Plagiarism continues to plague the YA community. At least four bloggers reported last week that their reviews were copied, and there are doubtless many more undiscovered.
What’s the big deal when blogs aren’t technically “professional” publications? For one thing, in a crowded community that is saturated with blogs, individual voice and identity are increasingly important factors in maintaining an audience.
Plagiarism is not a victimless crime. Based on their dishonestly earned followers, plagiarists receive:
– ARCs that should have gone to someone else
– Tour spots that should have gone to someone else
– Votes/comments/praise that belong to someone else.
– Reviewer rankings (GoodReads, Amazon, etc.) that belong to someone else.
They’ve also duped friends, followers, publishers, and authors, all of whom have interacted with them on the implied faith that they’re dealing with someone who has earned their respect and trust.
People who steal content may believe that they’re not hurting anyone by lifting material. But consider these possible ramifications.
If someone mistakenly thinks the original writer is the plagiarist:
– An innocent party’s reputation may suffer.
– He/she might lose followers.
– Access to publisher galleys are at risk.
– Advertiser revenue could be affected.
Not to mention that someone else spent hours reading a book, writing and formatting a review, and promoting it online, only to have his or her work taken without permission.
My Own Experience with Plagiarism
Since I’ve been active on GoodReads and started YA blogging, I’ve seen many, many instances where people have adopted things that echoed my own style, including language, review structure, blog elements and descriptions, etc. I usually look the other way, knowing that there’s a certain amount of ambient influence that is unavoidable.
But about a year ago, someone submitted two items to me that had disquieting echoes of material I had seen on this blog. I gently mentioned this to the person in passing, without any response. This triggered alarms, because it just isn’t natural for a topic like that to go unacknowledged. I then spent hours going through her GoodReads reviews, where I found to my dismay that there were numerous examples of reviews that were much too similar to my own–and I recognized bits and pieces of phrases and styles from other reviewers, too. I immediately wrote to this person and dissolved a particular partnership with her, though I made a concentrated effort to be very polite and kind. I told her I would keep it private between us, I was fine with remaining GR friends (honestly, I also wanted to keep an eye out on her work), and that I had no hard feelings over it.
The letter I got in return was defiant. Though she denied culpability, she made no attempt to defend herself, saying it was no use since I’d already made up my mind anyway. (She also said “she wasn’t writing in anger.” Wow, thanks.) Looking back, this is where I made my mistake: I assumed that appealing to her conscience would make her stop. This was a smart, seemingly empathetic person whom I’d invited into my inner online circle, after all. How could she take more risks when she’d already been caught?
Within weeks after I sent the letter, she started her own blog and continued to post reviews to GoodReads as well. Several months passed, but it was a time when I didn’t have the energy to pay too much attention to something like this. Last year was extremely difficult, both reviewing-wise and personally, so thinking about someone I knew engaging in this behavior was the last thing I wanted to do. Complicating matters was the fact that we had many mutual friends, none of whom seemed to notice anything unusual.
After I started easing back into the blogosphere last fall, I eventually started paying attention to what she was doing again. It will come as no surprise that I found even more blatant examples of material that had been ripped off from my own work. Here are just a few examples (right click to enlarge):
As you can see, the reviews aren’t cut and paste in their entirety, but instead lift or paraphrase major structure, style, and language choices that are pretty obvious. I emailed comparison links to a few trusted friends, who all unanimously agreed that that degree of overlap could not be a mistake. This could have only happened if someone had my review open on her desktop and painstakingly gone through it line by line to model her writing after mine.
Here was my dilemma: I am a mama bear when it comes to sticking up for other people, but I loathe confrontation on my own behalf. I hate having to engage in negative interactions, even when I know it’s necessary. So I watched from the sidelines as this person continued to post more reviews, I watched as she racked up more followers and votes, and I fumed. But post-holidays, I’d finally enough. It seemed to me that she’d gotten pretty cocky–and between another friend of mine having material from one of her reviews lifted by this person and a blatant ripoff of a fairly specific blog feature I’d recently done, I decided I just wasn’t going to put up with it any longer. So I confronted her again with the following letter:
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Since you are apparently a minor, you may pass this onto your parents and have them contact me if they need to speak on your behalf.
I’ve been ignoring this for awhile now in the hopes that your conscience would get the better of your ambition. But since I continue to see echoes in your reviews of my own, as well as other bloggers’, I am writing to you again to say that this needs to stop.
Going forward: you need to stop copying other people’s work. If this behavior continues unchecked, I will not hesitate to take further action.
