The Sin of Plagiarism

A few weeks ago, while researching a blog post, I came across an article on a well-known and well-respected author’s site that felt so… so… familiar. He’d plagiarized the entire thing, word for word, from another well-respected and well-known writing book.

I was a little stunned, actually. I mean, this guy had balls. Not only had he stolen it, he’d left it up for years even after one of the two-dozen or so commenters pointed out the plagiarism. Being me, I asked him about it on Twitter. That’s when things go even worse.

Not only did he claim he’d not plagiarized it, he actually suggested that the authors he’d stolen from had plagiarized it from him. He explained that the blog post actually came from one of his books, which was published several years before the one he’d stolen from. He didn’t know, however, that I’d been a fan of his and had read his book.

So, I pointed out that I hadn’t recalled seeing it there, but if he could tell me what page it was on, I’d check my copy.

That’s when he remembered that his blog post hadn’t actually come from that book, but rather one of his other books from about 10 years earlier. He thanked me for reminding him.

… when confronted, what kind of person must you be to accuse the person you stole from? It made me sick.

It just so happened, however, that I owned that book, too. I checked it pretty thoroughly. I even bought the e-book copy so I could search it. And while he does bring up the same advice in this particular book as what’s conveyed in the stolen blog post, he does it in about three sentences. His blog post, however, is much more elaborate and in-depth and is some several hundred words long — nearly all of which match the book he claims actually stole from him.

To say I was disappointed was an understatement. His latest book on writing has been on my shelf for years and is… or was… an absolute favorite of mine. But I just wonder, now, how much of it is original, too? Why would someone with so much obvious talent and ability do something so stupid and so wrong? And when confronted, what kind of person must you be to accuse the person you stole from? It made me sick.

Accidental Plagiarism?

Stealing WordsThe funny thing is, when I first came across his blog, I thought he’d plagiarized me. I’d read the book he’d stolen from so many times, and shared its advice with so many writers, I’d absorbed the words and couldn’t remember that they weren’t even mine. Sure, that lasted all of about 30 seconds and I realized what had really happened as I read further, but I’m not one to entirely discount the idea of “accidental plagiarism.” I think it’s entirely possible to internalize someone else’s work to the point that you forget they’re not entirely original thoughts.

This wasn’t accidental, though. No one has a memory that works that way. Accidentally plagiarize a few sentences, I’ll believe that. Accidentally plagiarize entire pages or even paragraphs? Not a chance. His flimsy and easily disproved explanations didn’t help much, either.

Forgive and forget

Just this week I was reading a very, very popular book on success from an exceptionally successful author and businessman with millions of sold copies among his many works. He told a story about a medical study that I found just too good to be true, based on what I know about the rules surrounding human subjects research. So, I checked the footnote and found he’d learned about this study from an old New York Times article. I went online and found the article because I wanted to know where the study was being conducted and if there was more to story.

Footnotes don’t give you the right to represent another writer’s words as your own. It’s plagiarism, and plagiarism is stealing.

What I found instead was that the author had wholesale copied the New York Time’s description of the study in his book — without using quotes. Is that plagiarism? Some people might say no, since he footnoted the paragraph, but some people would be wrong. Footnotes don’t give you the right to represent another writer’s words as your own. It’s plagiarism, and plagiarism is stealing.

This might’ve been an accident, yes. It’s just one paragraph in one book, and I learned writing Treknology how difficult it can be to keep sources and citations straight. If I asked him and he said it was an accident, I’d probably believe him. If he apologized, I’d say ‘good for you,’ and move on. And here’s the thing. I think this guy, even if he had done it accidentally, would still apologize because that’s the kind of person he seems to be. And that’s why the attitude of the first writer was so striking to me, and why I won’t pick up another of his books. I thought he was a different.

But he stole. And he got caught. And then he accused the person he stole from. There’s no excuse for that.