Friday, December 31, 2010

Safety Check: The Antidote for Accidental Plagiarism

My last blog post for 2010.... As for 2011? Bring it on!

I was scanning my Facebook news feed last week, on Tuesday, December 21, when I happened upon a post by Nicola Griffith; her blog appears to be linked to her FB account, so when she publishes a new blog post it also posts to FB. The blog post is entitled "Accidental plagiarism: a terrifyingly narrow escape." The idea of "accidental plagiarism" totally intrigued me, so I clicked on the link; Nicola began her blog post with the following:

Last week I wrote a funeral scene that pleased me enormously. Wrenching, raw, powerful. Wow, I thought, I nailed that! I kept coming back to two images I'd used, one in dialogue, "mothers are such wingless things," the other in description, "lullaby, with elegy blowing through it." I couldn't stop thinking about them. I kept pulling up the paragraph and re-reading. I couldn't let it go. (This is not normal behaviour for me, FYI. I love beautiful prose, but I don't generally fall in love with my own. I'm a believer in prose serving story and character, not standing out from it.) Gradually, I grew unsettled. Then suspicious. These images didn't feel quite right. Good, yes; evocative, absolutely; perfect for the period, no doubt. But not right.

I tried to trace their origins back through that labyrinthine machine I call my writing mind, and the trail petered out.

After much worry and soul-searching, Nicola finally gave in and keyed those two wonderful text images into Google, and discovered that she had taken the words verbatim from a poem. She goes on to say:

I've never believed those sad sack writers who, when pilloried for plagiarism, wail, "It was accidental!" But now it's happened to me. Well, almost; I caught it long before publication.

But it feels like a very narrow escape.

This has always been a huge fear of mine, but from an editorial perspective, and I said as much in a comment to Nicola's FB post:

As an editor, one of my fears is that I will allow a book or story to get past me, one in which the author has knowingly plagiarized content with which I'm not familiar, but yet the content is just well-known enough that others will catch it -- too late!

As I've said previously (and probably on numerous occasions), I haven't read everything, certainly very little poetry (though I have read Ginsberg's "Howl," and the like, in a past life), so plagiarized content sneaking past me is always a possibility. Though the author is inevitably responsible for the content of his/her manuscript, allowing plagiarized content to see print certainly won't help my reputation as an editor.

Anyhow, my comment on Facebook led to some further comments from, among others, Kit Reed, Lee-Anne Phillips, Geoffrey A. Landis, and Ian Watson, as follows:

Kit Reed google is your friend in every event. Not the title, but type in a string and you'll probably find out who did what.

Lee-Anne Phillips The truly memorable phrases are probably the ones to watch out for, the words so wonderful you wish you'd written them. "Joe stepped into the bar and took a look around. The usual seedy characters were there..." is commonplace. Who'd bother to lift it? Who'd care? "There is a tide in the affairs of men," on the other hand...

Geoffrey A. Landis Frightening indeed. My mind is full of bits and pieces of things I've read, and half-remembered images and words; I just have to hope that my memory is so bad that I couldn't actually lift something in a complete enough form for it to be plagiarism.

Ian Watson Actually, I anticipated this problem in Interzone ("How To Be a Fictionaut: Safety Check", April 1996) :-) but I don't suppose I can add the complete 5 pages as a Facebook comment... Oh what the deuce, let's see what happens!
Unfortunately, Ian quickly discovered that a FB Comment post is limited to under 8,000 characters; that's a lot of verbiage for a comment, but, unfortunately, Ian's 5 pages totaled nearly 11,600 characters. So, on a lark, I asked Ian to send me the 5 pages as an email attachment (Ian and I have a connection via our prior involvement with Golden Gryphon Press, so I didn't feel that this request was too excessive), which he did.

