On Plagiarism

Image purchased from Adobe Stock

You may have heard that there are (at least) two major plagiarism scandals going around the publishing world lately. In case not, here’s a quick recap:

  1. An “author” by the name of Cristiane Serruya has been accused of lifting whole pages of text from romance novels by bestselling authors Courtney Milan, Bella Andre, and several others and passing them off as her own fiction. She even went so far as to enter the books in the RITA awards, which are the Oscars of romance. When called on her actions, she blamed a ghostwriter she hired on Fiverr, who conveniently had already closed his/her account. However, she then deleted all of her social media and website. As of this writing, some of her books have been removed from sale, but others are still available. UPDATE – Nora Roberts has some new information on her blog.
  2. Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, has been accused of plagiarizing passages from her book
    Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts. She, however, is not denying it. She blames a mistake with the footnotes in a galley copy (an early review version of the book), which she has corrected in the final version.

To me, the most frightening of the two is clearly the second. I’ll get to why in a minute. The first one is stupidity, plain and simple. It’s not that hard to avoid plagiarizing fiction. (Hint: write your own stuff.) But let’s for a moment assume Ms. Serruya is innocent and the blame lies with the anonymous ghostwriter.

  1. Who hires a ghost writer on Fivver? If you are going to do it (and I personally think it a stupid and expensive move, especially for someone whose name alone doesn’t have the power to sell books), there are plenty of reputable agencies out there who can put you in touch with ghostwriters. Or ask around the writing community. Many authors either have or currently do ghostwrite.
  2. Even if she did, did she not quality-check the book? You would think, given that these are HUGE names in the romance industry, that she would have read at least a few of their books before “writing” her own and could recognize their style or turns of phrase. Or at least that her spidey sense would have told her something wasn’t right.
  3. If you are innocent, a proper reaction would be to apologize, remove the offending works from sale, and publicly admit the error (on your website, social media, newsletter list, etc.) and tell people how you are going to fix it and/or avoid in the future. That is crisis communications 101. A public letter of apology to the defrauded authors along with remuneration would be nice as well. What you do not do is turn tail and run by deleting your online presence. Even if you are scared and trying to avoid trolls, all it does is make you look guilty.
  4. No, just no. Write your own work, dammit!

But I highly doubt she is innocent. Her reactions, especially deleting her online presence, follow the pattern established by scammers long ago. Chances are good she will pop up under another name and do it all again. But she may not get away with it since one of the authors she victimized is Courtney Milan, a former lawyer who clerked for the Supreme Court. Because Ms. Serruya was an RWA member and entered the RITAs, they have payment information on file for her. Assuming she didn’t use a false identity there, this gives Ms. Milan the possibility of pursuing legal action. And I hope she does. Watch this space.

Non-fiction Holds Greater Risk
The second example is my own personal nightmare as a non-fiction writer and a worry that plagues me pretty often. Obviously, when you write non-fiction, truth and attribution are everything. But did you know that even Big Five publishing houses don’t employ fact-checkers for their non-fiction books? That both floored and scared the living daylights out of me when I found out through this Vox article:

“So how do publishers generally handle it if factual errors creep into a book? Basically, the same way they handle plagiarism: They make it the author’s problem…So the facts are all up to the author. And different authors handle that liability differently. Some might want to hire a freelance fact-checker, but that can get expensive: Vulture cites flat prices of between $5,000 and $25,000.” 

I have a terrible fear of accidentally plagiarizing someone else’s work. And it’s easier to accidentally do than you might think. According to the University of Arizona,

“There are basically three kinds of plagiarism:

(1) Using another person’s exact words without including quotation marks *and* citation. If you use someone else’s exact words, then you must cite the original source (either in a footnote or in a citation in the text), and you must enclose the words in quotation marks or else set them off from the rest of the text by indenting them from the other text.

(2) Using another person’s words, but changing some of them, or rearranging them. This is plagiarism even if the source is cited.

(3) Summarizing or paraphrasing another person’s words without citation. If you use what someone else has written, but you describe it or summarize it in your own words, then you don’t need to enclose it in quotation marks, but you still must provide a citation to the original source, either in a footnote or directly in the text.

Note that it’s not enough to simply include a reference to the original source in your bibliography; “citation” of the original source means citing it where it appears in the text.”

(Note that I attributed this quote in the text and also used quotation marks, so it is clear this is not my own thought. The italics were an extra step I took to the same end.)

I tend to over-footnote my non-fiction works as a preventive measure. When I research, I am very careful to put quote marks around my notes if they are word-for-word quotations so I know that when I go back to actually write the book. And even if I restate an idea in my own words, I still footnote the source because it wasn’t my original idea.

Yet, mistakes still happen. It is very difficult to keep perfect track of footnotes when you are revising and moving things around. Editing changes can make an Ibid. (the footnote way of saying “same source as in the previous footnote”) no longer valid. I’ve learned not to put in any Ibids until I’m sure I’m on the final version or at least to the point where I won’t be moving anything. That way, the source and page number will always stay with the sentence.

I have to say, I sympathize with Ms. Abramson’s statement that she didn’t cite some sources (either in the text or footnotes) because she “was trying to write a seamless narrative, and to keep breaking it up with ‘according to’ qualifiers would have been extremely clunky.” (Source: Vox) We all want to write a gripping story and footnotes can be distracting for the reader, but they are necessary. In thinking about my experience in reading more non-fiction books than I can count for my research, I rarely notice the footnotes unless I read something I want to know more about and then drop my gaze down to read them or turn to the back of the chapter/book if they are end notes (which I personally think are a PITA for both the author and the reader, but I digress). And in most cases “according to” or some variation thereof instills a sense of trust in the author and her research when I hear/read it.

I’m sure there are more ways plagiarism can occur (besides deliberately) but these are the things that spring to mind for me. You would think that Ms. Abramson would know better given she was one of the most powerful journalists in the country and teaches other journalists, but she is only human. (Assuming, of course, that she didn’t do it on purpose. If she did, I am ashamed of her and she should be punished.)

What are the takeaways for writers? 1) Don’t plagiarize on purpose. (Duh!) 2) Be very, very careful with your notes when researching. 3) Take your time with your writing and triple check it. 4) Check over your footnotes one more time when you’re done editing 5) Pray.

I just hope it is a mistake I never make.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “On Plagiarism

  1. LivRancourt

    The thing that blows me away about the first story is that she clipped from multiple authors for the same book. I mean, weaving together a bunch of different sources seems like it would have taken so much more work than just writing the damned thing herself.

  2. Pingback: “It is Unknown:” The Joys and Frustrations of Biography Writing – Spellbound Scribes

Show Us Some Love!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s