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All last week, I watched the news unfold about the Cassie Edwards plagiarism scandal. For those of you who haven't heard of it, you can get the details by going HERE and HERE. For a hilarious, irreverent timeline with opera-themed explanation, go HERE

Long story short, Mrs. Edwards is an author who was first accused of copying passages from various research texts, and pasting them slightly paraphrased but uncredited into her novels. Then most recently, it seems she may have copied whole passages from a 1930 Pulitzer-winning novel into one of her books.
 
My reaction, as a reader and a writer, is to be both sad and angry. I'm sad for Mrs. Edward's fans, who must be feeling pretty disillusioned, and for her friends/family, who must be having a hard time as well.
 
As a writer, however, I'm angry. Our words belong to us, good or bad, so for them to be hijacked and sold by another author is just wrong. Furthermore, this hasn't only damaged Mrs. Edward's career. There was talk from readers about boycotting all Signet/Penguin authors in protest over the publishers admittedly lame initial response to the plagiarism accusations, when they called Mrs. Edwards novels "researched." Signet/Penguin has since amended their position to state that the Edwards situation "deserves further review", but who knows how much damage has already been done to other Signet/Penguin authors? (Note: I'm not a Signet/Penguin author, so this doesn't affect me, but it upsets me just the same).
 
I know in the fan-fiction world, parts and passages are sometimes copied from books. That's not what I'm talking about here, though. Whether or not copying things from novels for the purpose of unsold entertainment is wrong is another issue. This is the case of a multi-published author taking other people's printed words and selling them under her own name. There doesn't seem to be any wiggle room on whether that's right or wrong, in my opinion.
 
Since this is a community of writers and readers, I'm curious about your opinions. Is plagiarism by an author an unforgivable crime? Would you ever buy a book from an author proved to be a plagiarist? Why or why not?
 
(Again, I'm not referring to fan fic, so please don't use any fan-fic examples in your answers)


-Jeaniene Frost  (cross-posted as well to my LJ).

Comments

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tmthomas
Jan. 14th, 2008 08:15 pm (UTC)
I don't really have a good answer. I guess in my personal calculus of cheating, there are two main variables: the identity and the amount.

An author who I really enjoy and who I feel tells good story is more likely to get a pass than someone I'm not familiar with.

Similarly, if the copying is of a relatively limited nature, I'm more likely to get over the initial anger (since I'm an oft-rejected wannabe, but at least use my own words) and check out future books.

I think, to close on a third point, I'd also want to hear a "why"...I may not buy it, but a genuine mea culpa carries a lot of weight in most cases.
green_knight
Jan. 14th, 2008 08:15 pm (UTC)
Her actions were despicable. Using a couple of sentences from another source, or using a real-life incident from a memoir in a novel is something I could live with. I'd very very very much like the author to have a note at the back saying 'and thanks to Snoopy for his invaluable advice' but if they fail to do that, *once*, I might forgive them.

Here, on the other hand, is someone who appears to have made a career by swiping other people's materials, amending it slightly, and pretending that *she* had written them. (Which, I gather, book contracts try to avoid. If those words weren't hers, does she have to pay back her earnings? Dream on.)

Sadly, there is no good way of telling just *how much* of her texts she has plagiarized, or from how many books-per-novel. It would take a fair amount of dedicated research to come up with a fuller picture, but the bits that the Smart Bitches came up with in a very short period of time are damning indeed.

This was not an accident. This was not someone who had a vivid passage floating in their brain and forgot where it came from. This is systematic fraud, and, really, I do not find it forgivable.
mary_j_59
Jan. 14th, 2008 08:25 pm (UTC)
I'm jumping in from R.J. Anderson's livejournal (procrastinating, I'm afraid!) My initial reaction was: ugh! plagiarism is theft and lying, and both those things are very wrong.

But then I read the examples you gave, and two other books came to mind, one a massively popular and influential work of fiction (The Clan of the Cave Bear and one a book I simply love, by a world-famous author (The Inheritors by William Golding)

In his foreword, Golding lets it be known that he is reacting to a book by H.G. Wells. But he does not, so far as I know, cite any paleoanthropologists or paleontologists, even when he is quite clearly using their work (the little Oa, based on the famous statue of Willendorf?; the way the People make clay hearths for their fires; the way they carry fire with them; the way they make soup by heating liquid with stones in a gut bag, and so on). A big difference from the author you're discussing is that he doesn't copy anyone else's words exactly. And he wrote this book in the 1950s - could that have made a difference?

But, in writing about a Neanderthal tribe and trying to give modern readers an authentic experience of their lives, Golding had to make use of what was then known of those lives, didn't he? If he had asked for permissions from various scientists, would we as readers know that he had done so?

