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How Opal Mehta got caught
April 24, 2006 6:59 AM   Subscribe

Kaavya Viswanathan is a 19-year-old Harvard student whose first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, just cracked the New York Times bestseller list. The problem? The Harvard Crimson and SF Gate assert that the author plagiarized much of it from two books by Megan McCafferty. Of course, it's not like this kind of thing hasn't happened before with young writers.
posted by mothershock (222 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Here's an example from the SFgate story:


On page 213 of McCafferty's book: "He was invading my personal space, as I had learned in Psych. class, and I instinctively sunk back into the seat. That just made him move in closer. I was practically one with the leather at this point, and unless I hopped into the backseat, there was nowhere else for me to go."

On page 175 of Viswanathan's book: "He was definitely invading my personal space, as I had learned in Human Evolution class last summer, and I instinctively backed up till my legs hit the chair I had been sitting in. That just made him move in closer, until the grommets in the leather embossed the backs of my knees, and he finally tilted the book toward me."


Obviously she borrowed passages. But if the rest of the book is different in plot and other details, then who gives a rip? Our obsession with plagiarism smacks of ambulance chasing. You rarely see this sort of righteous indignation with a book that didn't sell its film rights to Dreamworks.
posted by mecran01 at 7:10 AM on April 24, 2006


I like how Viswanathan tries to explain that she is not like Opal, the protagonist of her book:

"They've always been very good about not putting pressure on me," she said of her mother and father. "I mean, I adore them."

Her parents were not immune to the competitive pressure, however. Because they had never applied to an American educational institution, they hired Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a private counseling service, and author of "Rock Hard Apps: How to Write the Killer College Application." At the time IvyWise charged $10,000 to $20,000 for two years of college preparation services, spread over a student's junior and senior years.


Yep, sounds normal to me - no pressure there...
posted by vacapinta at 7:14 AM on April 24, 2006


I don't know mecran01, how about the original author? The one who didn't get a three book deal in high school and a picture deal from dreamworks based on plagiarized work. I bet she cares.
posted by cyphill at 7:14 AM on April 24, 2006


You rarely see this sort of righteous indignation with a book that didn't sell its film rights to Dreamworks.

No, those ones just don't get caught as easily.
posted by mendel at 7:16 AM on April 24, 2006


Take that, overachiever!
posted by stavrogin at 7:18 AM on April 24, 2006


Kaavya was, of course, rather prominently featured in the Indian press, what ith her being Indian, American, apparently well-read, and seemingly on her way to being well-educated as well.

In particular, the following section was rather ironic, given the circumstances:
Isn't it a little precocious for an 18-year-old to be penning a chick-lit novel?
Probably not as much as a
30-year-old, but I think I've experienced enough to capture the angst and drama of high school.

Is this inspired by Bridget Jones' Diary?
Not consciously.
(emphasis mine)
She should, of course, know that being Indian, having a biz-oriented degree and pursuing a career in literature don't really go hand in hand, except perhaps, if you were cornering the techie/call-center-crowd market, who, by definition, don't have an idea about such things as getting kissed or having a "life".
posted by the cydonian at 7:18 AM on April 24, 2006


Why can't you filthy people just accept that Ivy Leaguers are, in fact, definitely smarter than you and are born to succeed, actually. Thus it is predestiny, like how they take care of their own. get it?

Whereas you, the unwashed masses, are like purposed to serve, even if it means bowing your heads in submission to a great author who has, well, like graduated high school.

Yawner.
posted by jsavimbi at 7:22 AM on April 24, 2006


Hrm. A young over achiever with the stress of a $500k contract under the pressure of going through Harvard turns to plagiarism to meet the expectations of a publisher? Nah, that doesn't sound very feasible.

My guess, the girl freaked out under the pressure and starting grabbing from other sources to meet a deadline. Throw the book at her, scare her into doing it right the next time around. And then, perhaps, we can have a book about a New Jersey teenager that I'll be proud to own...

eh.
posted by Atreides at 7:25 AM on April 24, 2006


I'd hit it.

. . . What?

Damn, if you're going to plagiarize an author, at least pick a good one. There's something sad about crappy cutesy teen-drama writers lifting passages from one another. It's like garbage dump dwellers arguing over a piece of trash.

That said, the plagiarization doesn't surprise me. It's fairly common among high-pressure students in institutions like Harvard.
posted by schroedinger at 7:26 AM on April 24, 2006


Also being discussed over at Sepia Mutiny.
posted by chunking express at 7:28 AM on April 24, 2006


The story behind the story, you know, the one about how smart and over-achieving this young woman is, is pretty much undone by this kind of revelation. Kinda like when you write a book about what a badass drug-user you were, only, you weren't. It isn't that there is this much or that much plagarism, it's that the other part of how the book is being sold, as the product of a particular person with particular gifts, is untrue.
posted by OmieWise at 7:28 AM on April 24, 2006


The FPP's "...assert that the author plagiarized much of it" is extremely misleading. If these are the only passages in question, then yes, it's apparently plagiarism and should be treated as such, but it amounts to maybe a few hundred words.

I also find it interesting that in every case, Viswanathan seems to have improved on the original. Makes you wonder if the liftings weren't originally more blatant, but massaged by a good editor. (Not that I'm suggesting the editor was aware of the plagiarism, just that they punched up some bad prose into less-bad prose.)
posted by staggernation at 7:31 AM on April 24, 2006


Also, if she went to Northeastern instead of Harvard, this would be a non-issue. She'd be chastized for cheating while looking up, not down.
posted by jsavimbi at 7:42 AM on April 24, 2006


And also discussed at Readerville and GalleyCat.
posted by mothershock at 7:42 AM on April 24, 2006


Reminds me of this bright young thing.
I can't deny the schadenfreude I feel in seeing people like her go down. They always remind me of the people in my high school whose every move was cynically calculated according to how it would play on their college app.
And hey, Viswanathan dreams of being an investment banker? Big suprise there.
posted by banishedimmortal at 7:48 AM on April 24, 2006


Future spouse for Ben Domenech?

Or will his parents allow him to cross racial lines for matrimony?
posted by nofundy at 7:52 AM on April 24, 2006


hmmm ... a couple of these seem obvious ... but the style's so generic in some of these that it's really hard to tell

Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart.

Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty.

one could make an argument for plagarism here ... one could also make an argument that two authors with such chiched and trite styles are bound to come up with similar sentences at some point

Damn, if you're going to plagiarize an author, at least pick a good one.

yeah, really ...
posted by pyramid termite at 7:54 AM on April 24, 2006


mecran01 : "Our obsession with plagiarism smacks of ambulance chasing."

Er, how so? Ambulance chasing is "being a lawyer, seeing an ambulance, and following it so that you can talk to the freshly injured party and get them to sue someone, using your services". Are you saying that people obsess with plagiarism because they see an angle where they can make money off of it?
posted by Bugbread at 8:01 AM on April 24, 2006


one could also make an argument that two authors with such chiched and trite styles are bound to come up with similar sentences at some point
That would make sense if this was the only passage in question, but when there are numerous passages that paraphrase the same author, it is, quite obviously, plagiarism.
posted by missmerrymack at 8:02 AM on April 24, 2006


A 19-year-old Harvard student, Kaavya Viswanathan , is the author of a novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. This book recently cracked the New York Times bestseller list. However, there's a problem. The SF Gate and the Harvard Crimson both contend that the author plagiarized much of it from two books by another author, Megan McCafferty. But hey, it's not like this kind of thing hasn't happened before with young writers.
posted by lord_wolf at 8:21 AM on April 24, 2006


Our obsession with plagiarism smacks of ambulance chasing.

Oh, nonsense. Our plague of plagiarism smacks of too many people being convinced that success in literature (or anything else) is a matter of having a good backstory and knowing the right people rather than knowing how to actually write (or whatever). I hope this gal gets smacked down hard, and maybe puts a little doubt into the mind of the next spoiled idiot who decides to "write" a book.
posted by languagehat at 8:24 AM on April 24, 2006


bravo
posted by NinjaTadpole at 8:30 AM on April 24, 2006


I don't get it.
posted by OmieWise at 8:32 AM on April 24, 2006


I hope this gal gets smacked down hard, and maybe puts a little doubt into the mind of the next spoiled idiot who decides to "write" a book.

Seconded. Also, I hope everyone watches closely as she isn't expelled from Harvard.
posted by allen.spaulding at 8:34 AM on April 24, 2006


Also recently in plagiarism news: Emily Davies, formerly of the Times of London, confessed in March to plagiarizing in a book proposal for her own memoir -- which had netted her a $900,000 advance. Some discussion here, here, and here.
posted by mothershock at 8:38 AM on April 24, 2006


Man I love the internet, it's the perfect medium for semi-anonymously condeming individuals.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 8:43 AM on April 24, 2006


On what grounds would Harvard expel her? She hasn't plagiarized her work for school, that we know of, and she hasn't committed a crime. Even plagiarizing a paper doesn't get you 'expelled' except under unusual circumstances at most US universities, so the particular school has little to do with it.

No use hating on the woman. As we have seen over and over, there are a lot of people doing this. The fault must lie more deeply within our culture, though this does not exempt the individual agent from blame.

That said, I too hope this is the end of an unpromising literary career, and that she has a very happy life as an investment banker, a career in which cheating is rewarded more consistently.

And if it's not too much to hope for, maybe this can also be the end of "chick-lit" as a genre label.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:47 AM on April 24, 2006


I also find it interesting that in every case, Viswanathan seems to have improved on the original.

Menard's version is better yet.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:50 AM on April 24, 2006


On what grounds would Harvard expel her?

Oops, I thought she had put the work down on her application to get in. Looks like she didn't sign the deal until after she had dropped 20k. I'd kick her out anyway, but that's just me.
posted by allen.spaulding at 8:57 AM on April 24, 2006


From the first link to the Times article:
Ms. Viswanathan's own parents have been intent on giving her a book party when she gets home from college this summer. "They wanted to have a red carpet strewn with rose petals," she said, her voice rising. "And I've just woken up and I'm still in my pajamas and my mom will call, and she'll say like, 'Kaavya, would you prefer pink or white rose petals?'
Ouch. Maybe they can have the party in Baghdad.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:01 AM on April 24, 2006


This makes me incredibly happpy. A contrived ending to a contrived plot.
posted by jne1813 at 9:04 AM on April 24, 2006


It's been said before, but how do her and Ben Domenech and Mr. Towelie expect not to get caught? Google's a bitch people. A raging, balloon-popping bitch.
posted by bardic at 9:04 AM on April 24, 2006


"Ambulance chasing" meant "hunting for profits in injury," where this plagiarized-but-now-popular-and-valuable book represented a target for such a hunt, as I read mecran01's comment, bugbread.

And who's "Menard"? Did I miss something?
posted by cgc373 at 9:05 AM on April 24, 2006


Our plague of plagiarism smacks of too many people being convinced that success in literature....

Yeah, there's a real plague of plagiarism. In the last ten years we've seen the number of incidents climb by nearly 5000%.

Wait. No we haven't. That's not been the case at all.

This isn't a big deal. As I've said before, there are classes of people where it's imperative they always tell the truth. Academics, scientists, judges, CFOs, generals, etc. "Celebrity authors" isn't one of those classes. This is classic displacement. Nobody knows how to respond, or rather everybody is too afraid to respond to all the lies and blatant disregard of the truth by people who matter like Enron's management or the President and so instead people seize upon a 19 year old student or a former drug addict and crucify them for lying. Kinda like battered wives who abuse their children. I wonder if the future will be forgiving to our authenticity anxiety.

Man, it's amazing how much resentment and envy the blue can draw upon.
posted by nixerman at 9:05 AM on April 24, 2006


No use hating on the woman. As we have seen over and over, there are a lot of people doing this.

to say the least

let's condemn the writer while we read poets like marianne moore, ezra pound, and others, who would lift whole phrases from other writers ...

let's call her a plagarist as we laugh over webcomics made from generic clip art ...

let's hate her as an unoriginal scab while we listen to drum and bass music derived from that infamous "amen break" ...

i can think of a lot more examples ...

what i was getting at in my previous post wasn't that she didn't copy ... but what she copied was so common, one could find similar phrases anywhere

i just find it interesting that one person can do this and be considered a plagarist and others do similar things and they're considered legitimate

what is the difference between plagarism and some postmodern art? ... do we define it, or do the courts and the lawyers? ... is it an artistic question or a legal one?

personally, i feel she flunks the art test, so i guess we're stuck with legalities
posted by pyramid termite at 9:06 AM on April 24, 2006


Viswanathan's novel, page 48: "It was obvious that next to casual hookups, tanning was her extracurricular activity of choice. Every visible inch of skin matched the color and texture of her Louis Vuitton backpack. Even combined with her dark hair and Italian heritage, she looked deep-fried."

Hey, I think I've seen that chick walking around Cambridge. Plagiarism my ass!
posted by rkent at 9:06 AM on April 24, 2006


Google's a bitch people. A raging, balloon-popping bitch.

Actually...the sentences were changed so as to evade Google, as someone pointed out. These similarities were all caught by astute readers of both novels.
posted by vacapinta at 9:08 AM on April 24, 2006


cgc373,

Yeah, that's how I read it too, and I didn't really get it. How is this a target for a hunt for profits in injury (er, well, rather, I understand it could be, but is it so great that you could say that our obsession with plagiarism comes from a desire to hunt for profits in injury?)

On reflection, I'm thinking mecran01 is confusing "ambulance chasing" with "rubbernecking" or "schadenfreude".
posted by Bugbread at 9:09 AM on April 24, 2006


I think that ambulance-chasing in this example refers as to how Megan McCafferty and her lawyer-types have signalled to Little, Brown that they're going to be expecting a share of the proceeds.

