Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The perils of plagiarism

You may or may not have heard of the recent plagiarism scandal centering around Quentin Rowan. It's been written about extensively, like here, here and here. In a nutshell, this guy, writing under the pen name of Q.R. Markham, published a spy novel to initial acclaim. Bully for him, right? Well yeah, except that it soon came out that the book was almost entirely cobbled together from lines and paragraphs lifted verbatim from other spy novels, with only the names changed. Seriously. Rowan stole from the James Bond books written by John Gardner as well as the works of Robert Ludlum, Charles McCarry and others. The book in question, Assassin of Secrets, was getting some good reviews before folks started putting together that it was other authors who were more deserving of credit. The publisher, Little, Brown & Co., subsequently pulled the book and it's now likely to become a collector's item.

Beyond the obvious stigma of stealing someone else's work and presenting it as your own, I have to wonder about Rowan's sanity. When college students plagiarize a term paper downloaded from the internet, that's cutting corners to save time and effort. In Rowan's case, however, harvesting so many random lines and paragraphs from so many different books and authors, then stringing them together in such a way to construct a coherent plot... that strikes me as an insane amount of work and research. Far easier and straightforward to just, you know, make up the stuff on your own.

Being a journalist by training, plagiarism's always been an issue high on my personal radar. Back in college, not a year would go by without some writer for the student paper, The Battalion, running afoul of plagiarism charges. They were invariably working for the sports desk, believe it or not. Each time, it was a columnist that got in trouble. Two were fired outright for copying a syndicated sports column and presenting as their own. The third, who happened to be working for me the one summer I served as sports editor, also used unattributed material in his column. To his credit, he did attribute the original source earlier in the column, but not when he referenced more points the original author made. In my meeting with the managing editor on the matter, we judged that it was a mistake rather than intent to deceive. So we only suspended him for two weeks. Plagiarism's serious stuff, folks.

Which brings us to today. Plagiarism has been weighing heavily on my mind long before Mr. Rowan's creative novel writing came to light. In writing this book on the Chicken Ranch, I'm putting together a non-fiction work that is not unlike journalism. I'm using many sources that came before me, and striving to properly attribute everything via endnotes. In some cases, however, the historical sources run pretty thin. Some facts and stories about the brothel can be found in a mere single source--the myriad publications that came after all cite that one source. This in and of itself is troubling for a journalist conditioned to always use multiple sources in order to verify facts, but in my case I have no choice but to go with what I can find.

My biggest challenge with this is that in many cases, these sources often presented the relevant facts in the clearest, most logical and straightforward way. Were I given this information, I'd likely write something very similar. But as I'm using them as a source, I dare not repeat those words verbatim outside of a direct quote (which I want to avoid whenever possible, as I have primary source interviews I plan on directly quoting very heavily). I'm constantly worried about reading a particularly good bit and having it worm its way into my subconscious, only to sneakily reappear later, masquerading as my own original thought. This has led to some awkward writing situations. Take last night for instance. Months ago, I'd found a section in a book that I knew would make an absolutely perfect point at this certain point in the chapter I'm currently working on. So I wrote the material down in a paragraph, added the citation, and wrote toward it. Last night I reached said paragraph, and my heart sank as I read over it again. It was perfect. Too perfect. What I'd written up to that point dovetailed nicely with the cited material. Despite the fact that the paragraphs flowed together beautifully, I steeled myself for an extensive rewrite. No matter how perfect the words were, I would not plagiarize. But folks, I'm telling you the rewrite was agony. Those words on the page were the perfect fit, and anything I came up with as an alternative read like nothing more than a convoluted work-around. After an hour or so of this, I pulled out the original source book in frustration, hoping to maybe find some little nuggets of inspiration in the text surrounding the material I was referencing.

It was then that I realized that I'd already rewritten the source material, incorporating some of my own original research as well! I'd spent the previous hour trying to paraphrase and recast what were already my own words. It was maddening. Frustrating. I said words that would make sailors cover their ears. But hey, the words on the page are mine. And the citations and reference are in proper order as well. I may yet drop the ball and botch things royally, but if I do, it won't be due to lack of effort.

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