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Plagiarism, Smagiarism

Am I the only one who found this story inadvertently amusing? It’s about a 17-year-old German girl whose best-selling, literary-prize-nominated novel is in part plagiarized from another novel.

Partly what’s amusing is the defense. I can’t tell if it’s the journalist of the novelist who’s confused about terminology here.

Best-selling teenage novelist Helene Hegemann rejected accusations of plagiarism in her debut novel “Axolotl Roadkill” on Tuesday, after it emerged she had taken slabs of text from an anonymous author and blogger.

The 17-year-old shooting star of the German literary scene admitted she had taken “in total, about a page” from the underground authorAiren’s novel ”Strobo,” but insisted she had not stolen the material but rather simply neglected to properly acknowledge it.

The journalist says she rejects accusations of plagiarism, but what she seems to reject is the accusation of theft. She’s guilty of both, though it’s not clear to me she’s really done anything wrong. Using the material and not properly acknowledging it are by definition plagiarism. Theft is a different thing. There are many variations on the idea that bad writers imitate while good writers steal. It’s just that good writers usually don’t steal so blatantly.

However, this part of the defense is just as amusing:

Although Ms. Hegemann has apologized for not being more open about her sources, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms.Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.

I’m sure which statement is more wrongheaded and pretentious. If she really thinks she’s part of a "different generation" because she "freely mixes and matches" information to create something new, she knows even less about the history of art or literature than she does about plagiarism.

Even if we exclude the obvious borrowings and reiterations throughout the history of art and literature, at the very least such a technique goes back a hundred years or more. It’s called collage. When you say it like that, it doesn’t sound very new, does it? The technique isn’t just used in art, either. Check out John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy for a literary example

This statement puzzles me even more: "There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity." What does that mean? When used of art, authenticity has two meanings, one clear and one gobbledygook. The clear meaning is something like "not fake," as in, "That’s an authentic Rembrandt." Then there’s the less clear one, meaning something like "true to oneself" or to some primal creed. This is the sense embraced by thoroughly imitative poseurs.

The writer in question doesn’t seem like a thoroughly imitative poseur, so I can’t make any sense of her statement. Maybe, as with the definition of plagiarism, she’s just confused.

Finally, I find it amusing that literary plagiarism, especially of so little material, would cause an uproar among anyone for moral reasons. Literary stealing is an issue for publishers and writers if it reduces their profits somehow, which explains some copyright laws. But copyright laws were designed not to stop someone from copying a page or so from a novel, but to prevent publishers from republishing entire books without paying authors anything. It was about stopping piracy, not art.

In non-fiction and especially in academic work, outrage over plagiarism makes more sense. A work of history plagiarizing its sources has ignored the rule of scholarship that readers should be able to return to the sources the scholar used. But what reader would want to return to the sources of a novel?

Even acknowledging sources in a novel would seem strange. Many novels are heavily researched, but they rarely have bibliographies. These scandals erupt because of word-for-word borrowings, but that’s not the limit. If a historian writes a book about the French Revolution without citing any sources, it’s plagiarized because it hasn’t attributed its sources. If a novelist writes a historically detailed but fictional story about a romance during the French Revolution without citing sources that were undoubtedly used in researching the novel, then it’s not plagiarized.

How could reading 25 books on the French Revolution and using that information to imbue your novel with detail and atmosphere be a good thing, while borrowing a page or so from another novel be a bad thing? The outrage in alleged scandals like this aren’t based on any consistent notion of plagiarism or theft, which makes them very hard to take seriously.

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Comments

  1. AL=RK says:

    I guess AL has run out of ideas that were sent by real librarians and has resorted to combing the globe for stories.

  2. Bruce Campbell says:

    Current college students honestly don’t understand how to attribute sources. It’s the cut and paste generation. When I was coming up you were in deep doo-doo if someone even suspected you of plagiarizing. Serious business.

    I think that students plagiarize so often that teachers; 1) don’t have the resources/time necessary to plumb the entire internet 2) are overwhelmed by its ubiquity. So enforcing academic honesty falls by the wayside.

    For shame, teachers. For shame.

  3. Dr. Procture says:

    Academic Honesty.

    What an oxymoron.

    Read through a pile of publish or perish papers that hack professors crank out. It is always the same tripe, packaged slightly differently so that they can keep the bust workload that the associate professors and TA’s have to manage.