If Ms. McCafferty can prove that whatsherharvardface did indeed copy her stuff, the term ambulance-chaser does not apply. More like chick-lit troll. Yeah.

And why does Harvard let all these phonies in anyways? Do they not have enough inbred wasps to go around? It's social misfits like these that have Disneyfied my proud country.
posted by jsavimbi at 9:18 AM on April 24, 2006


This isn't a big deal. As I've said before, there are classes of people where it's imperative they always tell the truth.

It's not like she just made up facts, a la Frey. She lifted actual writing. And the difference between plagiarism and postmodern pastiche is fairly clear to most people. Here, she's lifted serially from a single source, made precise modifications clearly intended to disguise the lifted text, and represented the product as a piece of original prose. Unmasking this does not reveal an intentional comment on originality or play with text, but a banal writer copying another banal writer and covering her tracks.

You could make up a truly fantastic story about your own life and pass it off as a memoir and be accused of dishonesty. But if you do it using someone else's words, it's also theft.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:18 AM on April 24, 2006


pyramid termite : "what is the difference between plagarism and some postmodern art?"

I don't know about that broad categorization, but going with clip art comics and the amen break:

Artists who remix are upfront about remixing.
Artists who plagiarize deny that they do so.

Or, rephrased for accuracy:

An artist who uses other people's works, and admits it readily, is not called a plagiarist.
An artist who uses other people's works, and doesn't admit it, is called a plagiarist.

If she said this work was a mix of other people's work, then, sure, a few MeFites would still be upset (a few MeFites will always be upset), but the number would be way lower.

Of course, the nebulous area is the timing and type of admitting. For example, I've made tracks using the Amen break, but I've never gone and told someone "Hey, this uses the Amen break, which is sampled". If someone asks me, I'll admit it. I'm sure there are plagiarists that lift passages, but don't tell anyone, but if someone confronts them, they'll fess up. We consider the first case "discussing the music", and the second one "catching a plagiarist", but I think this just comes from the background of the two areas. DnB/Jungle is so thoroughly based in sampling that individual artists don't have to fess up in advance, it's understood. Literature, however, uses far less, so it isn't understood, and needs to be said in advance to not be plagiarism.

This sticks out especially with the old days of rap breaking into the mainstream: now, if you sample Led Zeppelin in a hip-hop song, nobody thinks you're a plagiarist, just regular sampling. In the old days, that may have been true within the rap community, but it wasn't in the mainstream music community, which resulted in things like the big "Snow vs. Queen" debacle ("Ice Ice Baby" vs. "Under Pressure")
posted by Bugbread at 9:19 AM on April 24, 2006


Blair Hornstine! White Courtesy telephone, please!
posted by paddbear at 9:23 AM on April 24, 2006


jsavimbi : "I think that ambulance-chasing in this example refers as to how Megan McCafferty and her lawyer-types have signalled to Little, Brown that they're going to be expecting a share of the proceeds."

But that doesn't really fit "ambulance chasing". After all, Megan McCafferty is the injured party. Ambulance chasing is about other, unrelated parties flocking to a wreck to profit.

If Megan McCafferty had gotten in this plagiarism tussle, and a lawyer out of the blue offered his services to sue Viswanathan, that would be ambulance chasing.

And, either way, the initial contention was not that this was an example of ambulance chasing, but that our "whole obsession with plagiarism" smacks of ambulance chasing. Which means our whole obsession comes from us trying to profit off the problem, which I don't see.
posted by Bugbread at 9:24 AM on April 24, 2006


And who's "Menard"? Did I miss something?

Pierre Menard is one of the most under appreciated authors of the 20th century. Despite his obscurity, his Don Quixote ranks as one of the best books ever written!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:34 AM on April 24, 2006


From the Harvard Crimson sub-headline:

"Book by Kaavya Viswanathan ’08 contains similarities to earlier author’s works"

Now, if it had similarities to a later author's works, that's be a story. Or old hat according to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Fans.

Someone else can explain the reference.
posted by Reverend Mykeru at 9:35 AM on April 24, 2006


Kaavya was my student last spring (in a section where I was a TA). I was surprised to learn she had written a book, as her writing was awful-- I had given her low grades on her papers.

I feel bad for her, even though she was always falling asleep in section (as if you don't notice a snoozing person sitting at a conference table for ten). Plagiarizing from chick lit has to be some kind of double whammy against artistic integrity.
posted by mowglisambo at 9:40 AM on April 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


I just thought this whole discussion could be enriched by this article by Malcolm Gladwell, where he discusses being plagiarized and how maybe we overreact about it sometimes.

Personally, when I looked at the passages in question I felt like the author did a decent job of changing them, and that the charge of plagiarism is not clear cut.
posted by bove at 9:42 AM on April 24, 2006


I felt like the author did a decent job of changing them

I don't know. I think the tweaking makes the plagiarism all the more damning. Obviously she was concerned about getting caught, which implies that she knew what she was doing wasn't kosher.

I feel sorry for her though. Freshman year is extremely busy - people would have understood if she said she couldn't make the deadline. The fact that she felt she couldn't push it back speaks to the sort of pressure she felt she was under.
posted by longdaysjourney at 9:48 AM on April 24, 2006


Ah, okay, robocop is bleeding. It went right past me the first time.
posted by cgc373 at 9:53 AM on April 24, 2006


Plagiarism of creative material, however bad the source, strikes me as a much more serious crime than stealing somebody's property. My personal 'obsession' with plagiarists and other hypocrites comes from my respect for authentic creativity and scholarship. I find it alarming that the idea that everyone does it, or that 'she changed it enough' makes it ok.

pyramid termite :as we laugh over webcomics made from generic clip art ...

It's not the art we're laughing at, it's the writing. There is no assumption when we look at these things that they drew the clip art, same with post-modern art that uses visual references that we all recognize as coming form other sources.

what she copied was so common, one could find similar phrases anywhere

Based on what's been provided here, it's obvious she sat typing with this other book by her side, or possible just cut and pasted her way through. That's not a coincidence, that's stealing.
posted by tula at 9:53 AM on April 24, 2006


The "similar phrases anywhere" defense has to account for stuff like this:

From page 237 of McCafferty’s first novel: “Finally, four major department stores and 170 specialty shops later, we were done.”

From page 51 of Viswanathan’s novel: “Five department stores, and 170 specialty shops later,


Or, is "170 specialty shops" some common phrase in this genre?
posted by vacapinta at 9:57 AM on April 24, 2006


I know this story is only tangentially related, but I can't help but be amazed anew at how morally and intellectually impoverished the admissions process at the ivies is. Do not the most creative and clever kids require some room to manuever, explore alternatives, rebel, etc.? Are the brightest kids really the ones who diligently divide each day into prescribed activities?
posted by ori at 9:57 AM on April 24, 2006


Do not the most creative and clever kids require some room to manuever, explore alternatives, rebel, etc.?

Those kids are at Harvard too. Dont generalize from a sample of one.
posted by vacapinta at 10:01 AM on April 24, 2006


Man, this is weird. Looking at the Crimson article I'll buy that there was conscious lifting going on. There's too much of a pattern. But they're such unmemorable, even cliche, passages that it's a wonder anybody remembered they were copied, and why would you do so in the first place? I mean, how many times has the 'Come On, I Want To Talk To You' passage cited in the Crimson article been duplicated in Western literature? If there were only half of these I wouldn't believe it was intentional and I still have a twinge of doubt. The other part of me wonders if there are other novels, maybe in entirely different genres, that she's serially lifted passages from.
posted by furiousthought at 10:04 AM on April 24, 2006


Are the brightest kids really the ones who diligently divide each day into prescribed activities?

Some of them are, some of them aren't. Some of each type get into Harvard. Creative people have all kinds of different ways of getting things done.

The Blair Hornstine incident was the most bizarre and disgusting pile-on I've ever seen here, several front-page posts about a story that shouldn't have been of interest outside of that school district. This one is at least newsworthy, since Viswanathan actually had a book published, but some of these comments are along the same lines. I didn't get into Harvard either. No one thinks less of us for it.
posted by transona5 at 10:10 AM on April 24, 2006


mowglisambo: I don't want to see you get in trouble, and obviously I'm not suggesting that I'd bring it to their attention or anything like that -- but I can't imagine your department would be glad to discover that you're discussing your experience teaching students, and in particular their grades, in a popular public forum.

Maybe if you ask, Matt will remove that comment for you?
posted by BackwardsCity at 10:14 AM on April 24, 2006


someting tells me this blog won't be getting updated any time soon.
posted by mowglisambo at 10:14 AM on April 24, 2006


A devastating blow to the integrity of Chiclets!!!!
posted by Marnie at 10:19 AM on April 24, 2006


"Oh, nonsense. Our plague of plagiarism..."—languagehat

and from furiousthought:

"But they're such unmemorable, even cliche, passages that it's a wonder anybody remembered they were copied, and why would you do so in the first place?"

Ever since I read Harvard psych chair Daniel L. Schacter's popular book on memory, I've been both skeptical and worried about the recent spate of accusations of plagiarism. One of the very common failures of memory is a failure of attribution and specifically an attribution to oneself that is false. He describes one example where everyone involved agreed no plagiarism had taken place where one writer uses almost exactly the same words as another in a lengthy paragraph.

It seems odd to me that the popular culture that readily accepts the (mostly false) idea that through something like hypnosis our brains can serve up oceans of accurate detail of otherwise dimly remembered events, and the same culture that necessarily includes everyone's personal experiences of remembering something but not remembering where it came from, would be a culture that so credulously accepts anything that looks like plagiarism to truly be plagiarism.

In this specific case, the alternate possibility of simple memory error answers furiousthought's question.

I don't know which of these accused plagiarists are guilty and which are innocent, but I do have a strong intuition that we will realize retrospectively that some of them must have been innocent.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:29 AM on April 24, 2006


I felt like the author did a decent job of changing them

Is that what you think writing is? The author pulls a few books off the shelf and starts busily rewriting other people's sentences so they'll sound different enough to pass muster? Somehow I don't think that's how Hemingway and Nabokov did it. And spare me the lecture about how artists always reuse the past, etc; it's one thing for Shakespeare to take plots and characters from history books or Vergil to do variations on Homer, quite another for a submediocre would-be chick-lit writer to sit there copying out sentences from slightly-closer-to-mediocre chick-lit authors and revamping them to avoid Google.

what is the difference between plagarism and some postmodern art?

Ah yes, the old "what is reality? what is 'authorship'? it's all postmodern!" defense. I'm too tired to rant about that today. But it's very silly.

BackwardsCity: What are you, hall monitor? If you really thought that was an issue mowglisambo should be made aware of, there's an e-mail address on the userpage.
posted by languagehat at 10:30 AM on April 24, 2006


"Somehow I don't think that's how Hemingway and Nabokov did it."

As a possible test of what I suggest in my previous comment, a widescale cross-examination of a great many works by authors we, for the most part, are unwilling to believe to be plagiarists might be very useful.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:35 AM on April 24, 2006


re: the conflating of postmodern art and music with the plagiarism of Kaavya Viswanathan:

I think that bugbread has it right. The poet who lifts lines from another poet, or the musician who samples does so with the expectation that those who matter (in the limited sense of the art form's insiders--colleagues, critics, insider aficionados of whatever stripe) will know not only what the reference is, but will appreciate it is contextually appropriate.

The best examples of this are Shakespeare, the Bible and the Amen break (mentioned above), probably. I can not begin to tally in my head how many written works I've read that directly quote ol' Bill or the Good Book without attribution. But they didn't need to. We recognized the phrase, and they knew we would. And usually, the line and the lift is appropriate to the context at hand, at least if they're a good writer.

The difference is (apparently, I'm not a big chick-lit reader), Kaavya didn't reference, she stole. She directly took other peoples writing and changed it enough so that it wasn't an exact copy, and passed it off as being authentically her own.

This is what she's charged with, and it's fundamentally different from the work that postmoderns engage in.
posted by illovich at 10:38 AM on April 24, 2006


languagehat: I agree that Hemingway and Nabokov probably worked differently than the author in question. Part of my point is in reference to the Gladwell article I linked to, and is also supported by Ethereal Bligh's statements. I do think that some authors who are drawing on multiple sources may feel that they have taken something previously written and made it unique and individual to themselves and therefore undeserving of attribution.

In addition, I also feel like what is copyrighted is language, not ideas, and that since she changed the language maybe it isn't plagiarism.

This has nothing to do with the quality of the book. It may be utter crap. My guess is that it is not great if she needed to rework or plagiarize things from other sources. However, that is separate from whether what she did is plagiarize.
posted by bove at 10:40 AM on April 24, 2006


bugbread: And, either way, the initial contention was not that this was an example of ambulance chasing, but that our "whole obsession with plagiarism" smacks of ambulance chasing. Which means our whole obsession comes from us trying to profit off the problem, which I don't see.

We're not profiting in monies, per se, but profiting in the group effort to fan the fires of schaudenfraude and see that this perceived social wrong is percetionally righted.

Perceived because I, for one, do not read crappy books about teen angst, and perceptionally because all everyone is doing is castigating a 19 year-old not-s-normal teenager. If anyone should have their name dragged through the mud, it should be whomever put her up to this nonsense and the parties that allowed it to flourish.

She's the child victim of bad parenting/marketing. I'd like to hear what her parents have to say about those charges.
posted by jsavimbi at 10:42 AM on April 24, 2006


She's the child victim of bad parenting/marketing.

A 19-year-old is perfectly capable of writing a novel and deciding not to plagiarize for herself (apart from Ethereal Bligh's point that memory is more complicated than we think.) The problem isn't that she became too successful too young, or that she's a spoiled, regimented overachiever, or that she fits into some other narrative that sums up everything that's wrong with society today. It's that she plagiarized.
posted by transona5 at 10:52 AM on April 24, 2006


"I do think that some authors who are drawing on multiple sources may feel that they have taken something previously written and made it unique and individual to themselves and therefore undeserving of attribution."