I expect to hear back from you asap.
Within hours, I received a response. A few lines from her strangely rambling, largely incoherent email:
Yes, I admit to stealing phrases, words and sometimes paraphrasing it to make it my own, but to suggest that I do so because I am lazy or because I have no moral compass in my reviewing is wrong and condescending.
I wouldn’t be dedicating hours upon hours copying snippets of reviews to combine one of my own just to get free ARCs and books…because that’s not the type of person I am.
I’m not asking you to forgive me, but do know that I am deeply sorry for unintentionally hurting you. However, I am not yet sorry for what I’ve done since I haven’t fully comprehended my wrongdoings and the consequences.
This letter infuriated me–it is a non-apology at its finest. To make excuses, to play the victim, to try to say “yes, I plagiarized, but it wasn’t why you thought I did!” and to deny responsibility at this point seemed utterly pointless and far beneath any thinking person. I shot back this response (excerpts) later that day, which is far more scathing than anything I’d previously sent:
The smokescreens you are throwing up in complaining about what I’ve written to you will not hold any water. Your age is not an excuse. Lack of experience is not an excuse. Because certainly from the last communication we had, at least, you knew better, you were called out on it, you were shown mercy, and you continued to do it anyway.
I told you from the very beginning that…I thought you did have something original to say and I liked the voice that I heard in your reviews. But because you’ve purloined and “borrowed” from so many, I no longer have any assurance that what I was drawn to in the beginning was ever truly yours to begin with.
Don’t think that there won’t be eyes on what you’re doing, whether you continue with your own blog or pop up with a new identity.
During this time and over the next couple of days, I was pretty vocal about this on Twitter since I knew she was checking my feed. As I continued investigating her blog, I reported back on everything she was doing to save her skin–removing only a couple of reviews, but editing the body of others so she kept all her comments and votes; leaving the ones on the blog; leaving the ones I didn’t specifically point out to her, since I wanted to see if she’d do that voluntarily of her own accord. She then took her blog private–something a lot of plagiarists seem to do. Then she made it subscription-only. But finally, after I grew steadily angrier, both her GoodReads profiles and blog were deleted. And finally, I could breathe a sigh of relief. It made me unhappy to have to take that tone or those tactics with anyone, but it was clear nothing else would have been effective.
I was surprised when this letter came through a few hours later. Here it is in its entirety:
January 24, 2013
I have permanetly deleted my blog, my twitter account, my Facebook page, my Google profile page, and my Goodreads account.
That was a real apology. And those were the actions of someone who understood the magnitude of her actions. I wrote this response hours later:
Thank you for your email. If you had sent me this note and taken these steps three days ago, I would never have become as angry as I did. In fact, while I was disappointed in your actions last year and the last few months have been extremely frustrating, it wasn’t until I got your initial response that my temper really flared. I appreciate your apology, and I can tell that it comes from the heart.
I hope that you will tread carefully in the future, however, because you could get yourself into a great deal of trouble and embarrassment if this sort of thing happens again. Someone else, in my place, would not have been nearly as patient or as kind.
Copying someone else’s work is a serious issue, whether it is in its entirety or merely taking bits and pieces from different sources. I hope that you will spend some time thinking about how you put yourself in this position to begin with, and to look upon this as an important learning experience. You should be aware that I will be writing a blog post about plagiarism in general, and sharing some of what’s happened. I don’t intend to name names, and it is not my style to write something in a vicious or demeaning manner. This is, however, a serious problem that is plaguing the reviewing community, and I believe it is a problem that thrives in secrecy. I am sincerely glad, however, that I can write it from the perspective of the situation being resolved with as much civility as possible.
I would like to believe that there was something real in what drew me to your reviews in the first place. Reading your note fills me with some regret, because there is a genuinely articulate voice in there that doesn’t need to rely upon the words of other people to get by. I hope that in the future, you won’t allow yourself to be swayed by a desire for approval or friendship, by the thrill of numbers and rankings, or by the want of free books. I understand that those things feel great–who doesn’t want an audience for her work? who wouldn’t want a great circle of friends? who wouldn’t want to receive books to read?–but those things should not pressure you into compromising your principles or anyone else’s. I have a decently sized audience for my own reviews, but numbers and rankings have never been something I put much stock in. I’ve never pursued friendships or asked anyone to join the blog because of that–it is the heart and soul of a reviewer, of a person, that matters to me. I hope you do a tremendous amount of soul-searching and find your way back to a place of honesty and sincerity one day.
I genuinely wish you no ill will, particularly after your note. And I believe that doing something bad doesn’t necessarily make an individual a bad person. What’s important is what you take away from this experience, and how you choose to conduct yourself going forward. I hope you’ll always try your best to maintain your integrity, and to treat others with the respect that you would want to be extended.
And that’s the end of that particular story. Because I was plagiarized, I spent countless hours gathering data, thinking about, and discussing something I should never had had to address with to begin with. Time better spent reading, reviewing, or any number of more pleasant things. I am very lucky that this situation ended with a minimum of fuss, and that I had wonderful friends who counseled me and supported me throughout it. And I am tremendously grateful that this sorry affair ended as happily as possible.
But I worry about new bloggers, or bloggers without a support network. I worry that this seems to be occurring over and over again and that so many reviewers are affected. I worry that so many plagiarists reap the benefit of their spoils without consequence.
Stop Supporting Plagiarists
How can we stop the plague of plagiarism? It’s a problem that is hard to eradicate and yet I think there are some things that we can do to mitigate it–or at least, to stop contributing to an atmosphere where it can thrive. I would suggest:
– Stop following blogs, Twitter feeds, FB pages, etc. of proven, unrepentant plagiarists
– Stop blaming the victims.
– If you notice a disquieting similarity to something you’ve seen before–keep an eye on it. If you see a pattern of behavior, alert the original source.
– Educate yourself about what plagiarism entails. It is not just copying entire texts, but also covers paraphrasing, poaching from multiple sources, etc.
– Stay informed. People should always make up their own minds about the facts they are presented with, but willfully turning a blind eye contributes to this problem. Loyalty is a commendable and admittedly complicated thing, but just remember that you may also lose readers who question your association with proven plagiarists. And it’s easy enough to look the other way–until it happens to you or someone you know.
I strongly believe we as a community need to look out for each other and stand up for what’s right. This behavior thrives in secrecy and feeds on approval–so let’s stop giving it that satisfaction.
A Word of Caution
I will say that I think we always need to be careful in not rushing to immediate judgment, to do our research carefully, and to not subscribe to mob mentality. Wherever possible, it’s best not to make an already ugly situation even uglier, since that clouds an issue that should be perfectly clear.
If You Think You’ve Been Plagiarized
– Don’t ignore warning signs. If you have an uneasy feeling, trust your instincts. It could be something as simple as seeing language that is too similar to yours in your bio, blog description, etc. (See screenshots below.) If he/she can’t do something as simple as write a bio without copying from you, chances are good other things are being copied, too.
– Gather evidence. Go through every review by this person you can find to see if you spot familiar markers. Use sites like Duplichecker to help compare. Take screenshots of everything. Posts can be edited, but jpgs are forever.
– Get a second opinion. Rely on friends to tell you if they see similar problems.
– Contact the plagiarists ASAP to explain what you’ve found and specifically tell them to take down the offensive material. They will not stop until they are confronted–and even then, it will take time and dogged effort to wear them down.
– If the plagiarist refuses to comply, begin notifying every possible outlet and/or resource affected. (GoodReads, Amazon, Netgalley, Edelweiss, web hosts, tour hosts, etc.) DMCA notices should be filed.
– Don’t give up. Sometimes the only thing that will make them stop is wearing them down until the rewards are no longer worth the trouble of dealing with your determination.
– Whether your situation is resolved or not, keep an eye out for the copyist. It’s a pretty sure bet he/she is also lifting content from other people.
– Ask for help. The YA reviewing community can be an excellent resource for ferreting out information, comparing notes, and support in general.
What Are Your Thoughts?
I wanted to share my experience because unfortunately, it is far from an isolated incident. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think discussion is key raising awareness about this issue. A pretty decent number of eyeballs see my reviews–but if this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.
What do you think about this problem that is plaguing our community? What are other ways we can work together to solve this problem? Do we need a group watchdog blog, where reports of plagiarism in the YA reviewing community can be posted?
Bloggers Who Have Been Recently Plagiarized:
Plagiarism: We’re Still Doing It
Plagiarism Sucks: Aunti Spinelli
Plagiarism Sucks: Sparkles & Lightning
Plagiarism Sucks: Book Haven Extraordinaire
My Content Was Stolen. So What?
Plagiarism: The Saga Continues
The 2012 Scandal:
Photo credit: D. Sharon Pruitt.
No images may be copied from this post without express permission from the author, with the exception of a properly credited, linked anti-plagiarism button.