Please do read the entirety of Nicola Griffith's "Accidental plagiarism: a terrifyingly narrow escape" as well as the more than 20 comments to her blog post. Even "accidental plagiarism" can become a most serious offense in publishing, costing an author their advance and, more important, the loss of their reputation. If you have kept tabs on the industry then you may recall, in 2006, the brouhaha that arose regarding Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan's novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life when it was learned that the author had "unconsciously plagiarized the work of the best-selling young-adult author Megan McCafferty," according to But in Ms. Viswanathan's defense, the article -- "How Kaavya Got Packaged and Got into Trouble: Plagiarism and the teen-marketing culture" -- explains that, because so many people and groups were involved in the author's manuscript revisions, it is difficult to know who really is to blame for the plagiarism, but ultimately it fell on the author, for it was her name on the book itself. Then, closer to home (i.e. genre) -- and not so accidental -- Leading Edge: Science Fiction and Fantasy magazine found itself at the center of controversy in 2000 when it bought and published a novella entitled "The Singular Habits of Wasps" by Phillip S. Barcia. Unknown to the editor at the time, Barcia was a Florida prison inmate who had typed in the story from the April 1994 issue of Analog, a story originally written by the very same Geoffrey A. Landis who commented above on plagiarism. Once the plagiarism was made public, several other instances of plagiarism by this inmate were also discovered. This is a case where, I'm sure, the "author" didn't care if he was found out -- he was in prison! -- but the incident wreaks havoc on the magazine and its editor.

But regardless of what Kit and Lee-Anne had stated above, as an editor, when I'm reading submissions for an original anthology, or a 300-to-500-page manuscript, I'm really not in a position to enter every cool, well-written phrase into a search engine to see if it is plagiarized. I have to take the author's writing on faith at some point.

Now that you've accepted (you have, right?) the real possibility of "accidental plagiarism," I wanted to delve a bit into the humorous, more fictional side of the subject. Which brings me to the 5 pages that Ian Watson had referred to. Much of Ian's writing contains a sardonic bent, which is why I'm a fan and reader of his work. So when he stated that he had "anticipated this problem in Interzone" -- IZ being a well-known science fiction magazine published in the UK -- I knew there would be possibilities in these 5 pages.

So after reading the manuscript, I contacted Ian, snagged a few more details on the "article," and obtained his permission to share the contents with you here.

Though fiction, the piece was written as if it were "Chapter 19" in an ongoing series on the craft of writing; the subject of this chapter being the "Safety Check." So here are a few excerpts from Ian Watson's "How to be a Fictionaut":

The safety-check's a different kettle of fish. You're warranting your publisher, upon pain of indemnifying them until you go bankrupt, that what you write is utterly original, and doesn't violate anyone else's copyright, and doesn't quote anyone else's words without permission being secured and paid for. Nor must your text trample upon any toes. It mustn't offend against current definitions of obscenity, nor insult any special interest group who might take legal action, nor defame any individual or institution which might be offended, or exploit real-life persons even disguisedly.

Quite a tall order.

No wonder most creative writers nowadays work in the fields of fantasy and science fiction, though even here mighty pitfalls loom, not least because nothing is ever totally original. I suppose if something is completely original, it might also be incomprehensible.

There's a problem of subconscious plagiarism. Thirty years ago, you read a story. Suddenly you come up with a brilliant idea. Unfortunately your brilliant idea is exactly the same as in that story, but you don’t remember this....

And then there is sheer coincidence...

Compared with not so long ago, nowadays there must be tens of thousands of eager fictionauts (many of whom, I hope, will be studying my advice). It's pretty much a cliché to say that science fiction and fantasy are genres which typically feed upon themselves and regurgitate and remix themselves. Because of this, coincidence is statistically likely. What’s more, with supposedly new stuff always being the saleable doughnut (although admittedly often "in the great tradition of x, y, and z," for reader identification) the stale old stuff is out of print, and few fictionauts have read it. They have neither the opportunity nor the time. They may have had time to dip into clones of clones of old books and stories, but hardly into the originals. Thus the wheel can get re-invented a dozen times over (maybe in titanium instead of wood, but never mind). Similarities will abound.

This is where the safety-checker comes in.