Your point is legitimate, but it is not mine and I don't claim it. My point is that the sole evidence we demand for proof of plagiarism is that some group of words are very much like another group of words and it cannot be explained by coincidence or triviality. If it seems unlikely to us, and the words are the same, we jump right to screaming "plagiarism". But that ignores another alternative, the possibility that it may be much more likely than we think for people to appropriate exact or near-exact phrasing as their own presentation of an idea entirely in innocence and good-faith. We ignore this because people think it just wouldn't happen. That's exactly what some commenters are saying above. But there's scientific evidence that this does happen often enough that it must be considered as a possible explanation.

Furthermore, for all that seems commonsensical that identical sentences and paragraphs can never be unintentional, a bit of reflection on how people actually use language (languagehat, I'm looking at you) reveals that particular expressions of an idea are more attractive than others for various reasons. That is, phrases are catchy. Certain presentations of some idea are more memorable than others not in any sense with regard to the identity of an author, but simply in the specific utility of that exact or near-exact choice of words. Some phrases have personal resonance with each of us, and for the exact, identical reason they have resonance to the reader they will be attractive to that person as a writer. With this in mind, then, to take such a rigid and ungenerous position with regard to plagiarism means that we require writers to avoid at all costs and without exception the exact errors they are most prone to make when they are honestly writing about that which matters greatly to them.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:56 AM on April 24, 2006


LH, I hope you don't take my "languagehat, I'm looking at you" comment as mean-spirited or even intolerant in any way...I meant it good-naturedly.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:01 AM on April 24, 2006


EB: thanks for the clarification. I definitely agree with your point. Just a related issue. I am an academic and I write articles where I have to describe my methodology. It is very difficult for me to explain my analytic and statistical choices in language that has never been used before. To add to the weirdness b/c when I get something published I have to relinquish the copyright, I have to be very careful to avoid plagiarizing myself. Because I have used similar methods I am likely to describe it in the exact same way.
posted by bove at 11:02 AM on April 24, 2006


"Because I have used similar methods I am likely to describe it in the exact same way."

What an odd and sorry state of affairs. At any rate, thank you for your clarification.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:06 AM on April 24, 2006


mowglisambo writes: Kaavya was my student last spring (in a section where I was a TA). I was surprised to learn she had written a book, as her writing was awful-- I had given her low grades on her papers.

This is why I lurve metafilter. Backwardscity, chat on the intarweb is the least of Harvard's concern right now regarding this situation. And as a former TA at a comparably esteemed research institution, I can assure you that TA's and grad. students in general don't really warrant that much attention. (Making them the perfect moles! *wrings hands together*)
posted by bardic at 11:08 AM on April 24, 2006


Your point is taken and understood, EB. If there were only one or two instances of these passages, I'd agree with you. But I think there are enough similarities that she crosses that line. She didn't just borrow a turn of phrase, she lifted and altered descriptive passages. The similarities were notable enough that a (presumably) unbiased reader noticed these things and alerted Mcaffery. One also assumes that that same reader must consume this genre of novels, must know all the cliches of the genre, and yet still - these things struck them, not as stylistic cliches but as plagiarism.

You do agree there's a line somewhere don't you? And I guess discussions where people argue about whether that line is two inches to the left or to the right rarely end in any kind of resolution.
posted by vacapinta at 11:12 AM on April 24, 2006


I adore Nabokov (and Hemingway), and think plagiarism is a very big deal, and bad thing, and fully worthy of a good torches-and-pitchforks mob. But: sigh.
posted by COBRA! at 11:14 AM on April 24, 2006


Ethereal Bligh writes "My point is that the sole evidence we demand for proof of plagiarism is that some group of words are very much like another group of words and it cannot be explained by coincidence or triviality. If it seems unlikely to us, and the words are the same, we jump right to screaming 'plagiarism'. But that ignores another alternative, the possibility that it may be much more likely than we think for people to appropriate exact or near-exact phrasing as their own presentation of an idea entirely in innocence and good-faith."

Well, except when it happens again and again from the same source. I'm sure language is complex, but I'm also pretty sure that this woman plagarized with intent. I've read neither book, but the extracts make it fairly clear that not simply the language, but the situations which made the language permissible, must have been lifted.

I'm curious about those who thought the second versions were better. I thought exactly the opposite, that the attempt to make them new robbed them of any charm they might have had (which was, admittedly, slight to begin with).
posted by OmieWise at 11:14 AM on April 24, 2006


I agree with Ethereal Bligh's view that this was likely unconscious recall of material that she had previously read. Calling it plagiarism when a novel contains a few sentences that are similar to sentences in another novel would be absurd if it wasn't happening so frequently.

For some historical perspective, Helen Keller had a run-in with accusations of plagiarism that she put down to this cause.
posted by alms at 11:20 AM on April 24, 2006


illovich : "The best examples of this are Shakespeare, the Bible and the Amen break"

I love this sentence.
posted by Bugbread at 11:25 AM on April 24, 2006


COBRA!, I'm inclined to accord Nabokov, who was a mnemonically spectacular individual, much greater leeway in the case of a book he probably read or knew about from his time in Germany, and unconsciously drew on for Lolita, some thirty years later, than to accord Viswanathan the same. She must have read these books she's lifted from within the last two or three years, and has read (one presumes) not a tenth of what Nabokov had read, to draw upon in her own writing.
posted by cgc373 at 11:32 AM on April 24, 2006


alms: that story of Helen Keller is great and goes along with Ethereal Bligh's point exactly.
posted by bove at 11:32 AM on April 24, 2006


"You do agree there's a line somewhere don't you?"

Oh, yes. Certainly. And I don't think it's all that ambiguous. Knowing, intentional theft of someone else's words is plagiarism. The ambiguity is how to determine this.

And, truly, a lot of what I thought I knew about memory was destroyed or greatly reshaped by Schacter's book that I now have very little to no confidence in what I otherwise think I know about memory, and what other people commonly think they know about memory. Even with a number of repeated passages as both you and OmieWise point out I am utterly without confidence about any claim as to what is likely or not likely.

I recommend this book often—it's a book written to the popular audience but by an acknowledged leading researcher on memory—because I came away from reading it with the strong impression that "we" very badly misunderstand or are ignorant of memory and as a result we are making a number of important judgments based in this misunderstanding or ignorance. Schacter spends a great deal of time on the various ways eyewitness testimony can be the least credible...yet we commonly accept it to be the most credible. That's just one example. Evaluating a charge of plagiarism is another.

The theme of that book by Schacter is the errors of memory, how they are a product of how memory actually works, and how little we understand those failures, and the practical consequences thereof. I trust in no way my intuition about how likely or unlikely is this young woman's innocence.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:33 AM on April 24, 2006


Errors of memory and simple random chance could explain an occasional lifting of a phrase or a sentence from this or that source over the course of a book-length manuscript. It is vanishingly possible that a long series of passages with striking and non-trivial resemblances to a SINGLE source, and with words clearly strategically substituted to obscure the copying, could happen by error or accident. One of the amazing things about language is that for all the redundancy of our social lives, it is actually very likely that a large number of even the most banal utterances have never been made before in exactly the same way. The odds of this being a case of unconscious influence, failed memory, or sheer chance are slim to none.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:39 AM on April 24, 2006


COBRA!, I'm inclined to accord Nabokov, who was a mnemonically spectacular individual, much greater leeway in the case of a book he probably read or knew about from his time in Germany, and unconsciously drew on for Lolita, some thirty years later, than to accord Viswanathan the same. She must have read these books she's lifted from within the last two or three years, and has read (one presumes) not a tenth of what Nabokov had read, to draw upon in her own writing.

Yeah, I didn't mean to conflate Viswanathan with Nabokov; not the same situation at all. I look at the article I linked as a piece of evidence in favor of what EB said up-thread (which I actually disagreed with, until I remembered reading that Nabokov article a while back).
posted by COBRA! at 11:43 AM on April 24, 2006


I've read neither book, but the extracts make it fairly clear that not simply the language, but the situations which made the language permissible, must have been lifted.

Yeah, but they're such commonplace situations – omg the nonsexual female friend, the Playboy bunny tube top, what groundbreaking notions, I'm inspired, must steal! On the other hand some of the lifted phrasings are so unremarkable that it points back to intentional plagiarism. I mean, if you're going to unconsciously imitate something, it's usually going to be something you think is cool, right? Why would you jack "pause." "another pause." – because it's such a great way of portraying pauses? I don't know. Some of these passage comparisons are pretty lame. I mean, wow, she copied "sweet and woodsy," quick, call the Style Police, two adjectives have been spotted in identical succession, set revolvers to kill, oh wait, they don't have any other setting. But still... it's the overall pattern that makes me lean towards intent.

I agree that McCafferty's bits are a little more psychologically complex.
posted by furiousthought at 11:45 AM on April 24, 2006


EB: Well, I don't buy the claim that people are jumping to accusation based on the assumption that any similar copying is intentional. I can make an argument that these similar passages are less likely to be memory slips based on what I know of memory research.
1: Memory tends to work by dropping details and recreating them on an ad hoc basis. Some copied passages include both sentence structure and arbtrary detail ("170", "pink tube top with a playboy bunny") that should mutate as the line is recalled.
2: One or two slips is not a big deal. But there are so many slips from two novels that are not highly read blockbusters (at least not according to Amazon sales ranks.)

Also, part of the whole craft of writing is to be acutely aware of how you are influenced, and to make your work distinct. Fiction texts are supposed to be intentional. Unintentionally copying catchy phrases and current cliches is sloppy. Sloppy incompetence may not be malicious as intentional copying, but it isn't entirely innocent either. Both options are worthy of criticism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:55 AM on April 24, 2006


Take that, overachiever!

Right On!


posted by jonmc at 11:56 AM on April 24, 2006


"1: Memory tends to work by dropping details and recreating them on an ad hoc basis. Some copied passages include both sentence structure and arbtrary detail ('170', 'pink tube top with a playboy bunny') that should mutate as the line is recalled." (my emphasis)

Is this what you truly know from current memory research or what you think you know of current memory research? Because according to Schacter, this isn't the case. It is not so simple.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:08 PM on April 24, 2006


Harvard Sucks.
posted by bardic at 12:19 PM on April 24, 2006


So my hallmate here at cornell went to high school with this girl, and told me about this book deal a few months ago. He stoned-dialed her last semester which was highly enjoyable to sit in on. Too bad shes a fraud.
posted by Kifer85 at 12:22 PM on April 24, 2006


and harvard sucks.
posted by Kifer85 at 12:24 PM on April 24, 2006


"Because according to Schacter, this isn't the case. It is not so simple."

...and an example occurs to me. When people forget a phone number, are they more likely to forget a single digit or a group of digits, or the entire number? I'd argue that in my experience, it's very unlikely that only a single digit is lost. Note that I'm not making the claim that this is functionally the same as I'm discussing with regard to plagiarism. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. That's not the point. The point is more to demonstrate that what is retained and what is lost is not a matter of pure chance, not statistically comparable to, say, corrupted bits in computer data storage (by cosmic rays, whatever). You're quick to claim that both "170" and "pink tube top" are arbitrary details, but you cannot know that this is the case unless you have a great deal of knowledge of both how memory works generally and how Viswanathan's memory works specifically. The number "170" and the color pink and tube tops may well not be as memorable to her as 218, aquamarine, and tank-tops are. In the production of language, in the description of a mental image, I am unwilling to make claims to what is arbitrary and what is determined. Why do we pick the specific words we do? Do we have functional bags from which we draw specifics at random? How likely is it, in fact, that we would pick and order words truly at random?

And this goes to the heart of an earlier comment which claims a statistical description of the frequency of phrases or sentences. I'm aware of the folkloric claim that a large number of all sentences uttered have never been said before—but I'm not aware the authority of that claim and I'm certainly not going to rely upon an assumption that the basis for this claim rests upon a comprehension of human language such that it can reliably make such a claim. Indeed, I strongly suspect that this folklore rests upon a very, very naive and simplified probabalistic calculation that has no real meaning. I might be wrong. But it is here that I wish the participation of our friend languagehat, a linguist, because I suggest that he more than we has an idea about how likely one person's sentence may match another's.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:26 PM on April 24, 2006


You'd think a phrase like "And this goes to the heart of an earlier comment" would be common. But Google shows not one hit

The phrase is all yours, EB.
posted by vacapinta at 12:36 PM on April 24, 2006


But did EB read this article sometime in the last couple of years? Google doesn't have all the answers. [I guess a "yet" could be appropriate here.]
posted by cgc373 at 12:45 PM on April 24, 2006


That's a compelling example. But I don't really have a framework within which to properly evaluate this. You're going in the right direction and, really, what needs to be done is a rigorous analysis like I suggested earlier that could give us ballpark—quantitatively and qualitatively—within which we could assume unintentional plagiarism occurs.

While I obviously do have some inclinations about all this in light of Schacter's book, I really do not intend to make the opposing argument—I am only express very strong skepticism at the contentional argument which appears in this thread.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:48 PM on April 24, 2006


Wow. Web serendipity. Text from that article: Disclaimer: Harvard does not purposely train criminals, but any that get trained here are, by definition, not dumb. The above opinion is mine, not that of the university.
posted by cgc373 at 12:48 PM on April 24, 2006


Speaking as an author, I think it's reasonably obvious that this was deliberate lifting. Too many items, too many exact parallels, notably all from the same source.

That being said, is there any similarity in plot, character, situation, or intent between the earlier novels and this one? Because if all it is, is the stealing and alteration of maybe a dozen or so descriptive phrases, then it seems a fairly minor deal to me unless more plagiarized bits (from McCafferty's books or from a different source) come to light.
posted by kyrademon at 12:56 PM on April 24, 2006


The blog mowglisambo linked to at 10:14 now has no content; it had three posts a few hours ago, each of them paraphrasing more-or-less famous literary works, such as "It was the best of times . . ." Now a shell.

