The Stolen Word: The Ugly Truth of Plagiarism

Anyone who writes shares at least two basic fears.

The first is that work will be stolen and credited to someone else. I’ve had that happen, and it feels miserable. Thievery is never flattery. It not only hurts economically (you don’t get paid, nor do you get the additional work that might be offered to the author), it impacts morally. Someone has taken a piece of you.

The second is that work we produce may – intentionally or unintentionally – be more than comfortably similar to someone else’s work. The latter, after all, could lead to charges that we stole someone’s work and billed it as our own. For a writer (or artist or designer of any type), this is the most serious charge which can be leveled.

A few years ago, there was much hubbub that noted presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin failed to attribute at least a few passages of her work to other authors, it is alleged, who actually wrote them. A similar charge was made against another historian, Stephen Ambrose.

Now, anyone who is familiar with the work of either prolific writer or with their appearances on television (Goodwin, for example, is often called to comment on historical moments in U.S. history, such as the State of the Union address on January 29, 2002) knows that these are people who clearly do their homework and know their material. I’m frequently blown away by Goodwin’s ability to recite long quotations from former presidents related to a specific issue. I’m very willing to believe her comment that a poor way of note-taking when she was a newer author led to the problems being reported (summed up: quotation marks and attributions were accidentally omitted when the final draft of the manuscript were being prepared). In fact, what worries me is that she sounds a lot more painstaking in her prep process than I am.

I often take copious notations while I do research for information as well as look at how how others have handled it to see if I can illuminate a solution they have not, for example. Yet I often toss those notes fairly soon after the process because I try to fight my packrat syndrome and because I have a photographic memory for some things, including web sites and book passages, that I apparently find worth the mental storage space. Where I do still have notes, I notice that about midway through a project, my scribbles become more shorthand, more stream of consciousness about things I need to tackle, and less a roadmap into what I’ve seen.

However, I’m on a tangent so let me get back to the point: these are people who don’t need to borrow from others’ works in any improper fashion to cover for their inadequacies in their field.

And all too often, I feel that it’s the lack of expertise or even basic competency that leads to intellectual thievery. Just within computer publishing itself, I bet knowledgeable folks reading here could name more than a couple of columnists, reports, or book authors who clearly use buzzwords in place of strong information, leaving you wondering if they know as much as their titles indicate they should.

Even when the experts know their stuff, they still may be unable to communicate it effectively. It’s tough to sit there with a blank screen – or for purists, a blank sheet of paper – and create something wholly unique, true, and worthy from a mere tickle in the brain. For some, however, it’s all too easy to look around to see if someone has already created a version of what you want to produce and then “borrow” it. Such people always think of it as borrowing or research, too.

Interestingly enough, plagiarism by most definitions does not differentiate between intentional and unintentional misuse of others’ work. Nor are those who admit to intentional misuse – or even outright fabrication of true facts – necessarily apt to suffer worse than those who appear to have done it unconsciously. A famed romance novelist was found to have lifted whole plot lines and sections of narrative from competitors work, and it caused little flack. When one Boston Globe columnist made up material, she was fired. When another did it, he was brought back to the staff quickly and now appears fairly regularly as a talking head on network news talk shows. In the case of a successful writer, the publishers generally reach a confidential financial settlement with the author whose work was “borrowed”.

There are also no set rules on which groups of writers can borrow more freely than others. Anyone who watches television or movies can clearly see that it seems like the same ideas are regurgitated at least half a dozen times a season. And while it should perhaps make a much bigger difference when a true expert such as an historian “fudges” more than someone writing schlock fiction, like a romance author, there isn’t much distinction within publishing itself.

In the old days of publishing, large support staffs inhouse actually read the manuscripts and tried to make certain that material within them was both accurate and original. Increasingly, editors are placed in a position of spending more time trying to reconcile a budget or little staff and have to rely on software to check a manuscript. As long as the writer turned it in not too long after deadline, did what he or she said she would, and doesn’t endanger the publisher’s bottom line, the work often gets in print – sometimes, with amazingly little processing.

I remember a writer I once had cause to correspond with whose work made it rather obvious that the work product was not entirely her own (yes, I’m being purposely vague). Later, when she offered me some contract work on her next book, my suspicious were quickly validated. She was paying so-called experts a cent a word (well under what she made) to write her text for her. Now I knew why she always avoided answering any technical question whatsoever – she knew nothing; she simply compiled the efforts of others under her name. One interesting twist: lots of the folks she hired didn’t know a great deal more than she did, so they ended up copying material off technical web sites to fill in empty spaces. The problem was, they didn’t ask permission of the actual web authors. I awoke to this practice when I saw whole portions of online help I’d provided on an online service appear in one of her works.

Plagiarism, of course, isn’t limited to “straight” writing – it applies to the stealing of computer code, to taking someone else’s shareware or freeware product to pass off as your own, to sheet music and lyrics, to cartoons and graphics, and so on.
The practice became ever so much easier to perpetrate with the advent of the burgeoning user community and content on the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s and seems to be growing by leaps and bounds each year.

Need a paper for college? Download one – after all, your teacher won’t recognize a paper someone else submitted in Spokane, right? Want to be a computer programmer without bothering to learn all those pesky rules and language conventions? Grab someone else’s source code off a web site, and substitute your name for the real producer’s.
Sadly, it’s that easy.

And as a writer, I’m not sure I buy the argument that it’s as bad – if not worse – for someone like Goodwin to borrow “accidentally” than it is for some 20-year-old to lift code and pass it off as his own, with full knowledge of his actions.
But personally and professionally, I’ll probably swallow my frustration and just work harder to be sure I don’t miss an attribution or proper credit. Not because I’ll be sanctioned or possibly discredited if I do so, but because it’s the right thing to do. Everyone deserves credit for their work product and no one should get a free ride.

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