Now that we all use quantum computers which operate thousands of times faster than the old silicon-chip machines, everything previously written has been scanned and stored. So while you're in the midst of writing a story, your safety-checker can continuously ensure that you aren't inadvertently echoing a pre-existing sentence or statistically significant phrase or a character name or situation or whatnot.

Furthermore, you wouldn't want to complete your own unique text and then discover that someone else had been busily writing something statistically similar at the very same time, would you? With quantum computers and the new data compression and Netting and Webbing, you and your safety-checker are on-line in real time while you're writing. Every word you write hangs out on the Net as you write it, notifying all fellow fictionauts' safety-checkers of what you're up to, staking your claim, as it were, and protecting you legally....

As Ian goes on to state, only "one stored set of deletions is protected by your safety-checker in case you have second thoughts; but no more than that. If you have third thoughts and fourth thoughts, this means that the first and second thoughts are up for public grabs..." So you're busy working on draft four. Then, when you move to draft five, you realize that you shouldn't have deleted some of the text in draft one, but, alas, you can't use that text because, according to your Safety Check, it is already in use by another, and to do so would be plagiarism. You have discovered that a wannabe fictionaut, looking over your shoulder (virtually speaking, that is, via the Safety Check), has snagged some goodies from your first draft while you were busy working on draft four. By the way, the Safety Check also watches out for the names of real people and businesses, unfortunate metaphors and similes, registered trademarks, etc.

The entire "How to be a Fictionaut, Chapter 19: Safety Check" is available for your reading pleasure as a PDF via Google Docs. The entire document is just under 2,300 words, a fairly quick read; enjoy. And a special "thank you" to Ian Watson for his kind permission to post his story here. And thanks, too, to my FB friends for allowing me to quote their comments to Nicola Griffith's blog post.

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  1. There is nothing wrong, esp if a character is talking and citing casually, say poetry. That's not plagiarism.

    Nor, IMO, is a phrase of 5-10 words in a book

    Any normal judge can see that this is a natural mind-magnet/mind-filter at work. We all use Shakepearian terms, we say "you're breaking my heart" etc

    Plagiarism, when it's there is repeated, and common and gets over 1% of the total text, and THEN we can say, ah-hah, this is deliberate stealing.

    I have been plagiarised in a case breaking in the UK this weekend. In this case the plagiariser took a whole story of mine and slipped it into her collection (by accident of course)

    It turned out I was one victim of dozens

    Alex Keegan


    1. Alex,
      Thank you for your thoughful comment, and best of luck with your pending case in the UK.
      - marty

  2. Where can you check fiction for plagiarism online?

  3. That's an excellent question that you pose, and I really wish I had a solid answer for you. Over the past few years some specific instances have arisen in which published authors (both in fiction and nonfiction) have been called out for plagiarism. And this happened primarily because someone who read their work (book, online content, etc.) had also previously read the work from which they had plagiarized, and could pinpoint much of the material that was specifically copied.

    You could pull out some key content from the book and perform a web search, but that only works if the content is not commonly used. If you are reading a ms. and find sections that are completely out of character in style and quality compared to the majority of the ms., then maybe those sections are worth a search. But even then, without anything specific to compare to, a web search could be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

    Unfortunately, editors cannot read, and know, every book that is out there. As an editor myself, there is a point where I just have to trust the author. Most publishing contracts, even for short stories, typically include a clause that states that the work in question is the author's own work, that the author holds the rights to the work, etc. This clause won't help the publisher's bottom line in the event the book just published turns out to be a fraud, but it does help protect the publisher legally -- though not necessarily morally, as those who purchased the book will feel ripped off.

    If you are a teacher and wish to check some of your students' papers for plagiarism, in case they've copied from Wikipedia or an encyclopedia or some other online site, Mashable has a list of 10 sites to help check for plagiarism.

    Other than that, I can only wish you good luck!
    Cheers, and thanks for your question.
    - marty

  4. would like to thank you for writing.

  5. Mark,

    Though your comment is quite brief, it is certainly direct -- and I thank you as well for the kind words.

    - martyh