Join 3,424 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Google Books uncovers old literary crimes
December 24, 2006 9:59 AM   Subscribe

Dead Plagiarists Society. Using Google Books to uncover old (and recent) literary crimes. "Given the popularity of plagiarism-seeking software services for academics, it may be only a matter of time before some enterprising scholar yokes Google Book Search and plagiarism-detection software together into a massive literary dragnet, scooping out hundreds of years' worth of plagiarists—giants and forgotten hacks alike—who have all escaped detection until now."
posted by stbalbach (43 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just got 48 results with "I had to shit" and 17 with "I had to take a shit" -- so there's obviously a plagiarists' conspiracy!

Seriously, thanks for the link to a neato article.
posted by davy at 10:07 AM on December 24, 2006


And 343 with "suddenly a shot rang out". This is fun! It's too bad that Google Books itself limits a search to 32 words.
posted by davy at 10:12 AM on December 24, 2006


Plagarism is the natural state of human affairs, embrace it with pride.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:20 AM on December 24, 2006


Every human alive now is only likely to have between 2 and 5 wholly original thoughts in their lifetime. Let's drop the pretensions and admit we are all thieves.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:22 AM on December 24, 2006


"dark and stormy night" turns up 684 hits.

Foucault, incidentally, essentially gave a pass to all sorts of plagiarism, because by "authoring" a piece of literature you are staking a claim on ideas that are not really your own, and preventing others from using them.

People who do not buy this line of thought include my professor at that class, who did not smile when I turned a paper made up completely of quotes from other writers (all properly cited, of course).
posted by thecaddy at 10:22 AM on December 24, 2006


Every human alive now is only likely to have between 2 and 5 wholly original thoughts in their lifetime. Let's drop the pretensions and admit we are all thieves.

What an original thought. ;P
posted by loquacious at 10:30 AM on December 24, 2006


And yeah, cool post. Fun stuff.

[This is good]
posted by loquacious at 10:31 AM on December 24, 2006


The biggest impact will be on living authors who plagiarized some early work and thought they had long since lived past any chance of detection. Especially in academia, where plagiarism merits the death penalty. I can see scores of frustrated graduate students checking out dusty copies of their advisors' ancient dissertations and running them through Google Book Search.
posted by LarryC at 10:37 AM on December 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


I'm alway curious what constitutes plagiarism. How many words does it take? Does that number change depending on the words? Does that number change depending on how the words are used in the reworked piece?

I steal stuff all the time. My notebooks are filled with fragments, snippets, paraphrases... sometimes I cite sources when I rework them, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I don't feeel the need to, sometimes I forget the sources.

Why is collage okay when it's with pictures, but much less recognized as a legit artform with words?
posted by dobbs at 10:47 AM on December 24, 2006


There are probably at least 20 correctly cited quotes or false alarms for every instance of plagiarism; is it really worth it to comb through the possibilities looking for a hit?
posted by Jeanne at 10:47 AM on December 24, 2006


Interesting post, thanks.

thecaddy, What a neat idea, your paper I mean. Your prof apparently is a humorless fool.

The nature of language is that it's a shared, memetic medium. Similar thoughts can and do happen at the same time in different people. But stealing another person's text and taking credit for it as one's own creation, is quite another thing. This new innovation to seek out plagiarism will be very interesting in the years to come.
posted by nickyskye at 10:57 AM on December 24, 2006


Why is collage okay when it's with pictures, but much less recognized as a legit artform with words?

In collage, the borrowing is obvious even if a cite is not included.

Plagiarism depends less on the number of words than it does on stealing original thoughts wholesale. You can take any lengthy cliche and find it in any number of novels. But when you take an oft-cited seemingly original thought and find that it might have been lifted from someone else, then you veer into plagiarism. That is, you can weave unoriginal phrases into your writing but not grab thoughts outright.

Take for example the short phrase "Music was invented to confirm human loneliness." by Lawrence Durrell. A quick Google Book Search shows no other hits than by Durrell. Its only 7 words and yet if I discovered that Durell was preceded in that quite by another author he may have known about - I'd consider it plagiarism. Its not the quantity of words, its the quality.
posted by vacapinta at 11:01 AM on December 24, 2006


It is my belief that an average human being has an original thought twice (perhaps, in rare instances, up to five times) over a common lifespan.
posted by hal9k at 11:02 AM on December 24, 2006 [3 favorites]


This is great—let's see what is on the end of every fork! Be just and if you can't be just, be arbitrary.

Why is collage okay when it's with pictures, but much less recognized as a legit artform with words?