  4. John says:

    My college students work hard to create the impression that they really had no idea that copying and pasting from wikipedia constitutes plagiarism, even though we consistently explain the subject to them.

    Total BS. They know exactly what they’re doing. But we’ve taught them that this dishonesty will not be punished. So we get more of it.

    This widespread problem isn’t due to a cultural shift or not understanding how to cite sources. It’s the result of a lack of enforcement.

    When I was in high school, one student was suspended for a week after he was caught plagiarizing. When I was in college, one student was flunked out of the course when he was caught. When I was in graduate school, one student was expelled — on the first offense — when he was caught. These were rare occasions. And they were rare because offenders were punished severely for their dishonesty.

    That’s how you stop plagiarism.

  5. MISTER John says:

    The way you stop plagiarism is to publicly flog the offenders.

    Anything less is meely mouthed liberal mush.

    Now get back to work you lazy hippie.

  6. Bruce Campbell says:

    The plagiarism problem is all rooted in the new paradigm as viewing education as a customer-driven experience. Get rid of the customer service model and we wouldn’t be graduating entitled kids with no sense of work ethics or life skills.

  7. Nimrod says:

    ‘It’s the cut and paste generation. When I was coming up you were in deep doo-doo if someone even suspected you of plagiarizing. Serious business.’

    Less than 10 years ago, my Medieval Lit professor walked into my final exam, exclaimed that he had caught three of my classmates plagiarizing on their term papers, and promptly informed them that they needn’t bother completing the test because he had already informed the department head and an honor review would be conducted. All three students did not return the next semester.

    Has it really changed that much in just 10 years?

  8. Abraham says:

    No, Nimrod.

    Things have not changed that much.

    What has changed are weak-kneed administrators at colleges who will cave the second a parent descends in their Huey to protect the poor widdle defenseless child from the ravages of academia.

    My kid just turned 18 and even with an IQ of 125 will be lucky to graduate high school because of laziness. Am I down at the school demanding they pass him.

    Nope.

    He is an adult now, capable of making his own decisions and facing consequences.

    Thank goodness that helicopter parents were not around in the 1940′s. They would have stormed Normandy demanding that the Army stop abusing their precious kids and let the Nazi have Europe.

  9. Bruce Campbell says:

    “Has it really changed that much in just 10 years?”

    Yes. Now those three students would return the next semester. We’re coddling the students at their own peril. They’re not learning coping skills, following rules, etc.

    All of these “accomodations” for students are mental. Note-takers for students, taking tests in a separate room, more time on tests for certain students. It’s mad!

    So, yes. It’s changed.

  10. The 3.14159otopian says:

    I blame libraries and librarians on this disgusting academic trend.

    They are so caught up in their little library world of cataloging, meetings, updating their facebook page, planning martini fueled trips to worthless conferences, etc … that when an innocent child comes up asking a research question, they are growled at and told to go check out wikipedia and leave the librarian alone.

    Can’t these students see that the librarians are busy?

  11. New Terms says:

    But for her, it isn’t “collage” its a “mash-up”..

    Every generation thinks it invented the rationale for plagiarism.

  12. Steve Jobs says:

    People steal all the time and take credit for it.

    The mouse and GUI that are the hallmarks of Microsoft — Stolen from Apple.

    Of course Apple stole them from Xerox, but we don’t want to talk about a cool company being common thieves.

  13. saflemingorama says:

    in the land of cockleshells and honeydews that i grew up in, no one ever cheated or stole. we all understood the grave crime of plagiarism, not to mention the evils of spitting on the street and wearing our hair below our ears, and would never, ever stoop so low as to take something that wasn’t ours. we learned from school teachers and professors, all of whom were above reproach, and all of whom taught for the sheer pleasure of imparting wisdom to their young charges. no one ever did bad things. no one ever complained. and everything was perfect. kids today are very, very bad.

  14. Fed Up says:

    Kids today are evil.

    And Spoiled.

    And just plain awful.

    I fear that our world is going to come to an end when these jokers get “The Button”.

  15. I Like Books says:

    A professor has been quoted as saying that since students have started doing research on the internet, the quality and originality of their research papers has dropped.

    It would be interesting to learn why that is, but I haven’t followed up on it.