Not a good sign of good faith, in my view.
posted by cgc373 at 1:59 PM on April 24, 2006


According to MLA guidelines, three or more words that match in series constitutes plagiarism. This book is definitely plagiarized.
posted by nlindstrom at 2:03 PM on April 24, 2006


cgc373, I know, the Dickens reference was portentious, and ironic given today's news. I don't blame her from taking it down.
posted by mowglisambo at 2:08 PM on April 24, 2006


It's worth reading the last link in the FPP. Just for comparison. Way back in 1980, one fairly highbrow author plagiarises another and the plagiarisee gets his revenge by writing a witty, barbed piece in a highbrow newspaper. The plagiariser apologises fulsomely and honour is restored. I can't help but feel that modern life is rubbish.*


*disclaimer: last four words are the name of an album by Blur.
posted by rhymer at 2:14 PM on April 24, 2006


No matter how you apologists contort for this girl, she is not going to fuck any of you.
posted by basicchannel at 2:21 PM on April 24, 2006


nlindstrom writes "According to MLA guidelines, three or more words that match in series constitutes plagiarism."

Well, I think we can all agree that this particular definition of plagiarism is nonsense. Otherwise, nlindstrom is a plagiarizer!
posted by mr_roboto at 2:27 PM on April 24, 2006


LH, I hope you don't take my "languagehat, I'm looking at you" comment as mean-spirited

Far from it! I have enjoyed your discussions of memory in this thread, and I thoroughly agree with you that we have a poor understanding of how it works and are likely to jump to false conclusions; that being said, however, I'm reasonably sure that you're falling prey to the common temptation to let a striking new fact or perspective color your view of things excessively. Yes, in general we should be more cautious than we are about crying plagiarism, but in this particular case I really don't think it's plausible that we're dealing with unconscious memory. As others have said: too many specific liftings from a single source. But I like your standing up for the cowering victim of the mob. She's still not going to fuck you, though.

Oh, and I don't have any special knowledge of the unsaid-sentences thing, but it seems true on the face of it that "a large number of all sentences uttered have never been said before"; you'd have to work very hard to convince me otherwise. That claim is separate, mind you, from the fact that a large number of utterances (Fuck you! Have a nice day!) have been said many, many times before.
posted by languagehat at 2:49 PM on April 24, 2006


languagehat : "a large number of utterances (Fuck you! Have a nice day!) have been said many, many times before."

Google hits:

Fuck you!Have a nice day!Fuck you! Have a nice day!This trivia has been brought to you by the letter B.
posted by Bugbread at 3:05 PM on April 24, 2006


EB: Is this what you truly know from current memory research or what you think you know of current memory research? Because according to Schacter, this isn't the case. It is not so simple.

I'm sorry did I claim it was so simple? Pardon, I don't feel like spending a few hundred posts in the same song and dance as before. And I certainly laced my post with multiple qualifiers that would suggest that I don't consider this "simple."

At least from the lit I've read on this, (including more than a little peer-reviewed stuff) memory is a reconstructive process in which we catch some things as important and then creatively fill in the details as necessary. As a classic example, how many people remember, "Play it again Sam?" over the less essential, less catchy but more accurate, "You played it for her, you can play it for me." (And that probably isn't an accurate quote either.) From a personal example, for years I thought I was quoting Vonnegut as writing, "Let ashes sleep like ashes, let no light disturb their rest" when the actual text is quite a bit different.

What I'm aruging is that each case of similarity, each layer of similarity between the two bodies of work reduces the probability that these are a few innocent slips. I'm not strongly convinced that it's plagairism, not enough that I'd make the decision to reward damages to Ms. McCaffery. But there certainly seems to be enough that McCaffery and her publisher would be well justified in obtaining legal council and expert analysis.

And again. I've allready granted the possibility that this could all be a series of unintentional memory slips. Even giving her that benefit of the doubt, she is still open for criticism as a sloppy and unoriginal writer since trying to avoid those slips is what writers are supposed to do.

I don't see where anyone has proposed formal statistical claims here, and even so, such claims wouldn't depend on the population distribution being "random." For parametric statistics, perhaps, but there is nothing wrong with resampling techniques.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:18 PM on April 24, 2006


There may be a story within the story here - with the Harvard Crimson having set out to "get her" in a sense.

Thus begins a review of her book from last week:

A little-known fact about Harvard students is that we hate each other almost as much as the rest of the world hates us—maybe more. When one of us succeeds, the rest of us go berserk. Public congratulations barely conceal private disgust, which turns out to be an even poorer mask for deep, soul-burning jealousy and crippling self-doubt. The distance from “How could she...” to “Why didn’t I...” to “Undeserving slut” is, unfortunately, short and easily traveled.

Harvard being Harvard, we have by necessity adjusted; it takes a mighty victory to ruffle our proud feathers. How mighty?

Kaavya Viswanathan’s ’08 recently procured $500,000 two-book deal and forthcoming DreamWorks contract seem to have qualified. Almost as soon as her success became public knowledge, Viswanathan became the target of an inspired private butchering.

posted by vacapinta at 3:24 PM on April 24, 2006


I don't know about broad categorizations, but going with clip art comics, the amen break, and whatnot:

Artists who remix are upfront about remixing.
Artists who plagiarize deny that they do so.

Or, if I rephrase for accuracy:

An artist who uses other people's works, and admits it readily, is not called a plagiarist.
An artist who uses other people's works, and doesn't admit it, is called a plagiarist.

If the author said this work was a remix of other author's work, then, sure, a few MeFites would still be upset (a few MeFites will always be upset), but the number would be significantly lower.

Of course, the nebulous area is the timing and type of admitting, I should think. For example, I've personally made tracks using the Amen break, but I've never gone and told someone "Hey, this uses the Amen break, which is sampled". If someone asks me, I'll certainly 'fess up, and I'm sure there are plagiarists that lift passages, but don't tell anyone -- but if someone confronts them, they'll fess up. We consider the first case "discussing the music", and the second one "catching a plagiarist", but I think this perhaps comes from the background of the two areas. DnB/Jungle is so thoroughly based in sampling, for instance, that individual artists don't have to fess up in advance: it is understood. Literature, however, uses far less, so it isn't understood, and needs to be said in advance to not be plagiarism.

This sticks out especially with the old days of rap breaking into the mainstream: now, if you sample Bon Jovi in a hip-hop song, nobody thinks you're a plagiarist, just regular sampling. In the old days, that may have been true within the rap community, but it wasn't in the mainstream music community, which resulted in things like the big "Snow vs. Queen" debacle ("Ice Ice Baby" vs. "Under Pressure".)



Yes, I plagarized that from someone else's comment, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
posted by davejay at 3:39 PM on April 24, 2006


“Immature poets imitate; great poets steal”--T. S. Eliot

Says the poet who "stole" most of "The Waste Land." In a good way. Which is to say, this girl is a plagiarist and should be treated as such. She's hardly trying to present herself as standing on the shoulders of giants.

For anyone trying to defend her, I'd suggest they get in contact with Megan McCafferty and see how she feels about it.
posted by bardic at 4:01 PM on April 24, 2006


Yes, I plagarized that from someone else's comment, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

no, dude: i plagiarized in my earlier comment, you remixed.

wait, by admitting that i plagiarized...d'oh!!!!
posted by lord_wolf at 4:06 PM on April 24, 2006


Well, this comment is a total plagiarization of lord_wolf's, but I've changed enough that even the most intensive Google search won't bring it up.
posted by Bugbread at 4:16 PM on April 24, 2006


Let no one else's work evade your eyes.
posted by cgc373 at 4:19 PM on April 24, 2006


Kifer85: Go Big Red!
posted by Stynxno at 4:52 PM on April 24, 2006


For anyone interested in updates, two articles on the Crimson site: Kaavya Speaks -and- a grim statement from McCaffrey's publishers lawyer.
posted by vacapinta at 5:17 PM on April 24, 2006


From the grim statement:

“As has been previously reported, we helped Kaavya conceptualize and plot the book,” Leslie Morgenstein, the president of Alloy Entertainment, wrote in an e-mail today.


No comment.
posted by languagehat at 5:28 PM on April 24, 2006


EB: Daniel L. Schacter's popular book on memory...

Which book? Amazon lists several.

My own views on eyewitness testimony were reset by Elizabeth Loftus (a book which, oddly enough, I read for a class at Harvard).
posted by cribcage at 5:33 PM on April 24, 2006


I have a question.

Megan McCafferty claims she was alerted to the plagiarism on April 11 via e-mail from a fan. Her publisher, Random House, hand-delivered a letter to Little, Brown yesterday (Sunday) — the same day the Crimson broke this story on its website.

Who tipped off the Crimson?

Maybe it's a coincidence, that Viswanathan’s school newspaper just happened to break this story on the same day that Random House lawyers delivered their letter...but I doubt it.
posted by cribcage at 5:44 PM on April 24, 2006


No matter how you apologists contort for this girl, she is not going to fuck any of you.

But she might say she did.
posted by bunglin jones at 5:59 PM on April 24, 2006


the big "Snow vs. Queen" debacle ("Ice Ice Baby" vs. "Under Pressure".)

I believe you mean "Vanilla Ice vs. Queen". Snow's big hit was "Informer".
posted by ktoad at 7:05 PM on April 24, 2006


Actually, it's Vanilla Ice vs. David Bowie, isn't it?
posted by mowglisambo at 7:12 PM on April 24, 2006


But she might say she did.

only if someone else says it first.
posted by lord_wolf at 7:35 PM on April 24, 2006


nvm, it's bowie & queen. But I'll bet Bowie penned it and Queen took all the credit!
posted by mowglisambo at 7:43 PM on April 24, 2006


"For anyone trying to defend her, I'd suggest they get in contact with Megan McCafferty and see how she feels about it."

Heh. I was on the minority side in that debate, too, but not really because I was defending her so much as I felt that what he did was wrong.

I really can't imagine committing plagiarism; I'm pretty sure I can honestly say that it has never occured to me to do it. But in spite of that (or because of it?) I remain puzzled at the very strong negative feelings it generates in people.

Anyway, I may be far too credulous about claims of innocence in this matter. But it's long seemed to me that something that other people feel is extremely self-evident (two passages are the same? plagiarism.) may be a lot more complicated than we think but right now we're really not that far from that simplistic MLA guideline which, applied indiscriminately, would have absurd results. It seems to me we give zero consideration to the possibility that it might be plagiairism, but unintentional. Helen Keller's story is interesting...I'm curious about how many people here who read it believe or disbelieve her. If we changed the name and obscured the disability-indicating details, would we still be willing to consider innocence?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:51 PM on April 24, 2006


She admits it and apologises.
posted by bonaldi at 8:30 PM on April 24, 2006


galleycat's follow-up further clarifies the role of alloy entertainment/17th street productions, aka the people who brought you sweet valley high ...
And while the 'sphere buzzes with schadenfreude, speculation and wonder that this may well be Freywatch redux, what's lost in the shuffle is the silent middleman in the equation: 17th Street Productions, the book packager responsible for giving the YA world SWEET VALLEY HIGH, GOSSIP GIRL and other YA teen glam books.

Let's go through the timeline: back in 2004, Visnawathan was a high school senior making use of IvyWise -- a five-figure program to help her get into Ivy League schools such as...Harvard. The college counselor she worked with was Katherine Cohen, who also happened to be an author ('Rock Hard Apps: How to Write the Killer College Application") and represented by Suzanne Gluck at William Morris. Visnawathan showed Cohen some of her writing samples, including a 100-page draft of OPAL MEHTA, and ended up in the hands of Jennifer Rudolph Walsh (best known as James Patterson's agent.)

Then Walsh turned around and sent Visnawathan to 17th Street Productions, Why? Because as Walsh told the Boston Globe back in February, she didn't have a "commercially viable" work, having instead written something much darker. 17th Street worked with the young author to "flesh out the concept" of what would become OPAL MEHTA, which sold to Little, Brown on the basis of a few chapters and a detailed plot synopsis.
posted by maura at 8:35 PM on April 24, 2006


I remain puzzled at the very strong negative feelings it generates in people.

1. If everyone did it, we'd have no literature, just a million people submitting the same manuscript with minor changes to defeat simple searches and to get simpletons like those in this thread to say "hurr maybe she just did it by accident."

2. Plagiarizing a retarded genre is actually sadder and more pathetic than writing an original work in that genre.

3. She has had opportunities that some smart kid living in poverty would kill for yet wastes it by being an immoral spoiled thief.

To hell with her and her defenders; anyone who can't tell the difference between borrowing from earlier sources and plagiarism needs to have his fucking head examined.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:51 PM on April 24, 2006


Oh, and her "apology"? A classic "I apologize but I didn't do anything wrong."

"Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel and passages in these books. While the central stories of my book and hers are completely different, I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalised Ms McCafferty's words.

"I am a huge fan of her work and can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious. My publisher and I plan to revise my novel for future printings to eliminate any inappropriate similarities.

"I sincerely apologise to Megan McCafferty and to any who feel they have been misled by these unintentional errors on my part."


Ugh. What a disgusting person.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:54 PM on April 24, 2006


i like how that apology also claims authenticity of authorship, and doesn't mention 17th st./alloy once.

ah well. i'm sure her scruples will serve her well in the i-banker world.
posted by maura at 8:57 PM on April 24, 2006


"She admits it and apologises."

Actually, she asserts exactly my defense of her. And so now we are faced with what I believe might well be deeply unfair to her.

Optimus Chyme and others, you are so damned sure of yourselves in your condemnation. It's reminscent to me of the common conservative mentality (or at least the liberal caricature of it) that almost invariably finds a defendent guilty of a crime by virtue of a sort of reverse "reasonable doubt" thought process. That is, if there's any possible the accused might be guilty, they probable are.