I think it depends at least partly on how clear it is that you're using other people's words. Charles Reznikoff's Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative consists (as Mark Ford says) of hundreds of stories taken from law reports; the whole thing could be considered "plagiarism," except that he's upfront about it and using preexisting material is part of his artistic strategy, just like collage. But Howlett swiping from Baring-Gould swiping from Benjamin Thorpe is a very different matter; it's lazy writers not bothering to frame their thoughts in words (which is pretty much the entire job of a prose writer) but rather taking somebody else's words and hoping nobody will notice. There are some further links on this very interesting subject at this LH post (warning! self-link!), and there's a long and fascinating piece by Benjamin Watson on Reznikoff and his book (from Legal Studies Forum, of all places) here.
posted by languagehat at 11:10 AM on December 24, 2006


Or what vacapinta said.
posted by languagehat at 11:12 AM on December 24, 2006


I think people rarely have original thoughts. Maybe just a couple in a lifetime. Five times if you count repeats.
posted by srboisvert at 11:18 AM on December 24, 2006 [4 favorites]


Like I said, one problem is that Google limits search terms to a certain number of words and/or characters/spaces, and I'm having trouble finding free downloadable anti-plagiarism software that works on Linux.
posted by davy at 11:28 AM on December 24, 2006


"I think people rarely have original thoughts. Maybe just a couple in a lifetime. Five times if you count repeats."

True. But to quote an old friend, "never discount independent invention." Then too, maybe a certain percentage of brains that formed in English-speaking environments just naturally produce "suddenly(,) a shot rang out."
posted by davy at 11:32 AM on December 24, 2006


142 instances of "we are all thieves".

Meatbomb, you are SO busted!
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:40 AM on December 24, 2006


> It is my belief that an average human being has an original thought twice (perhaps, in rare instances, up to five times) over a common lifespan.

After careful contemplation on the matter, I firmly believe the number is precisely three. This is wholly original with me, owes no contribution by anybody else, and I am claiming ownership on the idea. If you care to use it, you can discuss licensing arrangements with my attorney.
posted by ardgedee at 11:55 AM on December 24, 2006


There is a difference between "Origional" and "Something you hadn't heard before". It's obvious that people can come up with the same idea independently (just look at Leibniz and newton) and with so many words written there are going to be some unintentional collisions.
posted by delmoi at 12:02 PM on December 24, 2006


Tears seem to roll a lot, don't they?
posted by interrobang at 12:03 PM on December 24, 2006


Newton wins by sheer virtue of NOT having written The Monadology.
posted by The White Hat at 12:06 PM on December 24, 2006


Pierre Menard is screwed.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:26 PM on December 24, 2006 [1 favorite]



Why is collage okay when it's with pictures, but much less recognized as a legit artform with words?

Anyone who has written or studied literature knows that all writers borrow and re-use ideas from those that came before. Nothing is created completely out of thin air.

At some point it becomes like calling a musician a thief because he used the same chord or note as someone else.

Words and ideas are the basic building blocks of literature. In my opinion, re-using a phrase of a few words is a tribute to the original author and perfectly acceptable. Copying a paragraph word-for-word without attribution is plagiarism.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:36 PM on December 24, 2006


It has been said that the average individual will have two original ideas in their entire lifespan. The possibility of exceeding that is more a rare exception than a reasonable expectation.

Snickers.
posted by AmberV at 12:37 PM on December 24, 2006


Every human alive now is only likely to have between 2 and 5 wholly original thoughts in their lifetime.

On the other hand, doesn't that make you feel less... alone?
posted by Acey at 12:46 PM on December 24, 2006


Wait: it gets even deeper, man. (tokes)

People will copy each others plagarism detection "outings", claiming that they were the first to discover other acts of plagarism.

Plagarism detection software will be pirated.

Perhaps an originality generator may be needed to test text for uniqueness. Which is itself password encrypted. With an original password.

These and other self-referential actions will require new, plagarism-detection-detection software.
There will be whole bunches of meta-meta....what's the word: filers? fillers? Ah, yes, meta filters required. Now if only a place like that existed on the web......

Sitting at his desk, he tokes again, rolls the neck collar on his black, wool turtlenecked sweater to a unique angle of 37 degrees, dims his anglepoise lamp as Derrida's ghost smiles on approvingly, yeah man, he thinks with the crackle of electricity humming through his brain, clicks his fingers and dissapears up his own arsehole.
posted by lalochezia at 12:56 PM on December 24, 2006


"It has been said" . . . and "it is my belief." Sound science indeed on which to base the "two original thoughts" hypothesis. From linguistics, I can report that, perhaps surprisingly, people *speak* completely novel sentences that have probably never been spoken (or written) before with quite some regularity -- probably several dozen times a day for the average literate person with a normal level of social interaction, much more for people who produce words for a living. It's the beauty of recursive syntax; we'll never run out of sentences. So the "original thought" argument should be logically distinguished from the "original expression" of the thought. Depending on the complexity of the thought in question, similarity of phrasing can certainly be attributed to direct copying, unconscious regurgitation, or discursive intertextuality. As Bakhtin said, "the word in language is half someone else's." But the sentence is another question, the paragraph something else again.
posted by spitbull at 1:25 PM on December 24, 2006


somebody missed the cackles from behind the red curtain.

