Literary Theft?Pervasive or Avoidable
Plagiarism does "not go gentle into that good night."*
May 9, 2006: Vol. 2, Issue No. 36
IN THE NEWS
Raytheon board cuts CEO pay after book flap
ARLINGTON, Va— Raytheon Co.'s
board said on Wednesday that it cut its chief executive's compensation in response to what others have called plagiarism in a management booklet, a penalty that one person familiar with the matter said could cost him $1 million.
—Jim Wolf, Bill Rigby and Kevin Drawbaugh, Reuters, May 3, 2006
Young Harvard author's book deal canceled
NEW YORK — A Harvard University sophomore's debut novel has been permanently withdrawn by the book's publisher and her two-book deal canceled after allegations of literary borrowing piled up against her.
—Hillel Italie, Associated Press, May 3, 2006
It's rare that two prominent authors crash and burn on the same day—both found guilty of plagiarism and both severely punished.
William H. Swanson, 56, CEO of military contractor Raytheon, ranked 97 in the Fortune 500 and produced a 76-page booklet, "Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management." Here were 33 aphorisms in the mode of "Rumsfeld's Rules," which was mentioned in my April 16, 2006 column, "Dealing with a Martinet." Raytheon and Swanson were so in love with these unwritten rules that the company gave away 300,000 copies and Business 2.0 featured it on its July 2005 cover.
In response to a USA Today story on Swanson's book, San Diego chemical engineer and blogger/whistleblower Carl Durenberger wrote:
However, it should be mentioned to your readers that nearly all of these "unwritten rules" have indeed been written--by another author in fact, sixty years ago. Mr. Swanson has plagiarized from the little-known book "The Unwritten Laws of Engineering" by W.J. King (1944, American Society of Mechanical Engineers), trying to pass off others' work as his own.
And tossing ice water on the huge hype for "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life," was the revelation that the novelist, 19-year-old Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, had lifted no less than 40 passages practically verbatim from two novels by Megan McCafferty.
It matters not whether the plagiarism is inadvertent and the result of sloppy research, or deliberate. The consequences of being caught with your hand in the literary cookie jar can be devastating.
Don't let this happen to you.
A Pervasive Moral Crisis
Enter "Term Papers" in the Google Advanced Search and 847 entries will be displayed—most of them offering for sale pre-written theses on virtually any subject for students who are too pressed, too lazy or too incompetent to produce their own.
The Web site, Plagiarism.org, describes "Turnitin" and "iThenticate," two systems that are "are now being used by educators and content creators all over the world to fight plagiarism and restore integrity to written work." Amidst the blizzard of depressing statistics on this Web site is the following:
A national survey published in Education Week found that 54% of students admitted to plagiarizing from the internet; 74% of students admitted that at least once during the past school year they had engaged in "serious" cheating; and 47% of students believe their teachers sometimes choose to ignore students who are cheating.
What is so astonishing is that these two most recent plagiarists were caught red-handed and yet refuse to apologize. From the Raytheon Web site, here is part of Swanson's statement:
For me, the originality of the material was never the rules themselves, but my expression of them in terms of my experience over the years. I hope, in this regard, they continue to be helpful. I regret that over the course of the years and in the process of compiling the 'Unwritten Rules,' any reference to Professor King's work was not properly credited.
Regret, yes. Apology, no.
What's more, on May 3, 2006, The Boston Globe's Jay Fitzgerald revealed that Swanson also pirated some rules without attribution from Donald Rumsfeld and Dave Barry, a humor columnist syndicated in 500 newspapers.
So why doesn't Raytheon simply get rid of this embarrassment by firing Swanson rather than docking his pay $1 million? The answer may lie in a small announcement in the "Earnings Roundup" section in The Boston Globe on April 28, 2006:
Raytheon Co. said first-quarter earnings surged 73 percent as weapons sales and improved results at its business jet unit fueled the biggest profit gain in more than five years.
Even more bizarre is Viswanathan's excuse after conning Little Brown out of a six-figure advance and Steven Spielberg out of a movie contract. She told Dinitia Smith of The New York Times that the cause of the plagiarism may have been her photographic memory. "I remember by reading," she told Smith. "I never take notes."
Forty verbatim passages from a photographic memory?
Later in the interview she said, ""I really thought the words were my own. I guess it's just been in my head."
The Ivins Approach
Syndicated columnist and NPR contributor Molly Ivins was accused by humorist Florence King of plagiarism. Ivins's letter of contrition is a classic. She wrote in part:
I owe you an apology and I hereby tender it. I am deeply ashamed. I regret not giving you credit, and devoutly wish the matter had been brought to my attention earlier so it might have been corrected in subsequent editions and the paperback edition of the book.
I hope this does not sound too defensive to you, but there was no intention on my part to deceive anyone into thinking I had not read the many funny things you have said about the South. I hope my good faith is evidenced by the fact that I did cite you directly six times in the piece and praise one of your books as "definitive" on the peculiarities of Southerners as well.
I was inexcusably sloppy about the three sentences in question, with emphasis on the inexcusably.