I find this mindset deeply disturbing in people that are otherwise more careful and generous minded.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:00 PM on April 24, 2006


Optimus Chyme and others, you are so damned sure of yourselves in your condemnation.

EB, the point where it's clear she's full of shit is in her changing the phrase "Psych" to "Human Evolution." The concept of "personal space" would not be included in a class on evolution whereas it's perfectly appropriate in a psychology class. She changed it to the closest thing she could think of and it was a deliberate choice, because it's so fucking flat and obviously false in her rewriting. If it were truly an error on her part, and unintentional, she would have used the correct class, instead of struggling to fit something in there as long as it wasn't Psych.

As someone who has written his fair share of (unpublished) fiction, I know exactly where and where my influences are coming from, as well as any borrowings or retellings I use - and I'm just a scrub amateur without an editor and publishing company to check my work. It is impossible for someone without brain damage to take multiple sentences from the same fucking two novels and only change one or two words in each without knowing about it over mutliple drafts and galleys. Her claims of innocence are clearly false to any person who has any experience in reading, writing, or analyzing literature.

It's reminscent to me of the common conservative mentality (or at least the liberal caricature of it) that almost invariably finds a defendent guilty of a crime by virtue of a sort of reverse "reasonable doubt" thought process. That is, if there's any possible the accused might be guilty, they probable are.

Please. All the evidence -

- multiple phrases and sentences
- from the same two novels
- with very minor changes
- that usually do not fit as well as the original

- screams plagiarism. Screams it. If I were grading an essay and saw this kind of evidence, I would immediately mark it a 0 and talk to the head of the department as well as the appropriate student ethics officers.

No one has presented any reasonable defense for her actions. It's not unusual that a smart person under intense pressure will plagiarize; I've seen it happen dozens of times. So why not go with this simple explanation, well supported by the evidence, rather than with some hand-waving bullshit non-apology?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:40 PM on April 24, 2006


No one has presented any reasonable defense for her actions.

No defense of her actions is necessary. The righteous condemnation of her is an empty show. (Heck, it might've even be a publicity stunt. She'll definitely sell a few more copies because of it.) All the various talking heads, big and small, that have appeared and will appear to fret and rant about plagiarism and authenticity are like whores who frets over their makeup. I suspect it's even worse then that, but... What is remarkable is how quickly these public (witch)trials took on the form of ritual. The script already feels old and tired. The internet news story that makes the shocking announcement, the blogs and chattering classes that relentlessly tear at the story, finally the accused confesses and the story is allowed to fade, forgiveness in the form of forgetting. All it needs is an Oprah/Jerry Springer/Dr. Phil-like entity to provide a crisp, closing benediction to the whole affair.
posted by nixerman at 10:11 PM on April 24, 2006


So what you're saying is that because, yes, there are other stories to cover and discuss, and because, yes, the world moves on, that plagiarism is okay? That we shouldn't talk about it at all? That there should be no repercussions, no shame in the theft of others' hard work?

I expected better from you.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:30 PM on April 24, 2006


The righteous condemnation of her is an empty show.

I don't even know what that means. Do you mean that it's inconsequential, in that discussing the story is unlikely to affect its outcome? That's probably true, but (a) discussion can have other results and (b) hardly any news stories are "affected" by folks discussing them over coffee or telephone lines. So what?

I'd say the people being "righteous" are the ones turning up their noses at people who condemn plagiarism. And it's my humble opinion that your "righteous indignation" is born less from a sincere belief that Viswanathan's act is defensible and more from...well, methinks thou doth protest too much.

Ethereal Bligh: Which Schacter book did you read?
posted by cribcage at 10:45 PM on April 24, 2006


I agree with you OC, this "apology" reads just like the Cynthia McKinney "apology." Neither of them actually say they are sorry for the action they have been accused of, just for the way that other people have perceived it. The subtext is that, if no one had gotten upset, it would have been just fine...and clearly they don't really feel sorry at all.

MCKINNEY:
"I am sorry that this misunderstanding happened at all and I regret its escalation and I apologize. " [not "I am sorry I hit a police officer"]

VISWANATHAN:
"I sincerely apologise to Megan McCafferty and to any who feel they have been misled by these unintentional errors on my part." [not "I sincerely apologize to people who thought they were paying for something I created instead of cut, pasted, and sanitized with a Thesaurus"]

Oh, and naturally they both have to use the passive voice, a la "Mistakes Were Made"

VISWANATHAN:
"there are similarities between some passages in my novel and passages in these books" [not "I wrote similar passages"]

MCKINNEY:
"There should not have been any physical contact in this incident." [not "I should not have made physical contact"]

Both of them took fairly understandable mistakes and made them a lot worse by refusing to take responsibility. The only question now is whether Viswanathan is going to reach for the race card...
posted by banishedimmortal at 10:56 PM on April 24, 2006


cribcage: Ethereal Bligh: Which Schacter book did you read?

He can't remember, but it's probably what I read, and which comes up first on Amazon: The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers.
posted by daksya at 11:10 PM on April 24, 2006


Hi, maura!
posted by cgc373 at 11:54 PM on April 24, 2006


Arguing over orgiginality in chick-lit is like two bald women fighting over a comb. (With apologies to Borges)
posted by rhymer at 11:57 PM on April 24, 2006


The righteous condemnation of her is an empty show.

as is so much righteous condemnation these days ... it's a ritual dance ... the finding of the fault ... the awkward scurrying of the accused ... the cries of outrage and attempts to troll for other people's outrage ... and last of all the mumbled half-apologies of the accused and the arguments over how sincere the apology was

actually, i wasn't defending her, i was trying to get the issue into perspective with other similar cultural trends ... one can argue, of course, that sampling is a "given", but that's an understanding between people in the know, isn't it?

from the last linked crimson article -

According to legal experts, infringement litigation operates under a “different standard” than plagiarism. They said that it is possible to plagiarize a work without infringing on its copyright.

“Plagiarism is passing off one’s work as your own, but that doesn’t necessarily make it copyright infringement,” Justin Hughes, the director of the intellectual property law program at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, said. “In an infringement action, a person can use a ‘fair use’ defense. That is, that they didn’t use so many words as to be guilty of infringement.”


and so it goes ... the artistic minded people carry on about how she's committed an artistic crime ... while the lawyers shrug it off ...

mccafferty's books are now going to probably sell even more copies ... a few interviews in the right places about how she feels outraged and violated should pay off for her handsomely

for various reasons ... not the least of which is the recombinant nature of many of our popular arts, many younger people seem to think this kind of copying is alright ... we can get indignant about it all we want, but i'd bet we're going to see a lot more of it

what's inherent about literature that makes it somehow different than cliched filled movies, music and video games full of cops off of other works? ... sure, you say, it's "given" that people don't do that when they write books, and it's "understood" that dance music composers do ... but is that an actual artistic law or just a convention? ... and what if the coming generation decides that convention doesn't work for them?

the lawyers have already admitted that a lawsuit by the plagarized is dubious ... so what's left? ... outrage? ... over chick lit?

hey, if it makes you feel better ...
posted by pyramid termite at 12:58 AM on April 25, 2006


Ohh, I'll try to cut short a very long post.

Let's drop the language of guilt, innocence, intent and plagiarism. A manuscript that has multiple flaws in it is delivered to a publisher. The publisher prints the manuscript. Multiple flaws in the manuscript are discovered that make both the author and the publisher look bad. The publisher takes the heat for letting those errors get to press, the author takes the heat for including those errors. That's how getting published works. It doesn't matter if you write one column a week for the local newspaper, a peer reviewed academic paper, or a novel. It does not matter if the problem is an error of fact or an error of attribution or defamation. It does not matter if the error was intentional or unintentional. Each publication puts the reputation of the author and the publisher at risk. The authors get the worst of the blame if there is a problem with the manuscript, but they get most of the credit if it's a great manuscript. If you don't like accepting that risk, don't accept publication.

Ms. Viswanathan has admitted to being guilty of negligence demanding at least a revision. Little, Brown & Co. consider this serious enough to investigate. So far, both of the two key stakeholders who should be defending Opal Mehta are admitting there is a problem with the current edition. (Dreamworks will probably just bury the movie rights someplace dark and legal.) Hasn't the fat lady sung on this? Is there any question that there is a problem with Opal Mehta, and that most of the responsibility for this problem rests on her Viswanathan's shoulders?

6 weeks ago my van was t-boned by a driver who, for reasons unknown to me, pulled out from a stop sign and right into the driver-side door. The first things she said to me were something like, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it." (What I really wanted to hear was, "an ambulance is on the way.") The high probability that she really didn't intend to bust up my knee is not going to replace the money I pay in doctor's bills, my van, the lost wages, or the lost mushroom season this year.

Quite thankfully, neither the traffic laws of the State of Indiana or the insurance companies are eager to consider intent in judging guilt or innocence. Car one refused to yield right of way to car two, resulting in a collision that caused personal injury. The driver of car one is at fault, and the insurance policy on car one is responsible for damages to the passengers of the other vehicles.

We can quibble until the cows come home about the definition of plagiarism, and whether it was intentional or unintentional. What matters is that there is a problem with the manuscript, and the primary responsibility falls person listed as the author.

pyramid termite: what's inherent about literature that makes it somehow different than cliched filled movies, music and video games full of cops off of other works?

Who is saying it is different? But you are mixing up a few things here. There is a big difference between working within the cliches of a genre, and copying the work of others with trivial changes and passing it off as your own.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:15 AM on April 25, 2006


PT: Outrage per se isn't likely to make a person feel better, but outrage plus action might.
And this definitely should ...

Announcing two new literary prizes!

*The MehtaMorphosis Award*
$75.00 goes to the individual who submits the best idea for the moral of the Kaavya Viswanathan story.
Clearly, there is a lesson to be drawn from these tragic events -- a fundamental ethical principle of which we all need reminding.
But precisely what is it???
Something about specialness, or entitlement, or grandiosity, perhaps. One thing is certain: whatever it is, rarely has this philosophical truth been so dramatically illustrated.
Whoever sends us the most eloquent formulation of the moral of the Viswanathan story by 5:00 p.m. Wednesday will receive a check for $75 plus a certificate honoring them for their wisdom and perspicacity. In addition, every truly original entry will be acknowledged with an Honorable Mention and a listing (with full publication credit!) at http://www.stalcommpol.org/raksasa.html

And ...
A $150.00 *Stalcommpol Whistleblower Award* goes to the individual who first gave The Crimson the idea for the Viswanathan plagiarism story! Please send us appropriate documentation (such as a copy of the e-mail with your original news tip) and instructions as to whether you would like to be credited.

E-mail jherms@stalcommpol.org or fax (617) 547-0858
James Herms
Partner
Student-Alumni Committee on Institutional Security Policy, Inc.
Cambridge, Mass.
www.stalcommpol.org
posted by James Herms at 1:30 AM on April 25, 2006


"Her claims of innocence are clearly false to any person who has any experience in reading, writing, or analyzing literature."

No it's not. I'm one of those people. Why do you think you're special or have secret knowledge? It's childish to assert this kind of authority.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:13 AM on April 25, 2006


Ethereal Bligh, I think the burden of proof here lies on you to come up with an example of this sort of memory hiccup occuring. I do not buy it.
posted by onalark at 4:36 AM on April 25, 2006


I'm one of those people. Why do you think you're special or have secret knowledge? It's childish to assert this kind of authority.

Just come up with an actual defense or rebut specific points instead of merely saying "no, she didn't do it."
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:03 AM on April 25, 2006


Onalark is bang on the money here. I write for a living and if I did something like this I'd expect to be hauled across the coals. One or two 'inspired' scenes you might get away with; dozens no way. Ethereal Bligh, why are you defending her? Whether she gets away with it or not, she dishonestly passed someone's work off as her own. End of story.
posted by rhymer at 5:15 AM on April 25, 2006


EB, you're always clear and cogent and very often right; Optimus often flies off the handle and says things I disagree with—but this is absolutely on the money, and you really do seem to be taking perverse pleasure in arguing the minority view without pausing to consider that there might be good reasons for its being a minority view. I have no desire to lynch poor li'l Kaavya (though I do desire that she not succeed), and I'm perfectly OK with saying she's young, things got out of control, she didn't mean any harm... but it really is plagiarism. Just because the line between male and female is fuzzy and there are biologically indeterminate cases doesn't mean it's impossible to say, in a given case, "this is a woman." And this is plagiarism. You're getting caught up in your general argument about memory and not paying enough attention to the details of this case.
posted by languagehat at 5:35 AM on April 25, 2006


The New York Times has an article on this today. Two takeaway points in it that haven't already been covered by this thread (as far as I can tell):

--the NYT counts "at least 29" passages that are "strikingly similar", a good deal more than the Crimson's count of 13;
--Alloy Entertainment actually holds the copyright along with Kaavya Viswanathan--she doesn't hold the copyright by herself. So "flesh[ing] out the concept" as described in maura's post above must have involved a good deal more than just constructive criticism.
posted by Prospero at 6:12 AM on April 25, 2006


Ethereal Bligh, I think the burden of proof here lies on you to come up with an example of this sort of memory hiccup occuring. I do not buy it.

I think the Hellen Keller example posted to above actually is a good example. Helen Keller has a lot of credibility in my mind, and she gave a good explanation of how she incorporated multiple ideas and words from another story without realizing that it was not her own work. It convinced me that unconscious plagiarism can occur, even up to the level found in Opal Mehta.
posted by Emera Gratia at 7:08 AM on April 25, 2006


Emera Gratia: I think the Hellen Keller example posted to above actually is a good example. Helen Keller has a lot of credibility in my mind, and she gave a good explanation of how she incorporated multiple ideas and words from another story without realizing that it was not her own work. It convinced me that unconscious plagiarism can occur, even up to the level found in Opal Mehta.