  16. I Hate Books says:

    Papers are going down hill because kids aren’t going into libraries and finding sucker librarians to do the work for them.

    They figure what they get from Wikipedia is just the same.

  17. TwoPenny says:

    Why is a 17 year old telling everybody else what the rules are? Her teachers, parents, mentors, librarians are dropping the ball.

  18. Hippieman says:

    Socialism is the only answer. Capitalism has failed us. The evil corporatists have taken everything. They need to be stopped or all our libraries will be privatized by these blood-sucking Goldman Sachs trogs.

  19. Stalin the Librarin says:

    I say we revolt today.

    I am going down to the library and taking what books I want without checking them out. Those book nazis just want to keep me down man.

    I will bring them back when I want, I don’t have to follow your rules.

    You are all going down you fat bastard capitalistic public librarians.

    Che!

  20. librarEwoman says:

    In response to 3.14159otopian:

    I have, more than once, tried to explain to the children (and their parents), who come to the library to do school projects, that the sources they are using for their school project should be cited. Each time, the parent says something like, “Oh, I don’t think that’s really necessary. He’s only in third grade.” I try to explain that it is important to learn the skill of citing sources now, because later, it will be an absolute requirement. The parents are just as bad as the kids. So, as a librarian, I don’t feel like I have been letting anyone down in this respect.

  21. Auntie Nanuuq says:

    “Although Ms. Hegemann has apologized for not being more open about her sources, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms.Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.”

    LOL! Who brought this moron up? What if anything did she learn in school?

    This is so not okay…and I say let her pay.

  22. Hippieman says:

    Thirty years of neoliberal privatization and right wing social Darwinism has destroyed the Social Contract in this country. Of course, our social services are being effected. Look at right wing Colorado Springs. The Christianist trogs there refuse to raise taxes, so their public services are going down the drain. You reap what you sow!

  23. I Like Books says:

    Should third graders cite their sources?

    Come on, it’s a little more nuanced than that. You’ve all read magazine articles and books where sources generally aren’t cited. A mag like Science News might cite some research as the work of Some Body at The Big Institute without giving a scholarly cite. More popular works give even less than that.

    I wouldn’t hold third graders to higher standards than books written for third graders.

    BUT the authors also don’t present the work as their own! And a direct quote should always be cited, even if it’s as little as “Churchill said that…”, or even “A famous person whose name I’ve forgotten said that…” (Depending on the scholarliness of the piece.) Even if you do no more than say you didn’t invent it, you should say that.

    In scholarly works sources are cited, but even then you don’t need to cite what is common knowledge in the field. A physicist doesn’t have to cite Maxwell when he pulls out Maxwell’s equations, for instance.

    The girl that AL discussed might have included a paragraph-long Introduction acknowledging the source of what she’d copied. If she didn’t know the original author, she should have explained that and at least said where the text was copied from. Freely mixing and matching information, and citing sources, are independent concepts.

  24. LIS degrees are a joke says:

    Everyone just ignore Hippieman. He is just a troll espousing his liberal propaganda. Funny how this “progessive” is trying to tell us what to think!

  25. librarianLulu says:

    to 3.14159otopian:
    What a whirlwind library career you describe! Sounds exhausting — I’ll stick to doing reference to the best of my ability.

    A very disheartening trend that I’ve noticed over the past several years is parents coming into the library to do research and homework for their children. They rarely know exactly what the assignment is, and often leave with whatever they think is “good enough”. Is it any wonder that students are not made responsible for their work when that work is routinely subcontracted to the very people who are supposed to be teaching accountability and honesty?

  26. 3.14159otopian says:

    I just follow the AL because I want to be in the presence of a God.

    I have learned all of what being a library is from the AL.

    Now leave me alone and get back to work, jerk.

  27. Hippieman says:

    Hey dude, I’m not a liberal. I’m a libertarian socialist. Liberals are capitalists, my man.

  28. Right Wing Nazi says:

    It is good that Hippieman is commenting here. Plagiarism is not a crime with socialists because everything is part of the collective hive.

  29. anon says:

    Former Pinal County (Arizona) Sheriff Chris Vasquez had a plagiarism problem too, and was similarly stupid about why people were upset. http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/story/116342

  30. Dr. Brooks says:

    Reminds me of the librarians who get all upset when someone uses the RT and then forgets to give credit on Twitter. When will the madness end? LOL

  31. Dr. Brooks says:

    While I’m thinking about it, what about the new Caldecott book? Isn’t that a form of Plagiarism?

  32. texasmls says:

    Oh, I’m afraid the trend of parents coming in the library to do their children’s homework is nothing new. I’ve had mothers stand in front of me on their cell phones talking to the kid at home who is playing a video game and trying to figure out what he needs for his paper. And don’t even get me started on kids who don’t understand the difference between a science project and a scientific demonstration. sigh

  33. Techserving You says:

    I totally agree with Bruce Campbell. Everyone in the 18-22 year-old age range grew up with the internet – the 18 year olds even more so. I honestly think that they have genuinely different ideas about, well, ideas. They can be taught, but it really has to be drilled into their heads and they still have a hard time grasping it. I work with supposedly “elite” students – the best of the best – and they just don’t get it immediately. It’s different from when you’d write your papers from books and journals which you had to search carefully to find. Those clearly were written by people who had (more or less) come up with the ideas on their own. You put your hard work in to find these sources, and it was clear they had put in work to find other sources and cite them, and synthesize the ideas. You always saw an author or editor listed, and it was rare to read something on an academic topic that didn’t have extensive citations.

    But the amount of information (often unattributed) that is out there at students’ fingertips now is staggering. Notions of ownership are simply different these days. I honestly believe that a small part of this has to do with the lack of physical packaging that used to always be present. You see a book, you see an author, this book belongs to this author. It is not that way now. And the situation now IS dramatically different from 10 years ago – the internet is MUCH more developed, plus the college-age users now have basically always had the internet, since they were in elementary school. 10 years ago, college students had often not used the internet til college, or at least high school. They didn’t grow up with it.

    The issue of who “owns” ideas when the whole world can easily and freely access so much information is really turned upside-down.

  34. Techserving You says:

    I Like Books – the reason why quality and originality of research papers has gone down since students started doing their research online is that not everything is online. This applies not just to the freely-available information on the internet, but to the information available in legitimate, authoritative academic databases. These databases have large amounts of information, but there are still vast amounts of previous research only available in print, and students and even “adult” academics tend to avoid what is in print. And, of course the sorting that is available allows you to overlook a lot that is online… you can just look at what is most recent or what an algorithm says is “most relevant.”

    What these “studies” have found is that fewer articles are being cited and that the reduced-number of articles that ARE cited are cited over and over again. More of the articles cited are recent, too. I don’t think the situation is quite so dire as that suggests – it’s not like every research papers in a given field is citing the same 10 articles, but they are still citing fewer than before. And then, these new papers are getting published, and showing up at the top of results sorted by date… therefore they are read by more students, and then the students look at the articles cited, and the cycle continues… the students go to those same articles for their own research.

  35. Montmorency fan says:

    “Thank goodness that helicopter parents were not around in the 1940′s. They would have stormed Normandy demanding that the Army stop abusing their precious kids and let the Nazi have Europe.”

    If helicopter parents had been around in 1944 and tried to do what you said, Eisenhower and Arnold would have arrested them, confiscated the helicopters, figured out really quickly how to use them, hurriedly retrained a regiment or two of glider troops on how to use them, and deployed them to some operational advantage.

    In other words, though I get your drift, they didn’t have helicopters in Normandy in 1944. “helicopter parent” is an fine an idiom as any in our language, but you can’t mix it with a D-Day metaphor without some cognitively jarring anarchronism (!)

    That being said, your point is relatively well-taken.

  36. CIncinnati NAMjA says:

    It would seem to me that the publisher would aslo be liable in some way. Shouldb’t they pull the book?

  37. Mr. Professor says:

    In non-fiction and especially in academic work, outrage over plagiarism makes more sense. A work of history plagiarizing its sources has ignored the rule of scholarship that readers should be able to return to the sources the scholar used. But what reader would want to return to the sources of a novel?

    Even acknowledging sources in a novel would seem strange. Many novels are heavily researched, but they rarely have bibliographies. These scandals erupt because of word-for-word borrowings, but that’s not the limit. If a historian writes a book about the French Revolution without citing any sources, it’s plagiarized because it hasn’t attributed its sources. If a novelist writes a historically detailed but fictional story about a romance during the French Revolution without citing sources that were undoubtedly used in researching the novel, then it’s not plagiarized.