I haven't read Jean Auel in a very long time, but I believe she does list sources and thank some people who helped her. Is that sufficient, or is more needed?

You see my question, I think. Permissions are tricky. What if you ask for permission to cite and do not receive it? Does this mean you simply cannot use that information, or does your good faith effort, and your acknowledgement of the source, save you from accusations of plagiarism? And when (thinking of the Golding example) does a scientific fact or theory become common knowledge?

This question is on my mind because I'm going to have to get permissions for a book I'm working on, and I'm finding the prospect daunting.

But, to answer your main question, if it were proven that an author had knowingly plagiarised, I don't think I would ever read a book of theirs again. Because deliberate theft, without mitigating circumstances (such as an acknowledgement of debt in the text itself, or a good faith effort to get permissions) is just wrong.
swan_tower
Jan. 14th, 2008 10:25 pm (UTC)
Use of factual information from a nonfiction source doesn't have to be cited. I do, however, happen to think it's nice: both as a credit to those whose work helped you, and as a pointer for readers who want to know more. The degree of importance I assign to that credit depends on how central the factual info is. If something you read in a book about Neadertals gave rise to the entire idea for your story, then I'd like to know that.
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casaubon
Jan. 14th, 2008 08:27 pm (UTC)
Plagiarism is unethical, lazy & dumb but it's hardly an unforgivable crime.

I think it depends on the extent of the plagiarism. Copying (or paraphrasing, like some of the examples) a dozen sentences or paragraphs in a 400 page book will mean that the vast majority of the story (the characters & plot & 99.9% of the prose) is hers. If I enjoyed the author's work I'd give them another shot, assuming that they had any more published.

Much more than that and I probably wouldn't give them another chance.
rj_anderson
Jan. 14th, 2008 08:28 pm (UTC)
1. Not unforgivable, but it is apt to make me skeptical of that author's originality thereafter, and color my ability to enjoy his/her work on its own merits.

2. Yes, if it were recommended to me by someone whose judgment I trusted, assuring me that the former plagiarist's new work really was terrific -- and original. I'd check it out from the library first, though.

Also, that opera-themed summary is the most hilarious thing I've seen in weeks. Thanks for linking to it.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 14th, 2008 08:55 pm (UTC)
Since I have never read Ms. Edwards' books, in her case, the question is moot. But since I don't even buy books that resemble the story, characters or worldbuilding from another author, I imagine my answer would be that I would not buy a book from an author that has broken my trust by plagiarism...unless it was a case of plain stupidity or unintentional usage. Clearly in the case of Ms. Edwards it was not stupidity or ignorance because she was copying verbatim.

For example, I never bought a Janet Dailey book again.

http://hotflashes51.wordpress.com/
b_sheridan
Jan. 14th, 2008 08:41 pm (UTC)
An unforgivable crime?

I have to give a qualified no only because I see something unforgivable as being horrible on the scale with cold, calculated murder and any crimes involving children.

Is it wrong? Definitely.

Would I buy a book from an author like Edwards in the future?

Probably not. While I'm sure any house that chose to publish them again (especially under the tainted author name) would go to great lengths to ensure that there was no further plagiarism involved I think the trust issue is important. I trust authors to give me their best in each book as I try to do in my own writing.

When this first broke I was willing to understand how Edwards could have taken information from reference texts without any intended malice. Thirty years and more ago schools didn't drill into students that detailed citation was needed when quoting a reference work. It was strictly left to everyone's common sense to use facts without using the exact phrasing of those facts. "Put it in your own words" was about all we were taught and the word plagiarism was never mentioned. (I'm speaking of high school level. I don't know how things were years ago on the university level)

However, yesterday when I saw that Edwards copied from a novel that pretty much blows any sympathetic understanding she may have gotten. Even simple common sense would have told her that she was purposely doing wrong.

green_knight
Jan. 14th, 2008 10:48 pm (UTC)
Can't speak for thirty years ago, but twenty-six years ago I was taught that in order to write a short paper I should be looking at different sources, paraphrase them, and decide myself what to put in or leave out, and that I was not to rely on any one source or use them without quoting.

At the time I was ten.

I don't know what it was like when the author in question was at school, but it's not rocket science, and my mother - who is reasonably in her agegroup - certainly was told at _her_ school that to pass someone else's words for hers was wrong. Only in school they usually call it cheating.

(Deleted comment)
melissa_writing
Jan. 14th, 2008 09:20 pm (UTC)
I'm all for the anti-plagiarism, but umm, what's wrong with working at Walmart? :)

MM
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woodrunner
Jan. 14th, 2008 09:47 pm (UTC)
Unlike m_stiefvater, I don't have a history academic background. My background is scientific. Not only does anything that is paraphrased or quoted need to be cited, but a concept that has been formulated by several other scientists is likewise referred to appropriately.

Maybe because of my background and reports all over the news in the last few years of scientists fudging their data and publishing the results, I can't help but to compare Ms. Edward's situation in a similar light. From the examples that were posted, her books are not uniquely her own work. That, to me, seems as if she fudged her work to get the result she wanted in the end.

One thing that's been said that's bothered me for some time was that Ms. Edward indicated it was not required of historical romance writers to cite their work. I don't know if that's true or not. Maybe someone told her that and she never doublechecked that. But come on. I can rattle off a list of books in several genres of fiction that cited their references or at least acknowledged their sources. Did the editors tell the authors to put them there, or did the authors put them there because they were legally and morally responsible to do so?

I frankly don't care that one of her defenses (or justifications) is that the books were public domain. I've cited a journal paper from 1923. Someone else put in the work to come up with the information I needed, and regardless of the publication date, it should be properly referenced.

Is plagiarism an unforgivable crime? No, I don't suppose so. But plagiarism is an automatic F in any class I've ever taken and every work henceforth published by that person is suspect, assuming they haven't been expelled.

Would I buy a book written by an author proven a plagiarist? No, because that is saying that it's okay to plagiarize, that the author will still reap benefits from it even if they've been otherwise condemned. That's tantamount (though, granted, in a lesser degree) to someone funding a scientist to do research after they've been proven to fudge data -- how do you know that the results you get at the end is what you paid for?

Reading over my answer I do sound rather militant about it. Maybe it's because someone stole one of my written reports and put their name on it, and I was accused of plagiarism (until the other person couldn't produce the raw notes for the report). I know how mad I'd be if someone stole my work and claimed it for their own because I've been there.

melissa_writing
Jan. 14th, 2008 09:50 pm (UTC)
Ok, I taught university lit and writing for a bit over a decade, so I'm pretty hardcore in my anti-plagiarism stance. Stealing words? Bad. It's a sort of lying, imho.

Ideas, mythology, old texts made new (a la Beowulf)? These are not stealing. To lift sections of text and claim them as your own? I do think it's a grievous crime. So, would I buy a book by a known plagiarist? Nope. It's like a cheating partner: once they lie, how do you trust them again later? Maybe it's a flaw on my part, but I wouldn't. I don't.

That said, I'm more interested in the connected topics . . .

The idea of boycotting an entire imprint over one author's actions--and yes, her house's response--is also problematic. No, I'm not a Penguin/Signet author either, and I don't have any names of which authors are (I just don't pay attention to that detail). Contemplating punishing an entire group of authors for one person's actions is illogical.

And--while I don't have an answer--I have to wonder how much of our reaction is also a product of where we are in time and place and our own vocations. I've had students who honestly didn't know that the lifting of chunks from resource texts was unethical. One young man frazzled me by his utter inability to understand "what the big deal is" because "everyone does it" and "that's what encyclopedias are for."

No, I don't really believe encyclopedias are for that or that everyone does it, but did her prior academic experiences teach her that a "little borrowing" was okay? Is our response tempered by the past decade of stronger attention to this issue? I don't have answers, but I don't think any issue is as simple as it appears at quick glance. The brief glance at this one raises issues about the publisher's responsibility, the increasing focus on research accuracy (a result of the internet age?), and the over-reactivity of some people (boycott ALL these authors) . . . and really, the "let's not tackle fan fic" b/c wow, there's a host of topics too.

I know plagiarism is jacked up, so I'm more interested in these other topics tendrils.

Melissa Marr

swan_tower
Jan. 14th, 2008 10:28 pm (UTC)
The Smart Bitches have done their best to warn people that boycotting the entire publishing line is a really bad and inappropriate response. Shame is the much more effective route. ^_^
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aeddie
Jan. 14th, 2008 10:00 pm (UTC)
Evidently the publisher is back tracking a bit on their total support:

Our original comments were based on Signet’s review of a limited selection of passages. We believe the situation deserves further review. Therefore we will be examining all of Ms. Edwards’ books that we publish, and based on the outcome of that review we will take action to handle the matter accordingly. We want to make it known that Signet takes any and all allegations of plagiarism very seriously.

from here: http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/update_updated_statement_from_signet_regarding_cassie_edwards/
swan_tower
Jan. 14th, 2008 10:22 pm (UTC)
It's hard for me to see this case with anything like objectivity, since I'm used to hearing Cassie Edwards used as a byword for bad romance writing to begin with. <g> This really only feels like another nail in a pretty firmly-closed coffin.

Speaking more broadly: My reaction would probably depend on the author's reaction. I'd honestly probably have more respect for someone who said, "yeah, I copied bits, sorry, I just thought they were so good I couldn't resist" than I would for someone who tried to pretend they hadn't noticed or had done nothing wrong. I mean, I still won't like it, but at least they have the guts to own it.