I think if you actually read the Hellen Keller piece, Keller admits profusely that her plagiarism was a bad thing, and the mark of a naive writer: "'There is no way to become original, except to be born so,' says Stevenson, and although I may not be original, I hope sometime to outgrow my artificial, periwigged compositions. Then, perhaps, my own thoughts and experiences will come to the surface."

Well yes, unconscious errors of attribution occur all the time. So do unconscious errors of fact, unconscious errors of spelling and grammar, and unconscious errors of logic and rhetoric. The craft in writing comes from conscious criticism of your own work over and over again to identify and minimize those errors.

I did the same thing as Hellen Keller when I was first learning to write in my first "published" work in an elementary school yearbook. 28 years later, I'm experienced enough to know that it would be a problem for manuscripts I prepare today.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:40 AM on April 25, 2006


languagehat: What worries me about this case is that there are young adult authors who can craft good manuscripts that avoid errors of attribution. Is the industry going to just pass this off as just immaturity and avoid working with young authors in the future?

And honestly, some of the complaints about young adult and adolescent "chick-lit" are embarrassingly ill-informed and sloppy. I'm not especially fond of "chick lit" but I don't find it to be much worse or formulaic as a genre than sci-fi, horror or mystery these days. I'd rather read a Louise Rennison or Francesca Block than to try to slog my way through another R. A. Salvatore or one of the dozen mystery novels published every year in the Agatha Christie style.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:01 AM on April 25, 2006


...unconscious errors of attribution occur all the time.

I've heard this before, mostly from students in the form of, "Oh, I must have forgotten to write the endnote," and it's bullshit. If you didn't intend to pass off the text as your own, you'd have blockquoted it. If you didn't intend to pass off the text as your own, you'd have used quotation marks. When I see a blockquote without an endnote, that's when I'll buy that the author "forgot" the attribution.

That said, I think EB has something. I do think it's possible to internalize text and parrot it later without realizing its source. Let's remove Viswanathan from the equation, because I think it's unlikely that phenomenon explains 29 different passages. But I take EB's point to be that using "the Google method" to identify intentional plagiarism has achieved a reputation akin to fingerprinting as a foolproof method — and it's worth pointing out that despite popular belief, fingerprints have repeatedly been shown not to be perfectly accurate.

I'd also point out this aside from today's Globe:
Viswanathan and her novel, which arrived in stores this month, have been the talk of the publishing world, partly because of the size of the contract for so young a writer -- she was 17 when she got it -- but also for the role a book packager played in developing the plot of a novel. Packagers are normally employed in specialized nonfiction books such as nature guides and picture books, and sometimes actually deliver finished books that bear a publisher's name more as a distributor.

In this case, Viswanathan's agent referred her to Alloy Entertainment because her original idea for a novel was considered too dark. The semicomic plot involves parents trying to develop a girl's social life so she'll get into Harvard. While Viswanathan said the plot was her idea, she acknowledged in a February interview with the Globe that Alloy had played a major role in fleshing out the concept.

Leslie Morgenstein, president of Alloy, which holds the copyright along with her, said by e-mail yesterday that his firm did not help Viswanathan with any of the actual writing. 'We helped Kaavya conceptualize and plot the book," he said. 'We are looking into the serious allegations before commenting further."

A few literary agents contacted yesterday by the Globe raised eyebrows at the packager's active role in conceptualizing the novel. 'We would never recommend to an author that they share copyright for something as minor as refining a concept," said Boston-area literary agent Doe Coover.
Purely from a public relations tactical standpoint, it appears that Viswanathan and Little, Brown got suckered into releasing their statements prematurely yesterday (by Random House, which obviously planted the stories in the Crimson and yesterday's Globe). If she hadn't rushed into an apology (complete with an admission that she read both McCafferty's books) and they had been able to weather another 36 hours of "no comment" to plot their strategy, they might have been able to shift the blame to Alloy.
posted by cribcage at 8:03 AM on April 25, 2006


cribage: "That said, I think EB has something. I do think it's possible to internalize text and parrot it later without realizing its source."

I've always been taught that falls into the class of attribution errors. Just to clarify.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:10 AM on April 25, 2006


ktoad : "I believe you mean 'Vanilla Ice vs. Queen'. Snow's big hit was 'Informer'."

D'oh!! You're right.

rhymer : "Ethereal Bligh, why are you defending her? Whether she gets away with it or not, she dishonestly passed someone's work off as her own. End of story."

Aw, hell, even I can answer that: In EB's opinion, it is unclear whether or not she dishonestly passed someone else's work off as her own, and hence it is not, in EB's opinion, the end of the story. I don't agree with EB, but I understand his position. He's not defending her even though it is clear to him that she is guilty, he's defending her because it isn't clear to him that she's guilty.

However, I disagree with EB. EB, what you say is true. She may be innocent. However, in my opinion, the possibility is vanishingly small. I would say she is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Not beyond any doubt whatsoever, but beyond a reasonable doubt. And you may think that this is unfair, but I have a good imagination, and I can imagine, for any situation, a possible but unlikely scenario in which the person in question is innocent. I can imagine, with enough effort, a situation where Hitler was actually defending the jews and a secret cabal of Mauris and bowling enthusiasts framed him. We cannot hold out for absolute certainty, or we become paralyzed. Hence our focus on "beyond a reasonable doubt". So, yes, what you say is true, there is a non-zero chance of her being innocent. However, I believe the chance lies so close to zero that to judge her as guilty is not unreasonable.
posted by Bugbread at 8:22 AM on April 25, 2006


Is an "attribution error" like a "wardrobe malfunction"?
posted by cribcage at 8:23 AM on April 25, 2006


Bugbread: I guess, then, on the balance of probabilities I do not really understand EB's position - as I do not see how there can be any reasonable doubt in anyone's mind that she is a plagiarist.
posted by rhymer at 9:13 AM on April 25, 2006


I think EB's point is getting lost because he chose a terrible example (Viswanathan) to argue it.

I think he's saying that, just because X came from Y, that doesn't necessarily denote intentional plagiarism. And while we might reply, "Yes, but X was a 14-word sentence and that's statistically improbable," EB might answer, "It's also statistically improbable that someone could remember the first 31,811 digits of pi, but a guy did. Hypnosis can reliably retrieve specific and accurate details from our memories — details which, for all practical purposes of everyday retrieval, simply aren't there. We don't know how memory works. So it's possible this 14-word sentence popped into the author's mind without her realizing its source."

In Viswanathan's case, that seems to have happened at least 29 times, which stretches EB's explanation far, far beyond its breaking point. Bugbread nailed it with "reasonable doubt." But I get what EB is saying nonetheless, and I think it's an interesting point.
posted by cribcage at 9:34 AM on April 25, 2006


EB might answer, "It's also statistically improbable that someone could remember the first 31,811 digits of pi, but a guy did.

I would hope not, because that makes no sense. It would be improbable if he just recited numbers off the top of his head and they matched pi exactly, but unusual hobbies aren't statistically improbable when there are 6 billion people on the planet.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:49 AM on April 25, 2006


It's also stastistically unlikely that, had she recalled them without consciously realising she was using someone else's work, she would have them changed them in such as way as to fool Google.

But hey I guess it's possible.
posted by rhymer at 10:26 AM on April 25, 2006


Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to see if I can walk through a wall.
posted by rhymer at 10:28 AM on April 25, 2006


I'm hoping EB will return to this thread, because I'm very curious to see what he has to say in response to those who have commented since he last posted.
posted by languagehat at 10:31 AM on April 25, 2006


All this screaming of "plagiarism" has me wondering what people (other than EB) think actually happened. This woman has written a 320 page novel. There are a couple of dozen instances of similar phrasings in similar situations. Do people think that she flipped through the other woman's novel, pulled out sentences, and paraphrased them in her own novel? That sounds like an awful lot of work to me.

Now, if this was a piece of non-fiction, and there was a passage about a particular historical event, for example, I could see that being plagiarism. But in this case it seems much more likely to me that she internalized the language of the other novels, and unconsciously brought it back up when she wrote her own.
posted by alms at 10:53 AM on April 25, 2006


It's a good question, although not one that disproves the charge of plagiarism, which I continue to think does not need the contingent quotes around it. I'm not sure what happened, but I would guess that she turned to the novels to get herself out of spots where she was blocked. I've not read any of them, but I would guess that she took situations and sentences out of the novels she copied in order to help her when she couldn't figure out what to do next.
posted by OmieWise at 11:03 AM on April 25, 2006


Debra Pickett, who reviewed the book for the Chicago Sun-Times, comments about this in her blog.
posted by Prospero at 11:03 AM on April 25, 2006


Wow, like, that blog thing, that's like the worst written thing I've ever read (except for those excerpts of Frey's book). Excellent.
posted by OmieWise at 11:09 AM on April 25, 2006


All this screaming of "plagiarism" has me wondering what people (other than EB) think actually happened. This woman has written a 320 page novel. There are a couple of dozen instances of similar phrasings in similar situations. Do people think that she flipped through the other woman's novel, pulled out sentences, and paraphrased them in her own novel? That sounds like an awful lot of work to me.

Yes, I do think that. Plagiarists will often wind up doing more work than they would have if they just wrote the damn thing themselves.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:21 AM on April 25, 2006


cribcage nailed what I was trying to say. The benefit of the doubt becomes more and more tenuous with each additional similar bit of text.

But I'm willing to grant Viswanathan the use of the Hellen Keller "defense" as long as that "defense" includes something like Hellen Keller's admission that her unintentional plagiarism revealed that she was a bad writer at that point in her career and that she needed to become a better writer.

alms: There are a couple of dozen instances of similar phrasings in similar situations. Do people think that she flipped through the other woman's novel, pulled out sentences, and paraphrased them in her own novel? That sounds like an awful lot of work to me.

Quoting someone else is the easiest part of writing in my opinion. It certainly beats writing, and a revision cycle that may involve examining every passage a few dozen times.

But in this case it seems much more likely to me that she internalized the language of the other novels, and unconsciously brought it back up when she wrote her own.

This could be true, but if it's true it offers no defense. Even if we take Viswanathan's confession at face value, (and I'm more than willing to grant that) then she deserves criticism for delivering an unoriginal and sloppy work that the publisher might find prudent to kill as softly and quickly as possible.

I'm wondering if this conversation would be any different if were were talking about fudged figures from an established researcher rather than plagiarized passages from a young college student?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:35 AM on April 25, 2006


Yeah, me too. There seems to be an underlying assumption that those criticizing the writer are just haters out for a witch hunt. But this woman is now a public figure who made a bunch of money off this book and the deals that it got her. Why is it excusable that she did something like this; and with the preponderance of the evidence here, why should we give her the benefit of the doubt. She's got $500k reasons to have done this, not to mention the nice peach of a career as a novelist. I'd love a career as a novelist.
posted by OmieWise at 11:46 AM on April 25, 2006


To me plagiarism has connotations of intent as much as incompetence. The researcher who fudges figures or the historian who paraphrases paragraphs knows what they are doing. Ditto for someone who does a rough rewrite of an English lit essay.

The element of intention is an important part of the definition because the words "plagiarism" and "plagiarist" have strong moral connotations. They describe behavior that is unethical, not simply incompetent.

I'm fully willing to grant that Viswanathan is incompetent and that her work included someone else's words. I'm not ready to grant, based on existing evidence, that she intentionally copied someone else's words into her work. If that meets your definition of plagiarism, fine, but be mindful that the meaning of the word goes well beyond that.
posted by alms at 12:15 PM on April 25, 2006


Look, one or two similar phrases, ok. 16-20, no way. She plagarized. I'm not sure what the benefit is to giving her the benefit of the doubt here.
posted by OmieWise at 12:28 PM on April 25, 2006


Looks like Kaavya's fake apology didn't wash with everyone
posted by banishedimmortal at 12:57 PM on April 25, 2006


This woman has written a 320 page novel. There are a couple of dozen instances of similar phrasings in similar situations. Do people think that she flipped through the other woman's novel, pulled out sentences, and paraphrased them in her own novel?

As OmieWise said, it's easy to imagine that she used this as a technique to jumpstart herself out of writer's block. Or, maybe she simply kept a notebook and jotted down phrases she liked while reading McCafferty's books. Plenty of writers (and readers) keep a reader's notebook for quirky words or colorful verbs to build their own lexicons. From the descriptions of her personality and academic record, it's not hard to imagine that, where other people typically jot down words or phrases, she was jotting down entire paragraphs which eventually found their way into her own manuscript.
posted by cribcage at 1:11 PM on April 25, 2006


I'm not ready to grant, based on existing evidence, that she intentionally copied...

From banishedimmortal's link: "[Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum] noted that there are approximately 40 cases where Opal mirrors passages from McCafferty's works."

If 40 instances doesn't establish intent, what would?
posted by cribcage at 1:15 PM on April 25, 2006


Well, this thread has finally come full circle.
From the Harvard Independent:

Former TF Disses Kaavya

What do you think, Mowglisambo?
posted by banishedimmortal at 2:29 PM on April 25, 2006


Whoa! I'm just glad they didn't quote my snark at BackwardsCity, which I hereby humbly retract. Obviously the warning was in order. We live in interesting times.
posted by languagehat at 2:45 PM on April 25, 2006


MeTa.
posted by languagehat at 3:01 PM on April 25, 2006


But I scooped Matt on this one! Yeah!
posted by banishedimmortal at 3:04 PM on April 25, 2006


127 comments makes you prolific these days? Sheesh.

Suck it Harvard Independent.
posted by bardic at 3:34 PM on April 25, 2006


bannishedimmortal is a Matt-scooper.