A Plagiarist's Worst Enemy: Google
Before the Internet, detecting plagiarism was a nightmare--an interminably slow process. Today it is relatively easy. For example, enter William H. Swanson's "Unwritten Rules" into Google and many of them will show up as rules by W.J. King and Donald Rumsfeld. Incidentally, bloggers have a lot of time on their hands and can happily spend it tracking down plagiarism.
The Unforgiving Internet
In addition, Google has a long memory. A plagiarist's misdeeds will remain in cyberspace for years, long after the person has been rehabilitated. For example, on Google's Advanced Search I entered the names of a dozen well-known writers, academics and a United States Senator. I surrounded their names with quotations and added the word "plagiarism." The results (in alphabetical order) and the number of Google entries:
Stephen Ambrose, historian, author: 725
Mike Barnicle, newspaper columnist, TV commentator: 406
Joseph Biden, U.S. Senator: 573
Jayson Blair, New York Times reporter: 726
Ward Churchill, professor, University of Colorado: 711
T.S. Eliot, Nobel Laureate: 833
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer: 686
Molly Ivins, syndicated columnist: 738
William Swanson. CEO, Raytheon: 111
Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent, NPR: 247
Laurence Tribe, professor, constitutional law, Harvard: 239
Kaavya Viswanathan, novelist: 577
That is a total of 6,572 entries or an average of 547 per writer and counting. This column will probably generate 13 more (the 12 writers plus "Denny Hatch" AND "plagiarism"). This unhappy legacy will follow them to the grave and beyond, just as Monica Lewinsky and impeachment will follow Bill Clinton.
Wilde and Whistler
The Monty Python Web site recalls an exchange—supposedly true—between the artist James McNeill Whistler, and Irish wit and playwright Oscar Wilde, who had been accused of plagiarism on numerous occasions:
JAMES McNEILL WHISTLER: There is only one thing in the world worse than being witty, and that is not being witty.
OSCAR WILDE: I wish I had said that, Whistler.
JAMES McNEILL WHISTLER: Ah, you will, Oscar, you will.
Takeaway Points to Consider
- Plagiarism is to be avoided no matter what is being produced—article, memo, correspondence, e-mail, special report, white paper or full-length book.
- As a writer of non-fiction, I see myself as someone who absorbs vast amounts of information in order to connect dots. With this in mind, I always try to credit sources for two reasons: (1) A tip 'o the hat to the wonderful minds that are working to clarify this confusing world and (2) to let the reader know that I have done homework.
- If a writer discusses another writer's work—or a report or a quote by somebody—it's a good idea to drop everything and find the original source of the information. You are then working from the same material and your take will be original.
- Don't let deadlines deter you from homework and originality.
- When Don Jackson and I conceived of our book, "2,239 Tested Secrets for Direct Marketing Success," I wrote several hundred direct marketers asking for the rules they learned during their careers. Back came roughly 150 replies, which I categorized and data entered. Everybody was credited. Jackson and I stuck in our two cents every so often, but we were not the stars of the show. Direct marketers love it, because in an argument with a boss or client they can usually find support for their view by an industry giant.
- A fact cannot be copyrighted. The arrangement and presentation of facts can.
- It is imperative to understand completely the concept of "Fair Use"—the right to reprint a certain amount of copyright material in order to discuss it. I cannot remember where I heard this rather simplistic explanation many years ago, but here it is. With Haiku, the Japanese poetry form of 17 syllables in three lines, quoting one syllable is Fair Use; to quote all 17 is a violation of copyright.
- Use the hyperlink. Rather than bogging down the flow of your work with long quotations (and risking copyright infringement), send the reader to the original source.
- Finally, remember the Elgin Marbles. These are the remains of the Parthenon sculptures that were saved (the Greeks say they were stolen) by Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin, who shipped them back to England in 1802 where they now repose in a glorious gallery of the British Museum. They are not named for the sculptor or the building, but rather named for Lord Elgin, the guy who found them, saved them and brought them to the attention of the world.
Web sites Related to Today's Edition
"Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management"
Carl Durenberger's Gotcha!
"Rumsfeld's Rules" (PDF)
Examples of Viswanathan's Plagiarism
Molly Ivins - Florence King Exchange
Directory of Famous Plagiarists
How to Avoid Plagiarism
What Is Fair Use
All About Copyright
- Bill Rigby
- Carl Durenberger
- Dave Barry
- Denny Hatch
- Dinitia Smith
- Don Jackson
- Donald Rumsfeld
- Doris Kearns Goodwin
- Dylan Thomas
- Jay Fitzgerald
- Jayson Blair
- Jim Wolf
- Joseph Biden
- Kevin Drawbaugh
- Laurence Tribe
- Little Brown
- Megan McCafferty
- Mike Barnicle
- Molly Ivins
- Nina Totenberg
- OSCAR WILDE
- Rumsfeld's Rules
- Stephen Ambrose
- Steven Spielberg
- T.S. Eliot
- THE NEWS Raytheon
- W.J. King
- Ward Churchill
- William H. Swanson