And, to be honest, I might find some way to get over it if I loved the author in question. If it turned out Diana Wynne Jones had ripped off somebody else like that, it's tough to judge which would win out: my feeling of betrayal, or my enjoyment of the experiences she has given me, regardless of how they were created.

Things I do NOT buy: that it's okay if it's nonfiction. (I'm planning on listing all my research materials on my website before Midnight Never Come hits the shelves, because I owe all those writers an enormous debt.) That it's okay if it's public domain. (You can use it, sure -- but if you're passing it off as your own genius, then you're lying to me. Credit your source.) That it's the sort of thing polite folk don't mention in public. (What's going to make a publisher take action, if not public shame?)

I also don't buy that anybody's picking on Edwards because her grandmother was Native American -- a claim which has incidentally been called into question.
music_lover3
Jan. 14th, 2008 10:38 pm (UTC)
I think that plagarism is unethical and wrong. I'm not sure it's an unforgivable crime, but it's certainly like digging your own grave and burying yourself in it. It ruins your reputation, and it makes people think that you're not creative and can't do any of your own work (or at least do good work). I think that in itself is enough of a punishment, because even if that person got their own work published, I'm not sure anyone would read it, simply because of said person's reputation for plagarism. It just ruins their career, whether they're actually good or not.

I actually heard the other day about someone being accused of plagarism. This person wrote romance westerns or something, and they wrote, like, twenty or more some odd books, and someone figured out that the author had actually taken books that were published way way back when and took them as their own. They didn't even change the sentence structure or anything. They just changed a few words and vua la (sp?). Published book. Now this person's whole career is destroyed because of what they did. It's really sad that someone would do that. It's a betrayal of trust that I don't think that they'd be able to get back. I don't think I would buy a book from someone who's a known plagarist. I just wouldn't trust their work to be genuine.
swan_tower
Jan. 14th, 2008 11:08 pm (UTC)
(it's "voila" -- blame the French)
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jeanne_stein
Jan. 15th, 2008 12:29 am (UTC)
There was talk from readers about boycotting all Signet/Penguin authors in protest over the publishers admittedly lame initial response to the plagiarism accusations, when they called Mrs. Edwards novels "researched."


Wow-- I really haven't followed this story but as a Penguin author I wonder how boycotting MY books would benefit this situation? It's frightening and upsetting..as upsetting as plagiarism.


shanna_s
Jan. 15th, 2008 01:07 am (UTC)
I have to admit that the meanspiritedness and glee with which the people at Smart Bitches went after this issue did somewhat detract from the allegations for me. It did feel like they had an axe to grind, and they were fortunate to find a windfall that gave them the moral high ground in doing so. I do think this author has done wrong and should face the consequences, but I do also have to wonder, as Jenny Crusie said, if this woman ran over their dogs (because they've been hating on her long before these allegations came about).

However, I'm baffled at how any author could do this and how an editor couldn't have noticed. It's just plain bad, sloppy research and writing if you can lift whole passages of descriptive material and dump them in a novel. It's an info dump for one thing, and that information should have been spread better throughout the story. And it totally changes the narrative voice, which was how it was discovered. How did an editor not spot the fact that the voice in the story changes completely for these passages, and how did an editor not strike out the info dump?
swan_tower
Jan. 15th, 2008 01:17 am (UTC)
I don't actually think the SBs went overboard at all. They've mocked her covers, yes -- just like they mock a lot of covers -- and occasionally they've criticized her writing. But as they pointed out somewhere in all those posts, they've (until now) spent far more time talking about a lot of other authors than they have about Edwards. Nor had they attacked her personally; just her writing. (And I've noticed them, in the comment threads, politely warning off people who started indulging ad hominem attacks. They've tried to keep it focused on what the woman has done wrong.)

In my book, that's not "hating on" someone, unless speaking negatively of someone more than once constitutes hating. I'm kind of baffled by Crusie's reaction to them breaking this whole mess publicly.

Yes, there have been a lot of CE posts lately, all of them pretty negative -- but that's because there keeps being new evidence, and developments in the responses from publishers, media, and other interested parties. I don't see why they shouldn't report on it, especially since public accountability is likely to be the only thing that ensures any kind of consequence for this.
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(Anonymous)
Jan. 15th, 2008 01:54 am (UTC)
Plagarism bad. Yes. Unforgivable? Hmmm, do you forgive Shakespeare? In his time it was common practice to steal from other writers. The original writers probably weren't pleased, but they did it, too.

Personally, I think it is just laziness and sloppiness.

All that said, I probably wouldn't read anyone's work that was found guilty of plagarism.
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