(Is that sentence unique, or what?)
posted by cgc373 at 3:56 PM on April 25, 2006


Has anyone commented upon the fact that, if you look at what she borrowed, she actually made the writing wordier and worse. She can only hope to be half the writer McCafferty is.
posted by skepticallypleased at 4:25 PM on April 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


An update from Publisher's Lunch:

...Many of the passages cited have similar (and in a few cases identical) page numbers as well, indicating that the "unconscious . . . similarities" often occurred at similar points in the respective books.

An additional section asserts an extensive overview of "identical scenes, plot points, and characters" shared between the books in question claiming, among other things, that "Every major character in Viswanathan's novel . . . is clearly modeled after a character from Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings.


My emphasis there, on the page numbers. Kind of puts the "unconscious borrowing" idea to rest, no?
posted by mothershock at 4:49 PM on April 25, 2006


Oy. I like a good plagiarism pile-on as much as anyone, but with statements like this:

“As has been previously reported, we helped Kaavya conceptualize and plot the book,” Leslie Morgenstein, the president of Alloy Entertainment, wrote in an e-mail today.

And the stuff about her parents (and the extremely expensive coaching they bought for her while she was in high school) I'm starting to see a girl constructed and produced for success, who is a little too eager to please. I'm even starting to feel a little sorry for her.

Or maybe it's just time for another cup of tea.
posted by jokeefe at 6:07 PM on April 25, 2006


Yes. particularly from the community she is from. It's extremely competitive amongst the indians in the US, they use their children as 'assets' - I've seen my ex sister in law plan her 3 y.o's 'play dates' and 'baseball' practice though neither of his parents ever had one. They want to make him 'american' and 'fit in' and yet he will be trained in classical indian music and the scriptures. they want it all and will jealously compete with other parents to check their darling's progress, in everything from the first tooth to grades in school.
posted by infini at 6:46 PM on April 25, 2006


Do people think that she flipped through the other woman's novel, pulled out sentences, and paraphrased them in her own novel? That sounds like an awful lot of work to me.

And yet that's *exactly* what she seems to have done. The naivety is striking, but far more believable than the notion that all of these similarities are the result of "unconscious" borrowing.
posted by mediareport at 7:17 PM on April 25, 2006


I'm not very interested in defending any specific case; my real interest is in bringing attention to inadvertant plagiarism so that those concerned can be far more erudite on the topic and collectively we can come up with some metrics and standards that are fair with regard to the honest well-meaning inadvertant plagiarist.

With that said, here's what I think might be a very helpful Google search result on indadvertant plagiarism. (Actually, a bit more focused than that.)

I'm not sure why this especially matters to me—I suppose it's what I said earlier: that at the present time, for most people an airtight charge of plagiarism only requires two passages that are so similar that "common sense" requires that it be thought intentional.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:44 PM on April 25, 2006


OTOH, the firm who was hired to 'guide' her plot could have given her the books and said, hey, we want something like this... and could she then not have been... "inspired"?
posted by infini at 11:20 PM on April 25, 2006


at the present time, for most people an airtight charge of plagiarism only requires two passages that are so similar that "common sense" requires that it be thought intentional.

That's a completely overstated straw man. Here and in general, I'd say.
posted by mediareport at 11:49 PM on April 25, 2006


EB: I'm not very interested in defending any specific case; my real interest is in bringing attention to inadvertant plagiarism so that those concerned can be far more erudite on the topic and collectively we can come up with some metrics and standards that are fair with regard to the honest well-meaning inadvertant plagiarist.

Ok, to start with, let's take the author out of the question for a moment and start with the manuscript. There is no such thing as a perfect manuscript. Depending on the severity of the problems, some of the required actions can include (in increasing orders of severity):
0: ignoring them.
1: an apology.
2: a disclaimer.
3: a revision to future editions.
4: pulling the manuscript from publication pending revision.
5: royalties or economic settlements to the harmed parties.
6: removing the work from publication entirely.

So far, it seems that the problems with this case are severe enough that Ms. Viswanathan has offered 1 and 3.

In regards to what is "fair" to the "honest well-meaning inadvertent plagiarist." I don't think it is an issue:

No manuscript has an entitlement to publication. No manuscript has an entitlement to a good grade either. If the created work does not meet the minimum standards, including standards for originality and proper attribution of sources and influences, then the work shouldn't be accepted. Depending on how badly it fails those standards, it may or may not be a good idea to give the author a chance to fix the problems.

Most authors are independent contractors. How many independent contractors get asked back if they make a mistake that costs their client a lot of money, discomfort, and a loss of reputation? How many independent contractors can expect good recommendations if they deliver a bad job? So why should honest well-meaning inadvertent plagiarists get some special consideration over honest well-meaning inadvertently bad lawyers, truck drivers, plumbers, carpenters, doctors, dentists and landlords?

I'd say this is slightly unfair. Little, Brown & Co. share some blame for letting something like this reach publication. But the primary responsibility rests on the shoulders of the author for delivering an original publication according to contract.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:00 AM on April 26, 2006


Ethereal Bligh writes "at the present time, for most people an airtight charge of plagiarism only requires two passages that are so similar that 'common sense' requires that it be thought intentional."

You certainly didn't take that from this discussion. In fact, multiple people raised the recurrent nature of the problems with this book in this thread and you continued to argue that it shouldn't be consigned to plagiarism. That seems pretty clear. I think sometimes you don't want to make judgements because it requires seeming to ignore disconfirming evidence, when at times I think one can take account of disconfirming evidence and still make a judgement.
posted by OmieWise at 5:35 AM on April 26, 2006


OK, that Publishers' Lunch info about page numbers, characters, and plot points is pretty damning, if true. Unless she's some sort of unconscious mneumonic polymath, it's hard to see how this could have been inadvertant.
posted by alms at 7:08 AM on April 26, 2006


It seems as if the publishers of McCafferty's books aren't buying her apology or her explanation
posted by darsh at 7:13 AM on April 26, 2006


I'm not very interested in defending any specific case; my real interest is in bringing attention to inadvertant plagiarism...

You disappoint me, EB. There's a fine line between "bringing attention" and just disrupting threads with increasingly irrelevant disquisitions on some related topic. Yes, inadvertent plagiarism is a good topic and you've had some interesting things to say about memory, but we're talking about a specific case here, and unless you're willing to come down from the clouds and say something about it you're just irritating people. Is it not possible to 1) believe that there is such a thing as inadvertent plagiarism, and 2) at the same time acknowedge that it does not apply here? You almost seem to be coming off as rejecting the entire notion of plagiarism—which is a defensible position, to be sure (though one I intensely dislike), but if it's yours, be explicit about it.
posted by languagehat at 7:56 AM on April 26, 2006


A PDF from Publisher's Marketplace outlining all of the "similar passages" -- which I think at last count has risen to 45 in number.
posted by mothershock at 9:29 AM on April 26, 2006


Jesus, I really have little patience for many of you apologists. Having studied and taught at the university level, let me assure you of something that is true in both community colleges and at Harvard--

inadvertant plagiarism=plagiarism

It's really that simple.

If you're an undergrad, you generally suffer consequences ranging from getting an F on a given paper or exam. Most professors and TA's will be more than happy to take you aside and explain, in painstaking detail, what you did wrong so that it doesn't happen again. If you're a graduate student or professor, you have no excuse and should expect to suffer harsher consequences.

In this case, given Viswanathan's profit motive (obvious) and my sense that she fancied herself a wunderkind (MHO), I have no sympathy for her. She took a gamble, and she got caught red-handed. As I mentioned in my blog, to bring this to the level of Bloomian agon is ridiculous. This ain't anxiety of influence EB, it's frickin' lying.
posted by bardic at 10:48 AM on April 26, 2006


holy shit looking at those passages in the pdf i can definitely conclude that those are two terrible fucking books
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:51 AM on April 26, 2006


The Sepia Mutiny thread contains a comment providing a link to Viswanathan's interview on the Today show (IE only) about the situation.

In the interview she says that she read both McCafferty books 'three or four times' which to me means that she perhaps should have been more aware of the danger of 'unintentionally' plagiarising them (unintentional is the line she's sticking to).

inadvertant plagiarism=plagiarism

It's really that simple.

Completely agree, although the slight changes to the source material suggest to me that it wasn't all that inadvertent.
posted by drill_here_fore_seismics at 11:05 AM on April 26, 2006


One interesting thing that comes from looking at the PDF is that Viswanathan doesn't seem to always understand pop-cultural references in her own writing (or in what she's allegedly plagiarizing). The change from Sabrina to Miss Moneypenny doesn't make any sense, e.g.--either she's never seen an episode of Charlie's Angels, or she hasn't seen enough Bond movies to get the Moneypenny character (who isn't just someone who moons after James and can't get him, and who's usually played by an actress who's both smart and pretty, though not overtly sexualized like the "Bond girls").
posted by Prospero at 11:18 AM on April 26, 2006


Also troubling (referring again to the PDF linked in mothershock's most recent post) is that it seems that in some cases, the only real revision has been to add some reference to an element of Indian culture, which is then explicitly cited as Indian within the text (see #9 and #19). That's one thing that makes me want to know to what extent the book packagers had a hand in this. I can fully imagine someone along the line of the book's production being crass enough to pitch this book by saying, "You know, it's like that McCafferty stuff, but Indian."
posted by Prospero at 11:32 AM on April 26, 2006


"You certainly didn't take that from this discussion. In fact, multiple people raised the recurrent nature of the problems with this book in this thread and you continued to argue that it shouldn't be consigned to plagiarism."

You certainly didn't take that from this discussion. :) I'm pretty sure that I never argued that Viswanathan didn't commit plagiarism, I've only argued that she might not have. (On the re-read after writing this comment, I see that your word "consigned" implies a different meaning than I inferred and, yes, to some degree I've argued that all this evidence in this specific case still doesn't "prove" to me that she intentionally committed plagiarism. I write more on this later.) And I've ignored the "is it plagiarism even without intent" point because that's just terminology. In other words, I've only argued that she may not have had intent, that inadvertent plagiarism is much more common than people think, that people are wrong to require very little proof that someone is an intentional plagiarist, and that people are bloodthirsty about this.

I'm not sure how arguing about what is and isn't plagiarism and whether or not someone's done it intentionally is "disrupting the thread".

And I've mostly avoided arguing that Viswanathan didn't plagiarise and didn't intend to plagiarise in light of the many examples that are presented because, frankly, I simply don't agree with all the confident, "expert" findings of the people in this thread—and they're so confident and universal (excepting me), that there's little point in it and likely some abuse thrown my way if I had. I'm not aware that anyone participating in this thread other than myself has known anything about inadvertent plagiarism with regard to memory research, and I know very little. It's exactly the same as if everyone in this thread was quick and confident to decide whether someone's "recovered" memories are true or not without knowing anything at all about recovered memory. People keep talking about their own experience, except I've not seen anyone admit to plagiarism, so I don't know what experience they're talking about. If they're claiming they've never plagiarised, I'd like some evidence that their work has even been examined for plagiarism.

Optimus Chyme's comment notably exemplifies this attitude when he says that anyone who's familiar with literature or writing would know that she plagiarised and would know that inadvertent plagiarism (other than the most trivial, presumably) is not really possible. C'mon, that was inexcusably obnoxious and an implied insult against me.

I'm not saying that Viswanathan didn't intentionally plagiarise, and I'd not be surprised if she did. But I'm not willing to make the judgment because I simply don't know what I'd need to know to properly evaluate the evidence in this case. It has nothing to do with avoiding discomfirming evidence and has everything to do with recognizing my incompetency to make an evaluation. I wrote that I wasn't interested in defending any specific case because I have no particular interest in defending Viswanathan. I really couldn't possibly care less whether she is guilty or not. That's not (directly) the issue I'm concerned with. I'm concerned with the fact that as far as I can tell, evaluations of guilt are almost without exception made in complete ignorance of anything other than "common sense". Common sense says that no one would miss the guy in the gorilla suit walking across the frame in a movie of people tossing a ball around. Common sense says a lot of things about memory which are demonstrably false.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:03 PM on April 26, 2006


I can fully imagine someone along the line of the book's production being crass enough to pitch this book by saying, "You know, it's like that McCafferty stuff, but Indian."

In the TV interview, one of KV's defenses is that her book isn't really like McCaffrey's because hers is - well, about an Indian girl. Sounds especially disingenuous given your observations.
posted by vacapinta at 12:05 PM on April 26, 2006


Optimus Chyme's comment notably exemplifies this attitude when he says that anyone who's familiar with literature or writing would know that she plagiarised and would know that inadvertent plagiarism (other than the most trivial, presumably) is not really possible. C'mon, that was inexcusably obnoxious and an implied insult against me.

When I see a car that has crashed into the side of a house, it's a safe bet that it was caused by operator error or incapacitiation. It's possible that it was caused by a tractor beam or hairy little gremlins, but I'm going to assume the most common cause until there is evidence otherwise. Neither you nor the author nor anyone else has presented a plausible defense; therefore, she is a plagiarist, and she did it on purpose, like 100% of the plagiarists I've had experience with.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:14 PM on April 26, 2006


I have to agree with Optimus Chyme. If your intent in this thread was to make a case for other possibilities then I think you have failed. Other than vague musings and a link to many half-baked articles on cryptomnesia, I dont see a substantive case for unintentional plagiarism.

Sure, one can waver forever always finding new reasons for doubt. But I dont think much has been shown here to dissuade people from using common sense in this case.

The unseen man in the gorilla suit is backed up by both controlled experiments and a plausible explanation. I dont see the equivalent here.
posted by vacapinta at 12:28 PM on April 26, 2006


And what drill_here said. Novelists (good and bad) read lots of other people's novels. If anything, the onus on a given novelist is even greater for this reason--not grounds for an excuse.

