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That Plagiarism Scandal

I haven't been following the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism scandal too closely because I've had friends doing it for me. However, I do want to note one speculative point that I made yesterday that appears to be correct.

Yesterday, writer Stephen Leigh (sleigh) noted in this post that the book was put together by a book packager. I suggested in one of my replies that it was entirely possible that the packager was the one who really committed the plagiarism. (Still, Viswanathan would have to take full responsibility, since it is her name on the book.)

Well, there are two articles I found today that would appear to substantiate my theory.

First, today's New York Times article "A Second Ripple in Plagiarism Scandal" points out that some passages in the Viswanathan novel were lifted from yet another book, implying that the plagiarism was deliberate.

Secondly, the Harvard Independent article "Kaavya Case Not First Plagiarism Controversy for Opal Mehta Packager" points out that the packager had been found guilty of committing plagiarism before.

Methinks the packager is mostly at fault, but as I said before, Viswanathan has to take responsibility as well.


...the packager had been found guilty of committing plagiarism before. Methinks the packager is mostly at fault, but as I said before, Viswanathan has to take responsibility as well.

Well, ya know, I wonder. If this was a work-for-hire, as it seems to have been, then the publisher would have taken the manuscript, made whatever changes they liked, and moved forward with publication. She can't be held responsible for changes the publisher made. A work-for-hire gig means they own the property and can do whatever they like with it. So what I wonder is whether or not, if it comes out that the author was a patsy in the whole business, she'll be cleared of wrong-doing. Seems like she's been painted into a corner, especially since she apparently requested to be interviewed on The Today Show to make apologies for inadvertent plagiarism. I suspect she's screwed whether or not she was an innocent in this affair. I think the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Her agent, perhaps, should be held responsible for allowing her given, legal name to be used on the cover. This business has ruined her for any legitimate writing career she may want to have down the road.
I don't think it was work-for-hire. My impression was that she and Alloy held the copyright jointly.

If it was strictly work-for-hire, she could have gone on television, said that when she finally looked at the published books there were many changes from what she had seen in the galleys. But she didn't, which implies to me a level of complicity. I'm not letting her off the hook, understand; I just think there's much more to this than was first thought.
I hear Doris Goodwin teaches it!
I don't recall a plagiarism lecture, but I do remember being given a handout about plagiarism.

What I wonder is if Harvard will punish her in any way. She didn't plagiarize an assignment for a class, but this still falls into a category of comporting oneself properly.
So far, from what I've read, Harvard's saying that it's not university-related plagiarism so they're not planning any official disipline.
I think Kaavya's lying about things. She said she read McCafferty's books a few months before starting her own and was highly impressed by them, but when asked to name her influences before the scandal broke, she didn't name her. She initially denied the similarities, then admitted them. During the first week, she kept saying that she hadn't been able to apologize to McCafferty directly: how hard can that be? If the packager put the text together for her and she let her name be used, then she's lying about being the author.

I do feel sorry for her, in that this is something that will dog her for the rest of her life.
I have difficulty feeling sorry for her for reasons I stated over in sleigh's journal.
I'm boggled by this entire case. Aside from the gross instances of plagiarism, I can't imagine wanting to put my name on a book that was largely written by a marketing committee. It strikes me as a blatant grab for fame on the part of the author. Why do a lot of hard work and get paid and publicized like an average author when you can be catapulted to fame largely on the basis of someone else's work?
I think part of her rationale goes back to the fact that her family hired a company to help with her college applications. Apparently there's a connection between that company and the packager. Perhaps they, um, gave her a lot of assistance with her college application essay, and from there it was a slippery slope to, um, accepting the same level of assistance on her novel.
I'm horrified by those college app packagers. We didn't have those back when I was applying for school. In theory, we were all getting accepted (or not getting accepted) based on our actual merits, not on the merits of someone we paid $10K to. *boggle*

BTW, the Harvard Independent has a KaavyaGate page that links to all their stories on her: http://www.harvardindependent.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ArticleID=9940
Reminds me of something that happened when I was in graduate school. A fellow at the Great American University I was attending was found to have stolen gobs of somebody else's textbook for his own. His defense was that he didn't even read the book in question. His own, I mean. The publisher had just paid to use his name. He found another job. But kept his international reputation as a scholar.
From this we learn rule #1: Always read any book that will have your name listed as author before the book is published. :-)
I'm doing my usual fence-sitting on this one, on a couple of factors.

I wouldn't want to be what amounts to a hired typist for a company project myself, no. But I've heard that getting published as a writer is not exactly the easiest game to break into anyway -- not if the author wants to get accepted, paid, and effectively marketed. In most creative pursuits, a lot of people probably take whatever break they can get in order to establish themselves and realize just how bad the deal is only later. The standard band contract dispute story comes to mind; so does what I've heard about Jay McCarroll's turning down the Project Runway funding prize.

