was I wrote the paper on. I know now looking back that anything I learned about my topic was gravy. The point of assignments like that was to teach us to do the research and present our findings. I did not get any practice in either by doing things the way that I did.

A lot of kids probably go through this phase and either learn that it's just as much work or else get caught and learn that the risk isn't worth it. It's just another stupid, immature thing kids do.

So, why are we seeing adults who should have long ago learned better doing the same thing? Some of them have PhDs even and the only way to get an advanced degree is to master doing research and presenting what you found clearly.

Neil Gaiman gave this link with no commentary on his blog 12/2/05:


This guy not only regularly plagiarized other author's stories, he used them as part of his dissertation to get his PhD.

Bonus (as NotW would say) His name is Vice and he is/was an English Professor when he was outed by two librarians.

    "[T]he secret masters of the world: a librarian. They control information. Don't ever piss one off."
    -- Spider Robinson

When caught Vice offered some of the same lame excuses we've seen from every high school kid caught ripping off someone else's work. "It was an homage", "I didn't understand...fair use", etc.

In the article the author puts up sections from two of Vice's works side by side with the original stories and it's pretty clear that this is more than someone writing in the style of a favorite author.

When I went to see what ever happened to Professor Vice *childish snicker* I was floored to discover that this known plagiarist is being defended on his Wiki entry as "merely adapting a classic literary work to a new age via a postmodern apparatus." He IS now working at a university in the Czech Republic instead of at Mississippi State but he still serves as an adviser for an "international English honor society".

WTF? He steals large segments of at least two different works, gets caught, there is an almighty stink about it in literary circles, and nobody on the board of Sigma Tau Delta thinks it's inappropriate to have him as an adviser?

So, how does one make it to adulthood, never mind an advanced degree, without figuring out something that was obvious to an ten-year-old? How is it that our culture increasingly makes excuses for those caught doing wrong instead of demanding accountability? How can someone like that be so smart and so stupid at the same time?

I dunno. Humans confuse me.


*Card Catalog: A big wooden file cabinet that contained many small drawers in which index cards with information on each book in the library's collection were filed. Each book had at least three cards. One each for subject, author, and title. They were typewritten.

No, they couldn't just print them off. No, we couldn't just do a search on the computer. It would be a good ten years before anything like a computerized catalog was available at the libraries I visited and it was just a simple database with the card catalog material. No pictures of the cover or hot links or anything. Stone knives and bear skins. Totally.

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My evil is strongjojo_kun on May 4th, 2008 06:12 pm (UTC)
hehe! It's so true that librarians control information. Forget the Postal workers - it's the librarians! XD That's so crazy that that guy was able to get away with cheating for so long, but it's also true that many people do it. I have a friend who did a Masters in Fine Arts and she knew people (after the fact) who were plagiarizing their Masters thesis. She also did some borrowing from another artist, but of the visual imagery kind (I caught her on that one because I saw the original when I was with her on an undergrad trip).

It happens ALL THE TIME. Luckily with the advent of computers etc it will be easier to catch them, but cheaters will also use new technology in order to cheat more effectively.

I went through a phase like that in high school.. but I didn't plagiarize word for word. I took the idea for the plot twist in a short story I had to write for class from a book I knew the teacher hadn't read. It was still crappy, though. ^^;
ranuelranuel on May 4th, 2008 06:34 pm (UTC)
Depending on how you did it just taking the idea for a plot twist may not have been plagiarism. A lot of plots and plot elements get reshuffled and reused all the time. It's what you do with it that makes it original or not.

Look at Cupid and Psyche -> Beauty and the Beast (French Version)-> Beauty and the Beast (TV series).

One of my friends is a college English professor and she's real good at spotting when something doesn't match up with a kid's writing style and if she can't identify it she has a lot of online friends who probably can even w/o Google.
My evil is strongjojo_kun on May 4th, 2008 06:55 pm (UTC)
It wasn't a major project or anything. If it had been, I wouldn't have done it. I just couldn't think of a way to inject some interest into my boring story, and borrowing the events of that scene was an easy fix.

I actually take pains to try to be original now. Even if I don't think my idea is all that original to begin with, I try to give it a little extra something to make it my own. That would have to be the main reason why I won't write for the Inuyasha fandom - there is SO much IY fan fiction out there already, it's too difficult to write something that someone won't claim as being someone else's idea. That's why my only full-length IY fan fic is a crossover set in present-day.

Oh yes, taking an established story and transforming it into something entirely original is very commonplace, and I wouldn't call it plagiarism at all.

It's usually pretty obvious when you get a case of plagiarism in school. An observant teacher/professor can spot when the style of writing doesn't match with the way the child normally writes or speaks. Google helps a lot, too, but there's no substitute for good, old-fashioned observation and know-how.