Again, I'd really be curious to hear what Megan McCafferty has to say about this, but I imagine her lawyers are preparing a hefty lawuit against Little Brown. As they have every right to.
posted by bardic at 12:44 PM on April 26, 2006


When I see a car that has crashed into the side of a house, it's a safe bet that it was caused by operator error or incapacitiation. It's possible that it was caused by a tractor beam or hairy little gremlins, but I'm going to assume the most common cause until there is evidence otherwise.

This quote is a perfect illustration of why EB is right. Here we have a self-rightous assertion that a car accident can't possibly have been caused by anything other than A or B, with some fantastical throw-away alternative explanations set up as straw-men.

Hey, maybe there are options you never even considered. Do you think mechanical failure might have come into play in that car accident, OC? How about a pedestrian stepping in front of the car? Clearly, in your illustration, there are explanations that are quite plausible that you did not even consider. You are jumping to conclusions based on lack of expertise.

That's EB's argument: that there are other explanations for "three or more words that match in series" (which according to the quote above, is the MLA definition of plagiarism). But some people are too stuck on their own opinions to even conceive of the possibility that other options exist, and they are insultingly dismissive when anyone suggests otherwise.
posted by alms at 12:45 PM on April 26, 2006


alms, OC's argument might be unfair to EB's, but did you read the PDF mothershock posted? You can put a fork in Viswanathan's case, cuz it's done.
posted by bardic at 12:48 PM on April 26, 2006


This quote is a perfect illustration of why EB is right. Here we have a self-rightous assertion that a car accident can't possibly have been caused by anything other than A or B, with some fantastical throw-away alternative explanations set up as straw-men.

Those "strawmen" were a joke. Hyperbole. Just fun. And yes, there are more prosaic explanations for why a vehicle might have crashed into a house, but if you ask a cop, he'll say pretty much all of them were because the driver was fucked up in some way.

Now: here we have a simple, elegant explanation: the author plagiarized another writer's work in forty different places because she was stressed out and busy and young and thought she wouldn't get caught. No one - including the great EB - has come up with a defense other than THERE MIGHT BE ANOTHER EXPLANATION FOR ALL THIS. Yeah, there might be. So what is it? Why not enlighten us as to how she accidentally copied from forty different places making only minor changes? I would like to know.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:59 PM on April 26, 2006


EB: Sorry, "disrupting the thread" was unfair, but I was irritated by your insistence on keeping this on a high Platonic plane where you didn't have to address actual facts. I'm sorry you're so little interested in the petty but actual case before us, but such is life. In any case, you certainly haven't convinced me Viswanathan should be given the benefit of any doubt.
posted by languagehat at 1:16 PM on April 26, 2006


I'm not trying to defend Viswanathan. After looking at the PDF it seems very clear that what she did was conscious and deliberate. I was speaking to EB's broader point, that there may be instances of unconscious plagiarism.
posted by alms at 1:22 PM on April 26, 2006


Yeah, languagehat, EB hasn't convinced me to give her the benefit of the doubt, either; but then, he isn't trying to. He's making a more abstract argument, which may well derail the specific discussion concerning Viswanathan's plagiarism, but it's the internet, and nobody's on-topic all the time, right?

In other news, a guy at Slate just posted a story about working with the "packagers" who helped Viswanathan put together her book. It's funny how hands-on the writing process sounds, from his description. On the other hand, it doesn't sound very specific, in the sense that "Harry Potter . . . Star Wars . . . and The Odyssey" were the range of their reference for him to model his work upon. Nothing as focused as McAfferty's books for a YA audience.
posted by cgc373 at 1:33 PM on April 26, 2006


And yes, I do know how to spell McCafferty, dang it.
posted by cgc373 at 1:57 PM on April 26, 2006


EB: ...I simply don't agree with all the confident, "expert" findings of the people in this thread—and they're so confident and universal (excepting me), that there's little point in it and likely some abuse thrown my way if I had. I'm not aware that anyone participating in this thread other than myself has known anything about inadvertent plagiarism with regard to memory research, and I know very little. It's exactly the same as if everyone in this thread was quick and confident to decide whether someone's "recovered" memories are true or not without knowing anything at all about recovered memory. People keep talking about their own experience, except I've not seen anyone admit to plagiarism, so I don't know what experience they're talking about. If they're claiming they've never plagiarised, I'd like some evidence that their work has even been examined for plagiarism.

Well, fuck. This just convinces me that you habitually argue bad faith. I know that I have talked in this thread about inadvertent plagiarism in regards to memory research. I have consistently qualified my assessment of this by saying that it is possible this was inadvertent and that inadvertent plgiarism happens (and I've seen others do the same) . And I've explicitly admitted to plagiarism in grade school when I didn't know better.

As usual, it seems that you would rather be the one person charging the giants, than to admit that some people in this discussion are in partial agreement with you.

alms: Hey, maybe there are options you never even considered. Do you think mechanical failure might have come into play in that car accident, OC? How about a pedestrian stepping in front of the car? Clearly, in your illustration, there are explanations that are quite plausible that you did not even consider. You are jumping to conclusions based on lack of expertise.

But on the other side of the coin. Regardless of how the car ended up in the living room, someone is going to pay for the damages. I think car accidents are really good analogies. Most car accidents involve simple, understandable, and completely inadvertent errors of judgement, or just dumb luck. Still however, regardless of good intentions, the driver ends up holding the tab.

So, as I've said before. It is quite possible for an author to unintentionally plagiarize a sentence or a passage. But the author is still responsible for that plagiarism.

alms: That's EB's argument: that there are other explanations for "three or more words that match in series" (which according to the quote above, is the MLA definition of plagiarism). But some people are too stuck on their own opinions to even conceive of the possibility that other options exist, and they are insultingly dismissive when anyone suggests otherwise.

Actually, EB's real argument yet again seems to be that he alone is riding with lance and shield against the giants of narrow-minded certainty and prejudice. I've watched multiple discussions go south because he insists on fighting arguments that have not been made, ignoring any attempts to find common ground or nuanced discussion, and dismissing with prejudice any evidence that might shed light on the issue. (Evidently, a "liberal arts education" means getting to pick and choose your own authorities and ignoring the rest.) He will certainly make appeals to consider some kind of alternative to a dogma, but will become insultingly dismissive if you try to engage him in a good-faith discussion about it and ultimately bail.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:15 PM on April 26, 2006


I've watched multiple discussions go south because he insists on fighting arguments that have not been made

Yeah, I've noticed that more often recently, too.
posted by mediareport at 5:34 PM on April 26, 2006


KJK, who's being insulting? Methinks it's you. This is the second comment in which you try to pick a fight with me. That's part of the reason I've backed out of this thread. I don't want to fight. I don't really feel like insulting you or your motives, or your education, or whatever. You're bringing a whole lot of baggage into this thread that doesn't belong here.

Do I feel more than a bit quixotic when I bring up the possibility of inadvertent plagiarism? Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. That's because I never see it discussed in a discussion about plagiarism unless I bring it up myself. If you want to think me the kind of person who sees himself as the lonely defender of all that's just, go ahead. If it's true, I'm pretty sure I'm lost in a big crowd here on MeFi. But I don't think it's true.

My point from my first comment on was very simple: inadvertent plagiarism is a possibility and people are too quick and too ignorant to jump to a guilty verdict. I'm asking for some skepticism and doubt with regard to all these confident verdicts of "guilty" that are made using "common sense" and not insignificantly involving considerable personal animus and emotional investment. In asking for that, I don't have a responsibility to defend this writer in particular, or to construct a scenario in particular. From my point of view, it's the folks that are so quick to embrace what they think is common sense, so quick to embrace their outrage, and so quick to be willfully ignorant and discard actual research on memory and plagiarism that shoulder the responsibility of proof and plausible arguments to defend their quick and easy accusations of guilt.

Furthermore, I made clear from my very first comment that the context in which I was making these comments and stating my case is the context of charges of plagiarism in general and the widespread ignorance about inadvertent plagiarism. It's not as if I began by defending Viswanathan in particular and then retreated to the general case in hopes of finding a defensible position. Read my first comment and see.

My unwillingness to engage in an argument about this specific case and its details is assumed by several people here as being evasive. But if I've been evasive, it's only because it was never my intention to engage on this example specifically. I know I'm repeating myself here, but this repetition and this paragraph come from my sense that I need to express that I'm not sharing an emotional context with most of the commenters here. I have approximately zero emotional investment in this specific case. For whatever reasons, motivated either by very strong general feelings about plagiarism or strong feelings about this writer in specific, most of the people here are very interested in discussing (and venting about) this specific case. I'm not. People seem to be responding to me, at least moderately, as if they think that I have some of the same emotional investment but am taking the contrary position as they. But I'm not.

My Google search brings up a lot of good information that would provide a sufficient amount of lay knowledge to discuss this matter at the level of competency that people wrongly assume they have now. Some of you have, or will, read a lot of those links in the search results. Some, or most, will not and will continue to make judgments solely on the basis of your common sense. You know whether you're one or the other. I've made my argument and provided resources. While I would have liked to get more people to explicitly agree with me that people are judging rashly, for the most part I've done what I set out to do.

I've not been heavily engaged in this thread because of what I just said, also because I am so not interested in a heated argument (and Optimus Chyme's comments pushed it strongly in that direction), and also for the simple reason that I've been asleep through most of the intervening time. But now I'm really done.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:51 PM on April 26, 2006


EB,

I'm having a very hard time understanding your position in this discussion.

The way I've read things, people have said that Viswanathan plagiarized. You've then said it could have been unintentional. Some people have said there is no such thing as unintentional plagiarism, and Viswanathan's was intentional. Others have argued that there may be unintentional plagiarism, but Visnawathan's was intentional. You've countered that with more discussion about unintentional plagiarism.

Up until this point, everything makes relative sense.

But then you say that you're not talking about Viswanathan, but just in general. That certainly isn't the impression I've been getting from you throughout the thread.

And then you ignore the existence of all the folks that said that unintentional plagiarism may well exist, but just that this isn't a case of it.

And then you mischaracterize people's assertions that "there are so many similar passages that it must be plagiarism" as being "people's meterstick for plagiarism is two similar passages".

I'm not sure if you're doing it in bad faith, or unconsciously, but I can see where Kirk Job Sluder is coming from.

If your goal isn't to position yourself as a lone fighter of giants, why are you ignoring the people that agree with you, why are you mischaracterizing the positions of many who disagree with you, and why is it so difficult to determine if you are or are not talking about Viswanathan?
posted by Bugbread at 6:47 PM on April 26, 2006


I guess the fault is mine and I've been incoherent. I apologize.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:19 PM on April 26, 2006


bugbread: If your goal isn't to position yourself as a lone fighter of giants, why are you ignoring the people that agree with you, why are you mischaracterizing the positions of many who disagree with you, and why is it so difficult to determine if you are or are not talking about Viswanathan?

What bugbread said.

My disagreement with EB is that he seems to think that "unintentional" means "not guilty." I worked on student newspapers for a short period of time so I know quite well that human memory opens up huge liability problems for writers. Printed mistakes happen. But regardless of intent, printed mistakes that harm the publisher or other parties need to be remedied.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:29 AM on April 27, 2006


So we've got a pretty varied set of opinions here.

At least one person appears to think that three words in a row is plagiarism.
Some others think that plagiarism can be reasonably determined by two passages being similar.
Some others think that plagiarism can be reasonably determined by a multitude of passages being similar.
Some others think even that is not a reasonable meterstick.

Regarding plagiarism, some think it is all intentional.
Some think that some is intentional, and some accidental.

Within that second category, some think it is not a big deal if it is accidental.
Some think it is a big deal even if accidental.

I think that gets rid of most of the reductionism in here.
posted by Bugbread at 7:00 AM on April 27, 2006


First, Plot and Character. Then, Find an Author.
posted by ericb at 8:19 AM on April 27, 2006


...That just ain’t write: Experts blame Harvard copycat’s woes on struggling publishing industry.
posted by ericb at 8:30 AM on April 27, 2006


Opal Mehta is being pulled.
posted by bardic at 6:16 PM on April 27, 2006


Harvard College Ad. Board Looking Into Plagiarism.
posted by ericb at 8:00 PM on April 27, 2006


"But certainly technology — and the relentless, sometimes merciless social interaction it has enabled in the digital age — played a part in forcing Ms. Viswanathan's publisher, Little, Brown, to recall the spoiled product by week's end. For days, the author's name was one of the most searched terms at the blog search engine Technorati, while commentators at forums from Metafilter to Amazon.com hashed over details revealed in the mainstream media, or offered up new discoveries and insights of their own..."

[New York Times | May 01, 2006]
posted by ericb at 8:24 AM on May 1, 2006


A Second Ripple in Plagiarism Scandal (NYT)
posted by Prospero at 5:51 AM on May 2, 2006


And more "borrowing" found -- from Salman Rushdie’s “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” and Meg Cabot’s “The Princess Diaries.”
posted by ericb at 8:01 AM on May 2, 2006


They should just re-market the book as," A summary of many books, some good, some bad, but all pleasantly disguised as something new. As a bonus, feel comfortable engaging in five to six different book conversations, but only after reading one!"
posted by Atreides at 11:42 AM on May 2, 2006


She's now lost her publishing deal. See this USA Today article.
posted by cass at 11:14 AM on May 3, 2006


New York Times: 'Opal Mehta' Won't Get a Life After All.
posted by Prospero at 12:14 PM on May 3, 2006


"In today’s Observer, Sheelah Kohlhatkar goes spelunking about Alloy, the book packaging company responsible for Kaavya Viswanathan’s impressively plagiarized debut novel. Aside from developing ideas in-house and then not allowing their originators to write the resulting books, Alloy books are often written by multiple ghostwriters. In the case of Opal Mehta, a multi-author approach would explain why the thing seems to be cribbed from some 32 different sources." [Gawker | May 03, 2006]
posted by ericb at 2:06 PM on May 3, 2006


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