As for the plagiarism, if it was the writer's and not the company's, the question to me is intent. The Boston Globe had an interesting article about inadvertent plagiarism, I think maybe in their Sunday magazine; it really hit home for me.

You can say that the phrasing is just too similar; maybe it is. But I know I've had occasions when the perfect phrase just comes to me, and I have no idea whether it's original or it comes from something I read in the past ten years. Since I'm constantly re-reading and rewriting my text until I get the rhythm and language just right, the fact that a phrase or even a passage sounds familiar doesn't necessarily mean anything. This is compounded for me by the fact that I tend not to remember details (of novels, films, television shows, pivotal baseball games, last month, my childhood ...) unless I set out to review and remember a particular element. I've set out to read a book I've never heard of and realized halfway through (only because of a particularly vivid scene) that I've actually read it before. This means that I can read the same book a dozen times or more and still enjoy it, sure, but it also means that if I ever actually complete the Jonathan Chronicles, I'm going to have to hire a dozen readers to look specifically for lifted passages.

If some persuasive evidence does emerge that the plagiarism in this case was deliberate, though, then I'll agree she's scum. I just don't know enough yet.
But I know I've had occasions when the perfect phrase just comes to me, and I have no idea whether it's original or it comes from something I read in the past ten years.

In this case, though, the "perfect phrase" came to her over forty times from one specific other book. At this point, I don't think anyone's accepting the "internalizing" excuse.

I'd be interested in a link to that Globe article, if you can find one.
Here you go. They time their articles out after a certain number of days, though, so the link won't last forever ....
At this point, through the murkiness of the writer/packager relationship, I think it's impossible to tell who initiated the plagiarism. But the author allowed her name to be put on the book, so she's responsible; the packager either was complicit in the plagiarism or didn't catch it, so they also share the blame.

No matter what way things really happened (and we may never know), it's ugly, ugly, ugly.
How is a publisher or packager supposed to catch plagiarism if they are not familiar with the original work? Obviously, they can't compare every word of every book they publish against every word of every other book ever published. The only time a publisher or packager tends to do a legal review of books is when the author puts them on notice that something might need to be checked, or when real world people are used. It is extraordinarily rare for a work of fiction to be reviewed before pub, and even then, not for plagiarism, but for mainly for libel.
Hey, Sean! You're absolutely right that no editor can know every work in the genre, and I didn't mean to give the impression that such was my thought. Heck, I know as a teacher that catching plagiarism is a hit-and-miss thing: I either have to suspect plagiarism (usually because the paper's better-written than I'd expect for that student), in which case I search for a few key phrases on the internet, or I have to have read the source work recently enough that the similarities jar me.

But one might reasonably expect an editor to have read the 'canonical' and most popular works in their genre, if for no other reason than to stay abreast of the competition and the state of the field. I don't read the type of work in question here, but my understanding is that Megan McCafferty's books are highly-popular. I don't read the genre, so anything I say has to be taken with a large box of salt, but the cited similarities were enough that readers reading Ms. Viswanathan's novel who were familiar with Ms. McCafferty's work twigged quickly to the plagiarism. I'm not entirely unsurpised that the editor at Little, Brown didn't catch it... but it does make me wonder if someone at the packager wasn't aware of it -- after all, it seems from all I've read on this that this genre is their speciality...

And from the most recent article I've read (http://www.harvardindependent.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ArticleID=9941), it seems the packager was involved in previous plagiarism situations...

I don't think it's the role of the editor to catch plagiarism. It can't be. The editor, in the end, has to trust the writer's assertion that the work is original. And that's why the contract language is the way it is, right?
And gee, considering the repetition of "I don't read this genre..." statements, I could use a good editor myself! Where's Sheila when you need her?
Unfortunately, it's my experience that many editors are so overworked that they have little time for reading outside of their own authors. I've worked on YA fantasy novels where the editor has only read the first book of Harry Potter, and epic fantasies where the editor hasn't read any of Martin or Jordan (I can't even swear they ever finished LOTR). So, it's natural to me to assume that editors are not up on the canon in their field.

In the YA field, there is so much product out there that I doubt very much that any particular editor would be up on even the top five sellers at any given time. In practice, unless a publishing house gets lucky, plagiarism only gets caught when the plagiarized author finds it and brings a claim.
I will bow to your more extensive knowledge of the editorial side of the publishing field -- I can well believe that editors have little time for 'extra' reading. I know that's the case for me as a writer.

December 2016

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