But yes, original Expression and original Conception should not be confused with one another. Further, I say what is spoken should not be confused with what is written. An excellent writer can fumble the most banal conversations, while excellent orators routinely hire writers to craft the basis (or entirety in some cases) of their speeches. Not that this implies an average, but that is beside the point. What you speak can, and to a degree *must* be cribbed in order to maintain a real-time conversation. Written language has the luxury of evolving after its initial conception, and good writing should be as novel as possible, within certain reasonable constraints. Certain strings of words have attained a lexical power of their own, becoming akin to a word, such as "beside the point," above.
posted by AmberV at 1:53 PM on December 24, 2006


Every human alive now is only likely to have between 2 and 5 wholly original thoughts in their lifetime. Let's drop the pretensions and admit we are all thieves.
posted by jchgf at 2:20 PM on December 24, 2006 [2 favorites]


Plagiarism should be about whether or not the writer has copied someone else's work word for word or not.

Otherwise, things get really confusing and non-practical.

How can one possibly argue and win one person had the idea before the other? I just don't see it.
posted by joehong at 2:27 PM on December 24, 2006


It is my belief that human beings have a crap ton of original thoughts and almost without exception all of them are stupid.
posted by I Foody at 4:26 PM on December 24, 2006


(Looks at spitbull and points to AmberV)
Yeah. What he said.
posted by hal9k at 5:00 PM on December 24, 2006


Interesting: "straining manhood" (with the quotes) gives mostly romance novels ("bodice rippers"), while straining manhood (without the quotes) tends more to Christian morality tracts.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:47 PM on December 24, 2006


Plagarism is the natural state of human affairs, embrace it with pride.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:53 PM on December 24, 2006


I can't believe no one's cited Tom Lehrer yet:
Plagiarize!
Plagiarize,
Let no one else's work evade your eyes,
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don't shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize -
Only be sure always to call it please 'research'.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:32 PM on December 24, 2006


Nothing is original.
posted by dgbellak at 9:56 PM on December 24, 2006


On the other hand, doesn't that make you feel less... alone?

Only if that is, in fact, true of every human. Alas, I don't think original thoughts are so evenly distributed. Alas redux, I Froody is probably closer to the truth.
posted by dgbellak at 10:04 PM on December 24, 2006


I'm alway curious what constitutes plagiarism. How many words does it take? Does that number change depending on the words? Does that number change depending on how the words are used in the reworked piece?

What was considered plagiarism in the past isn't the same as what is considered plagiarism now, another factor to consider when trawling older material. Certainly the fairly recent examples of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose I thought were overblown. I was disappointed they had borrowed nearly wholesale paragraphs from sources, with only some introductory or transitional language altered, but I didn't consider it plagiarism in the broader historical context. Really, that was done all the time in the past.

In fact I remember finding such an instance in one of Churchill's books while writing a paper. I wrote them all down on index cards (uphill both ways, I tell you) with source information etc. For the longest time I only remembered it as Churchill's quote, but while organizing the cards for structuring my paper -- you sort the cards into little piles on your desktop, you see -- it suddenly looked very familiar. My estimation of the man declined abruptly.

I asked my advisor what I should do and he suggested putting them side by side in the paper and noting the publication dates. In the end I ditched Churchill's version (although I used material from the same book elsewhere) and didn't mention it.
posted by dhartung at 10:27 PM on December 24, 2006


Well, for starters, let's disclose that the Man from Snowy Evening had ghosts watching his back. But another man soon found a sweet tune that was not quite so fine. Had you a memory and a heart like an elephant, still it would make you melancholy. Is there a right way out of it all?

Oh, brother. Where art thou, heir of Homer? Sing me a ballad to soothe my troubled soul. What do you mean, as soon as you're done haggling with the cohen? I need it now, I'm going bananas over the limited choices among insipid, ephemeral, saccharine mass-market goops.

sorry, couldn't resist following the riff
posted by eritain at 3:06 AM on December 25, 2006


There are probably at least 20 correctly cited quotes or false alarms for every instance of plagiarism; is it really worth it to comb through the possibilities looking for a hit?

Well, mostly because it's fun more than anything else, it's great to scope out over billions of pages and dance along them, finding how people re-used context.

Also, once you really think about it, every human alive now is only likely to have between 2 and 5 wholly original thoughts in their lifetime. So we might as well enjoy seeing where all the other thoughts come from.
posted by jscott at 7:41 AM on December 25, 2006


It's intuitively obvious to the casual observer that the average human will have two wholly original thoughts in his or her lifetime--surely no more than five.

Plagiarism, then, is clearly the natural state of humanity; embrace it with pride. As jscott has notoriously asserted, "we might as well enjoy seeing where all the other thoughts come from." (ibid)
posted by voltairemodern at 7:20 PM on December 25, 2006


« Older Peter Watts on Vampire Domestication (embedded Fla...  |  Gorgeous... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments