26 April 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 15 comments

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

Comments

  1. Wed 26th Apr 2006 at 9:22 pm

    I couldn’t agree more, Eric. As you know, my work has been plagiarized several times (in one case, an entire biography on my website – purely original and researched over 20 years – was reprinted in a magazine by another, and nearly word-for-word. I was livid, and got a public apology on the next issue’s front page by both the publisher and “author.”) Besides the legalities, plagiarism in all it’s forms is nothing short of blatant theft. There seems such a demand today for the “next big thing” that some scholars and authors seem to see nothing wrong with it. In my opinion, such dregs must be predisposed to it. I know you don’t have it in you, could never consider it, and neither do I. But there are folks out there cut from a different cloth, and I’m happy as hell when they get exposed. They deserve no less – and they deserve no payment either.

    J.D.

  2. Wed 26th Apr 2006 at 9:48 pm

    JD,

    Of anybody, I knew that you would understand what I was saying here. Sadly, as long as people are rewarded for plagiarism, there will no incentive not to do so. And that’s really pretty much the bottom line.

    Eric

  3. Lanny
    Thu 27th Apr 2006 at 1:03 am

    Dear Eric,
    What was it that Ambrose Bierce wrote in his The Devil’s Dictionary? Something to the effect that originality consists in forgetting where you read something. Apparently, given your reference to Goodwin in the above “Rant”, quoting from one person without giving proper credit is called plagiarism; quoting from several sources without giving proper credit is called scholarship.
    Keep footnoting, friend. Perhaps others will follow your foot prints on the path to honesty.

    Yours for reading the small print,
    Lanny

    P.S. I hate to tell you what Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary says about lawyers.

  4. Eamon Honan
    Thu 27th Apr 2006 at 5:26 am

    Naw he’s a big boy…he can take it.

    LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.

    …anyway….I would have thought the Historian entry would have been far more problematical.

    HISTORIAN, n. A broad-gauge gossip.

    Any of this sounding familar Eric? :)

    As for plagiarism, it happened to me once and while the matter was sorted very swiftly and to my satisfaction, but it does leave a bad taste in the mouth mainly because it’s done at at a remove and there is no way to get your hands on the malefactor.

    I’d be very much in favour in having plagiarisers strung up and flogged before the regiment in the barracks square pour encourager les autres.

    I find plagarism in non-fiction sad but understandable, in that you didn’t want to put the research time in yourself, so you stole somebody elses work. But plagiarism in fiction just baffles me…I suppose because I have aspirations in that direction myself. Someone else’s words are someone else’s words, they’re never going to be yours regardless of whether you put your name on the cover. It would like stealing somebody’s underwear and walking around in it. You can do it…but it’s never going to feel right.

    This is entirely distinct of course from stealing which has a long and noble literary history. I think Kipling said it best.

    When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre,
    He’d ‘eard men sing by land an’ sea;
    An’ what he thought ‘e might require,
    ‘E went an’ took –the same as me!

    The market-girls an’ fishermen,
    The shepherds an’ the sailors, too,
    They ‘eard old songs turn up again,
    But kep’ it quiet — same as you!

    They knew ‘e stole; ‘e knew they knowed,
    They didn’t tell, nor make a fuss,
    But winked at ‘Omer down the road,
    An’ ‘e winked back — the same as us!

    P.S. Ingrams haven’t taken delivery of the new book yet, but they’re set to mail me when they do and then we’ll see about getting it to the poor of the parish on my side of the atlantic.

  5. Thu 27th Apr 2006 at 9:16 am

    Sadly, I think it’s also significant that she’s a college student. I find myself at the end of every semester now dealing with a case or two of plagiarism, including graduating seniors who don’t graduate. I find it gut-wrenching. I also spend lot of extra time fooling with e-copies of papers, running them through the Turnitit.com anti-plagiarism site, as well as good old library checking. Some students confess, some argue, some cry, but few see that they did anything wrong other than break a “meaningless” rule. It’s discouraging.

  6. Thu 27th Apr 2006 at 9:17 am

    LOL. I guess that makes me the worst of both worlds, eh? :-)

    I’m glad you guys see it my way. This sort of thing really makes those of us who try to do this sort of work honestly look bad. It’s that whole guilt by association thing.

    And Eamonn, you just reminded me of why I love Kipling so much. Thanks.