    How could reading 25 books on the French Revolution and using that information to imbue your novel with detail and atmosphere be a good thing, while borrowing a page or so from another novel be a bad thing? The outrage in alleged scandals like this aren’t based on any consistent notion of plagiarism or theft, which makes them very hard to take seriously.

    And you can take my thoughts here to the bank.

  38. Mr. Professor says:

    In non-fiction and especially in academic work, outrage over plagiarism makes more sense. A work of history plagiarizing its sources has ignored the rule of scholarship that readers should be able to return to the sources the scholar used. But what reader would want to return to the sources of a novel?

    Even acknowledging sources in a novel would seem strange. Many novels are heavily researched, but they rarely have bibliographies. These scandals erupt because of word-for-word borrowings, but that’s not the limit. If a historian writes a book about the French Revolution without citing any sources, it’s plagiarized because it hasn’t attributed its sources. If a novelist writes a historically detailed but fictional story about a romance during the French Revolution without citing sources that were undoubtedly used in researching the novel, then it’s not plagiarized.

    How could reading 25 books on the French Revolution and using that information to imbue your novel with detail and atmosphere be a good thing, while borrowing a page or so from another novel be a bad thing? The outrage in alleged scandals like this aren’t based on any consistent notion of plagiarism or theft, which makes them very hard to take seriously.

    And you can take my thoughts here to the bank.

  39. librarEwoman says:

    In response to I Like Books:

    Yes, third graders should cite their sources. I’m not saying that they should learn MLA or APA style, or that their citations should be required to be a particular format. I’m just saying that they should learn to acknowledge the sources of their information. So many times, I watch adults encouraging their kids to copy sources word for word into their report, or to just go online find images to use in their project, without even writing down from where they got the image. This creates the attitude, from an early age, that the source of information, images, etc, is not important, that all information is equal, and that the person who wrote the information or took the photo is not worthy of any acknowledgement. Is this what we want our kids to be learning?

    When kids do not begin learning these concepts early, it’s no wonder that plagiarism is rampant in high school and college.

  40. NotMariantheLibrarian says:

    I believe a lot of this boils down to a disgraceful sense of entitlement too many youngsters have. Most of that can be laid at the parents’ doorstep – you are so special! everyone’s a winner! Sorry but the general public doesn’t have to give a hoot about your brat. Yes. Brat. You can love them all you want but please don’t expect me to care a whit about your overindulged, special, brilliant offspring. A good kick in the seat of the pants might help more than anything. Oh wait … that might damage their self-esteem!

  41. library chat says:

    “Has it really changed that much in just 10 years?”
    YES.

    I have to agree with a lot of the points that Techserving You made — it is different and I think that packaging is part of it. Information is so readily available now on everything. Kids know that they shouldn’t plagiarize from the Library’s set of encyclopedias, but their thoughts of copying something from a website, blog, messageboard are very fluid – as if they were just repeating something they heard.

    Even so, back when I was in school there were certain feelings about plagiarizing, how if the library only had 3 books on the French Revolution you better make sure you reference your sources because the teacher with 25 other students in your class would know when all the reports came in looking the same. Today, I think it’s much harder work for the teacher to know when something has been plagiarized — there are computer programs that they can feed text into to see if it comes up with a hit, but it’s got to be a lot of work.

    Finally, I find plagiarizing of anything — research, a non-fiction book, or a work of fiction, to be offensive. I don’t understand when people say that creative ideas can’t be stolen, it’s just as bad and I’m disappointed that this girl was not stripped of all her praise and recognition like the Harvard case in the US a few years ago.

  42. library chat says:

    Finally, I find plagiarizing of anything — research, a non-fiction book, or a work of fiction, to be offensive. I don’t understand when people say that creative ideas can’t be stolen, it’s just as bad and I’m disappointed that this girl was not stripped of all her praise and recognition like the Harvard case in the US a few years ago.

  43. Alan says:

    She didn’t plagiarize, she merely forgot to credit the work she copied. Hmmmm…”I didn’t steal the clothes from the store, I merely forgot to pay for them.”

  44. F. Lee Baily School Kid says:

    Possession is 9/10 of the law. If I use it, it is mostly mine.