In case anyone has been living under a stone the past few days, a nineteen-year-old Harvard student named Kaavya Viswanathan, who published her first novel–with a half million dollar advance– a few weeks ago. It turns out that she plagiarized quite a bit of it from two books by another author named Megan McCafferty. According to one article I read, there were nearly forty passages of her novel that were too close for comfort, and some that were verbatim.
Viswanathan appeared on Today this morning and claimed that it was unintentional, that she had read the two books several times in high school and that McCafferty’s words had imprinted themselves on her photographic memory. She claims that she was unaware that it had happened and that she had not intended to do so. As Colonel Potter used to say, “Horse hockey!” I’m sorry. There’s just no way that somebody could quote chapter and verse as often as this young woman did without trying very hard to do so.
Thus, we come to the fundamental question: is plagiarism unethical (never mind the illegal copyright infringement aspect of this)? Of course it is. It is taking someone else’s words, their intellectual property, and claiming it as your own without so much as crediting the author. That’s unethical, and my humble opinion is that Visnawathan should be required to pay back the advance she received as well as any future royalties, too.
Every publishing contract includes a representation and warranty that the work is original to the author. By submitting something that contained so many episodes of plagiarism, Visnawathan has breached her contract. As such, the publisher would be perfectly within its rights to demand a refund of the advance paid. Whether it will do so remains to be seen; so far, they have been supportive of her. McCafferty clearly has a copyright infringement suit if she chooses to pursue it. She has remained silent so far, so nobody knows where she stands on this issue.
If I was a customer who spent good money on a plagiarized work like this, I would feel defrauded, and I would definitely demand my money back.
Obviously, there’s a difference between fiction, which is supposed to be entirely made up by the author, and the sort of non-fiction that I write. By definition, I am required to use other people’s words in my work, since I’m telling stories of events that actually occurred. I prefer to permit the soldiers to tell their own stories in their own words wherever and whenever possible, which means lots of quotations. However, I am fanatical about footnoting and sourcing what I write. There’s no doubt about where I get the material I quote–I am fanatical about footnoting my work. Even a cursory review of the footnotes/endnotes of my books will demonstrate this fact. My The Union Cavalry Comes of Age contains well over 1,000 notes.
My point is that while I do make use of other people’s words, I am fanatical about being sure to credit those words to their authors. I doubt anyone could ever accuse me of plagiarism as a result. I am at peace with that.
That is, however, not to say that there isn’t plagiarism in non-fiction work, too. Pulitzer Prize winning historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose both were found to have plagiarized important works. Astonishingly, Goodwin–who continues to deny that she plagiarized–made it to the New York Times best seller list with her most recent book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and it has been showered with awards, as if the plagiarism never occurred. In short, it says that it’s not only okay to be unethical, you will be rewarded for it. I would prefer to be poor and maintain my integrity than to be accused of plagiarizing someone else’s work.
For her sake, I can only hope that Ms. Visnawathan is able to find some peace with her intellectual dishonesty. Because that’s what it is, pure and simple.Scridb filter