    Eric

  7. Thu 27th Apr 2006 at 9:44 am

    What probably hurts even more than one stealing your words, is when another steals your interpretations. It would be one thing to use a few sentences from something I wrote and to claim it’s original to another. But in the instance of an article (and longer original submission) of a Federal cavalry commander – Eric, you know of whom I speak – I spent decades drawing out biographical and career information on a very obscure individual and then formulated new interpretations on why this commander acted as he did. Then, curiously, shortly thereafter, another author published an article that had nearly the identical information and interpretations. After having found out that this other author got a copy of my (footnoted) submission a few months before they submitted theirs, it became a no-brainer to figure out what happened.
    All I could think about was the years I’d spent thinking about the subject matter and formulating these intepretations based on all the obscure material I’d dug up over a couple decades. Then, this other writer takes a few days or weeks and simply regurgitates them and is hailed by some, I would assume, as a “great researcher” on this particular individual. As I said, it was worse than just someone using a few of my sentences. Ideas were stolen. Ideas are the intangible, the mental power inside of you that you develop only through self-effort.
    It’s the worst theft of all. If there were indeed hangings for this sort of thing, I’d get a full-time job tying knots.

    J.D.

  8. Art Bergeron
    Thu 27th Apr 2006 at 3:37 pm

    And there are a few authors who have just skirted plagiarism charges and sell lots of books to folks who do not know about it. I recall one instance (no names will be used else I’ll need your legal assistance) of a writer whose book so closely paralleled an older title that one of his footnotes contained the same misspelling of a word that appeared in the older book.

  9. Valerie Protopapas
    Thu 27th Apr 2006 at 3:49 pm

    Way back when there was an ethical morality in this country – and ‘Western Civilization’ in general – that ‘preached’ (and meant) the virtues INCLUDING honesty and determined that, in fact, there WERE ‘moral absolutes’ – things that were always good/right and evil/wrong – such actions not only wouldn’t be tolerated, but they probably would not have even been considered except by the most depraved of individuals. Remember all those stories about Washington and Lincoln and their honesty even when no one would have known had they been LESS honest (nevermind DIShonest)? Do you remember the understanding of character to mean doing what was right even if no one ever knew? Does anyone recall the applause of the people for those who made sacrifices against their own self-interest and the scorn ladened upon those who cheated and betrayed the public trust?

    Well, friends, those days are gone forever and plagerism is only one small ‘gem’ in a wretched cultural crown that lauds ‘winners’ (by whatever means they won) and sees those who struggle to live moral lives as fools and losers. I am reminded of the line from the song in Camelot said by Mordred, Arthur’s bastard son, “It’s not the EARTH, the meek inherit, IT’S THE DIRT!” That is the culture today. We praise those who succeed even if they had to break the law and cheat to do so. In fact, the only REAL ‘sin’ is getting caught like Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi. Want to bet that the ‘records’ of men like Bonds will remain in the books and not even receive an ‘asterisk’ denoting the means by which they were achieved? How far a cry is this from the reaction of the American public to the Black Sox scandal?

    I’m afraid that plagerism is only a symptom of a much greater ill, an ill that will not be cured as long as we as a culture are not ready to admit that we’re sick.

    V. P.

  10. Dave Kelly
    Thu 27th Apr 2006 at 4:28 pm

    >I’m afraid that plagerism is only a symptom of a much greater ill, an ill that will not be cured as long as we as a culture are not ready to admit that we’re sick.

    V. P.

  11. Thu 27th Apr 2006 at 6:22 pm

    Ken,

    They REALLY think that intellectual dishonesty and cheating is no big deal? Good grief. That really says an awful lot about the state of our society if that’s the case. And it’s not good news, either.

    Eric

  12. Thu 27th Apr 2006 at 6:24 pm

    JD,

    Yes, I am well aware of how angry and violated you felt because of that episode. For good reason, I might add. I didn’t blame you then for being pissed, and I don’t blame you now.

    Eric

  13. Thu 27th Apr 2006 at 6:25 pm

    Art,

    Yikes. That’s about all I can say about that.

    Eric

  14. Kaiyla
    Tue 06th Nov 2007 at 9:14 pm

    Hey I think that plagiarism is one of the worst kind of stealing. If some one dose it I think they should take what they did back like Kaavya Viswanathan I honestly think that she should have taken back her copies from the shelves. She did not even apologize of do anything about it in the end just blamed it on photographic memory I have had my fair shear of hard work I have to research but I do not go off and steal someone’s work I think it is wrong and there should far worse punishments because a slap on the wrist dose nothing to stop them again and it dose nothing to the people that they have plagiarized from do you agree?

    Kaiyla :-)

  15. Kaiyla
    Tue 06th Nov 2007 at 9:23 pm

    there is one more thing why do u stew on the past how long ago was it now? there are new fish to fry m8 have fun :-)

Add comment

*

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress