Plagiarism is Not Romantic

A couple of people have asked me if I have anything to say about the plagiarism accusations surrounding romance writer Cassie Edwards, which have been exhaustively documented at Smart Bitches, and the answer is no, not really. Ms. Edwards pretty clearly cut and pasted chunks of text from other peoples’ work, and that’s also pretty clearly plagiarism. The examples I’ve seen to be largely out of texts that are in the public domain, which is interesting, since if they are, even if it is plagiarism it wouldn’t be copyright infringement; it’s not a legal problem to plagiarize work not under copyright. But no one likes a plagiarist, even if they just stick to plundering the public domain.

What does get me is that Ms. Edwards’ excuse for her plagiarism is that she didn’t know she was supposed to credit sources: “When you write historical romances, you’re not asked to do that,” she told a reporter. This comment was no doubt followed by the the sound of all the other romance writers in the world groaning and smacking their heads in frustration, because Ms. Edwards, in an effort to rationalize her own bad behavior, just rather explicitly stated that romance writing is the warm, shallow, yellow-tinged end of the publishing pool. That’s going to make her popular at the next RWA shindig.

Also: Really? The woman writes 100 books over 25 years and is somehow unclear on the concept of plagiarism and attributing sources? That’s kind of like a long-haul trucker claiming after a couple of decades that he didn’t know he was supposed to use his turn signal when he changes lanes on the interstate. Yes, it’s that fundamental. Irony: at the moment, Ms. Edwards’ Wikipedia entry states that she “is known for her meticulous research.”

Really, it’s not hard: Attribute sources. If your publisher won’t let you have an acknowledgments page because paper is too dear, put up a Web site and do it there. And then you’re covered. Easy.

51 thoughts on “Plagiarism is Not Romantic

  1. Her remark about not knowing she was supposed to credit sources is akin to a child getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar and saying, “It wasn’t me.” Caught off-guard, she just said the first thing that popped into her mind, however stupid it sounds.

  2. Interestingly, if you read the plagarism policies that most colleges and universities publish in their various catalogs, they’re all almost exactly the same. I read somewhere that they sort of “borrowed” the text from one another. Granted, there aren’t that many ways to say “Don’t pass off someone else’s work as your own or you’re really going to regret it,” but it does seem a tad ironic…

  3. I think Ms. Edwards suffered from a three-fold brain failure:

    1) She suffered under the a disturbingly common misapprehension that if you’re lifting non-fiction research material, it’s ok. I, for one, thought the definition of plagiarism was pretty cut and dried. Then I started seeing these blog posts and forum comments that show a wide segment of people seem to think that because the text came from research material, it was justifiable. Someone even said, “if you’re talking about facts, and change the wording, you change the facts.” Uh, no.

    2) I think she also confused the idea of copyright fair use and assumed it applied to the ethical issue of plagiarism. The, “If they can’t sue me, it isn’t wrong,” argument that Penguin tried in its first response to the kerfuffle. Again, no.

    3) She’s just lazy in the same way a college student is who just cut-and-pastes paragraphs from Wikipedia directly into their term paper and can’t be troubled to reword them.

  4. Doesn’t the idea of attributing sources pertain more to non-fiction than fiction? You wouldn’t expect a narrative to contain *any* quotation – apart from maybe the occasional subtle reference.

    So her problem is not that she didn’t attribute her sources – it’s that she had incorporated enough text to require attribution in the first place.

  5. Ben:

    “Doesn’t the idea of attributing sources pertain more to non-fiction than fiction?”

    Not really, especially if you do significant research in order to get your fiction right, and even more especially if you cut and paste.

    Likewise, there are times when another fiction writer will create a concept or block out an action sequence you admire, and you want to borrow it. In Ghost Brigades I make acknowledgment to Nick Sagan and Scott Westerfeld for borrowing a couple of ideas of theirs.

  6. The number of articles on plagiarism allegations seems to be increasing over the past few years. Don’t misconstrue what follows as a veiled defending for Cassie Edwards, because from what I’ve read of it, the evidence of plagiarism is rather compelling.

    What concerns me is the future application of “plagiarism detection software”, especially by those in a journalism who may be after a story. An accusation alone of plagiarism makes good news, but could (and probably will) damage a career and I think it inevitable that innocent authors in the future may end up in its crosshairs based on a self-serving interpretation (that is: the interpreter drawing desired conclusions) of the results this sort of software generates.

    It’s more than a question of probability whether a specific chain of words could be put together, which someone else, at some previous time, already did. It’s more than taking into account the limitations of the English language and grammar, which one should, as there are a limited number of ways to use a sentence to communicate a specific idea.

    I think it possible that two writers in same neighborhood of skill and vocabulary, who organize their thoughts a similar way, and who are writing about the same topic in the same tone … will write identical sentences. If they have common influences, the probability increases.

    On the note of influences: writers are human beings, of course, who first learn to communicate by way of mimicry and imitation. Writing is a form of communication. All writers begin as imitators. While we may not consciously remember word for word each and every thing we’ve read, the subconscious probably has, especially if we were particularly taken by the way it was expressed, leaving a deeper imprint. Might those same words be churned out of our subconscious, cherry-picked by it with no other data, at a time when we are expressing something similar without memory that it came from an external source.

    Given the wonky nature of the human mind, I think it probable.

    Is this evidence of plagiarism or evidence of influence?

    Plagiarism is about willfull intent.

    In most of these cases, however, we’re talking about entire paragraphs. A coincidence is not impossible, but not likely either. Still, I fear that in the future, the “evidence” will amount to a scattering of sentences or clauses throughout a work and though this may draw conclusions which any reasonable person would deem ridiculous, the accusation alone causes injury.

  7. So if a professional does it, it’s plagiarism, but if an amateur does it, it’s copyright infringement?

  8. Sean at #11:

    No. If you copy someone else’s text and the text is under copyright protection, it’s *both* plagiarism and copyright infringement, generally.

    If you lift someone else’s text and the text in question is in the public domain, then it’s (again, generally) likely just plagiarism, but wouldn’t be copyright infringement. Doesn’t have to do with who is doing the lifting, but rather with what is being lifted.

  9. Sean,

    No. What’s wrong for an amatuer is equally wrong for a professional. The difference here is that Ms Edwards stole bits and pieces from work in the public domain, for which there can only be ethical consequences, not legal ones.

    And what John was talking about re Nick Sagan and Scott Westerfield was neither palgiarism nor copyright infringement. His acknowledgement that he borrowed an idea from them is more along the lines of gentlemanly ethical conduct in both acknowledging he didn’t dream up a particular notion and in giving credit where credit is due.

  10. Plagiarism and taking credit for the work of others isnot just confined to the literary world. It is all too common in the workplace too. Superivsors, and co-workers often take credit for the work of others and it is often dismissed as just “supervision.” It is morally wrong where ever it occurs, regardless of whether it is legal or not.

  11. With all the cool stuff people are doing with pastiche and remixes these days… if this here author would’ve done the crediting and admitting up front (and did the actual remixing well…), she might’ve even been able to capitalize on that.

  12. But what fiction writer cuts and pastes random chunks of text into a novel? A chapter-opening quotation that’s attributed, sure; an *idea* borrowed from a friend, OK; Burroughsian cut-up, I grant you; but a chunk of text copied word for word within the body of a piece of fiction? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. If you did want to do that., then I suppose it’s better to attribute it. But if the romance novelist wanted to insert some random factoid, why wouldn’t she just paraphrase it?

  13. Ben:

    “But what fiction writer cuts and pastes random chunks of text into a novel?”

    Random chunks? No one. But specific chunks relevant to her story? Ms. Edwards, it would appear.

    “But if the romance novelist wanted to insert some random factoid, why wouldn’t she just paraphrase it?”

    Indeed; why wouldn’t she?

  14. Patrick Nielsen Hayden Says:
    Four paragraphs after declaring that you had nothing to say. Good thing you didn’t have anything to say, or we’d have been here all day…

    Personally, I blame his editor…

  15. There’s a more than slight misapprehension here, basically on Edwards’ part.

    Although I’ve certainly seen many historical novels with profuse acknowledgments of research sources, she’s correct that it’s not -required- to acknowledge them, certainly not if you only use them incidentally. “I want to thank the World Book Encyclopedia for informing me of the date of the Battle of Trafalgar” – no, you don’t need that.

    What Edwards seems not to know is that actually quoting sources is not the same as just using them. This confusion seems to be demonstrated by her claim that her usage lies within fair-use guidelines. In terms of number of words copied, perhaps it does (I don’t know). But holy moly, lady: if you want to quote some other book, put it within quotation marks and say where it comes from! In this case it -is- required, and anybody who doesn’t know that really is hopeless.

  16. So it’s not the lack of attribution that’s the problem here – it’s the presence of pieces of undigested text from other books integrated into a novel.

    Even if she’d attributed the pieces of dialogue she’d copied from Which Mustelid mgazine or whatever it was – that would still be weird. Characters are supposed to speak in their own voices, not in clippings.

    To be honest, declining intellectual standards in the romance novel don’t really bother me that much.

  17. Well, it is an attribution problem. If she’d wanted to quote a text, she could have used quotation marks and footnotes. If you did a lot of that in a novel it might indicate that you are lazy, lazy lazy, or seem odd, or demonstrate that you are not very skilled at incorporating research into your fiction; if you used the quotes, and somehow noted it, it wouldn’t be plagiarism.

    Her “fair use” excuse is just more mixing up of copyright and plagiarism concepts.

    There isn’t a fair use exception to the act that constitutes plagiarism. If you quote someone else’s words and claim them as your very own, you have plagiarized them. “Fair use” is a copyright concept. If you are using someone else’s words and those words are protected by copyright, even WITH attribution you might still be violating that copyright, depending upon the scope and type of usage and the parameters of the fair use exception (of which I claim NO expertise).

    Plagiarism exists as a concept wholly apart from the idea of copyright under US law or any other country’s IP law. Whether or not you’ve violated copyright is a legal question. Plagiarism is a factual question.

  18. Ben said:
    To be honest, declining intellectual standards in the romance novel don’t really bother me that much.

    I personally don’t read romance, however, I feel the need to coment on that statement.

    How would you feel if someone said “To be honest, declining intellectual standards in the science fiction novel don’t really bother me that much.”

    Just because we don’t personally care for a style of writing doesn’t mean we should trash an entire genre. Unless of course you like the stereotype of the SF reader as a socially awkward, glasses wearing geek who speaks Klingon for fun and spends more time with video games than with other humans.

  19. Ms. Edwards has written over 100 books. I wonder if this wasn’t just a matter of laziness: crank out those books and paste in other people’s work, because who’s going to notice? Which also suggests a certain Ben-level contempt for her own readers.

  20. Crediting ‘sources’ in a work of fiction? Clearly I have been labouring under the misapprehension that fiction is supposed to be all my own work, and the equal misapprehension that taking the words of others, not putting them between quotes and passing them off as my own is something no diligent, honourable person does.

    ‘Fair use’ and attribution in this context are chimerae. She’s a plagiarist, and I can’t think of a worse accusation.

  21. Interesting that this is in the field of romance novels.

    You may recall a storm over plagiarism in this same niche some time back, when the Number-Two romance writer was found to have plagiarized from the works of the Number-One (Janet Dailey and Nora Roberts, respectively, if memory serves).

    But at least in that case, the thieving author had the excuse of psychological problems.

  22. The Smart Bitches blog who broke this story has just found a smoking gun that pretty much demolishes any excuses Ms. Edwards has (including my earlier points re:cluelessness, sloppy research and laziness.) The most recent post documents the lifting of passages from a Pulitzer-winning novel. One that is not even in the public domain.

    A lot of people suddenly have some ‘splaning to do, because there’s no way she can now claim this was an problem of “attribution.”

  23. Keeping in mind my previous comment (during which I had much more to say than I thought I did), I would say that if the information on the page linked in comment #26 is correct. The odds of that being a coincidence and/or unintentional is about that of jumping off the Eiffel Tower and landing in Lake Michigan.

  24. Jack @ 10: I’m sorry, but plagiarism is *not* about willful intent; it’s about the factual question of whether you have appropriated someone else’s phraseology and passed it off as your own. And, particularly in prose works, it would not normally apply to phrases or even short, simple sentences — as you point out, there are only so many ways to say “Jack Smith was born on Oct. 24, 1950.” But when an entire passage in the purportedly new work is identical, that’s plagiarism. Tricks of memory might make it happen innocently — once; if it happens repeatedly, it’s no accident. But even if it’s not deliberate, it’s still plagiarism, and honest authors who are called on it are profuse in their apologies and eager to fix the problem.

  25. Ellen: I thought of several responses to your comment and decided that each one was a doorway into a deep philosophical discussion that will muddle the focus of this comment thread, probably to the point of what some would consider ludicrousness, which is something I do not want to be responsible for, as I am already guilty of the whim of going a bit off-topic in the comment you are referencing. I do not sense that you processed what I was trying to communicate, but I will most gladly attribute this to my failure to communicate rather than your failure to comprehend.

    And there we shall leave it.

  26. Oh come on people, Ben just said something that a lot of us were thinking. Romance novels are considered “trashy” reading by a lot of people because so many of them read so similarly! Furthermore, I agree with Ben that declining intellectual standards in the romance novel field doesn’t worry me all that much. Is it unethical? Yes. Is it going to be bad for that business? Yes. But we are not talking about some sort of human enterprise that depends on facts being correct, like, for instance, pharmocological research. I’ve had a hard time taking romance novelists seriously for a while, and frankly, this is proof of what I’ve often suspected.

  27. For people asking about why one would include text whole in a fiction work, I’d note that at least one extremely popular historical series does just that, to great effect. The Flashman series, by (the recently, lamentably late) George McDonald Fraser, often includes quotes from the popular press of the time. Fraser always in puts such in either quotes or block-quotes, and footnotes obsessively. I’ve always found this to be a great way of giving the actual history while binding the (fictional) main character into it. It did seem odd the first time I saw it, but it certainly doesn’t seem so burdensome or intrusive that it shouldn’t be standard practice.

  28. Oh come on people, Ben just said something that a lot of us were thinking.

    Yes, and? Are you trying to say that a dumb thought becomes un-dumb if many lurkers think it? Or that “my genre snobbery is more legitimate than your genre snobbery” is not a dumb thought in the first place?

  29. Todd,

    In other words, if it’s not in your neighborhood, let them kill each other, right?

    A wrong is a wrong. I can hear you teaching your kid now: “It’s wrong to plagiarize, unless of course, you’re writing a romance novel, then oh, it’s all right, then, plagiarize away.”

  30. Gennita Low (36) et al:

    I’m reading the Ben-thread as “it’s wrong, but it’s not as wrong as, say, a nuke in Paris” with a pinch of condescendation due to the “trashy romance” as a genre.

    I guess I can agree with that, and so have not voted to draw and quarter either writer or editor. But the fact of the plagiarism should be scattered far and wide to embarrass the hell out of them.

    Frankly, though, I’ll worry more about replacing my incandescent lighting.

  31. Possibly the Wikipedia entry stems from the old saw, “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you steal from many it’s research.” By those standards Edwards did in fact do meticulous “research”.

  32. In other words, if it’s not in your neighborhood, let them kill each other, right?

    A wrong is a wrong.

    Because plagiarism is comparable to murder, and all sins are created equal… or, you know, not.

    From my point of view, this woman richly deserves the ridicule and opprobrium that’s going to fall on her, but it’s not something I’m going to waste a moment’s hate on.

  33. Let me just rewrite something:

    “Oh come on people, Ben just said something that a lot of us were thinking. Fantasy novels are considered “trashy” reading by a lot of people because so many of them read so similarly! Furthermore, I agree with Ben that declining intellectual standards in the fantasy novel field doesn’t worry me all that much. Is it unethical? Yes. Is it going to be bad for that business? Yes. But we are not talking about some sort of human enterprise that depends on facts being correct, like, for instance, pharmocological research. I’ve had a hard time taking fantasy novelists seriously for a while, and frankly, this is proof of what I’ve often suspected.”

    Come on people. Science fiction and fantasy have been in their own ghetto for years. Are you really getting off on believing that your brand of fiction is better than another brand of fiction because it makes you feel superior?

    Yes, some romance novels are fluff pieces. But then so are some science fiction and fantasy novels. And just as some SFF authors do meticulous research into their subjects, so do some romance authors.

    Standing around saying, “well of course that happened in the romance field” because it makes you feel all smug and superior about your reading choices seems rather stupid when we just spent significant time in a previous thread discussing what you should do when you don’t like the politics or behavior of an author. Hell, you all named names of who you felt to be the bad boys and girls and science fiction and fantasy.

    Nevermind the fact that there are a lot of crossover authors between SFF and romance. Are you saying these authors okay only as long as they’re writing SFF?

  34. Rita (37),

    Oh, I know what he’s saying.

    Again, I want to point out that plagiarism is plagiarism. A nuke is a nuke. Nuking, let’s say, a small unarmed nation should be as important news as nuking a well-armed superpower.

    Someone did something wrong. It was on the news for that reason. Whether you think it merits your interest is entirely a different matter than you telling on a public forum that “it’s only some stupid copying from a romance author, nothin’ serious.”

    Lastly, Chris (39), those of us who are interested in the matter is not “piling on the hate” on the author. Most of us are expressing disappointment and shock that she’d published 100 books without being caught.

    I’m not saying plagiarism is equal to murder. I’m just asking that one acknowledges that it’s a crime and not attach excuses like “she is 71 years-old” or “it’s just a romance novel,” just as I don’t expect someone to excuse a grandmother selling crack cocaine in a bad neighborhood.

    We can have a good laugh at it and if we want, we can discuss more in depth about it, or we can ignore it and change lightbulbs, but to make careless summations like “it’s just a romance author” or “it’s just a grandma in a bad neighborhood, trying to make a living” demeans the victims.

  35. What Michelle said!

    And frankly, I think anyone who decides that ethics, standards, and respect are due a writer based on the genre that writer chooses to work in is one hell of an arrogant twit.

    I’ve written a 100K long horror novel, a 100K long thriller, and a 100K long paranormal romance. And guess what? Same rules apply. Same effort. I didn’t have a genre fairy show up and say “pssst. . . you’re writing a romance, don’t knock yourself out.”

    What really ticks me off is the fact that people with this attitude shitcan work strictly based on a marketing decision. That paranormal romance, if I sold it in the 80s it’d be horror, if I sold it in the 90s, it’d be fantasy– both apparently worthy of more respect. So I’m suddenly a less respectable writer because my editor decided to slot my book where it might have the best sales? Give me a break.

    All I hear when people go on like this is that kid from the Princess Bride movie whining, “Is this a kissing book?”

  36. Gennita @41
    Forgive my use of the word “hate”, though I think ‘expressing disappointment and shock’ is a lot nearer to hate than plagiarism is to murder, selling crack or nuking a country (!). I don’t think an emotive arms race is very helpful.

    And I don’t think the genre is an issue, at least it isn’t with me. Any author stealing a few verbatim sentences is unethical, lazy and dumb, but to be honest I’d barely rate it as a serious crime. It doesn’t diminish the original work.

    I’m trying to imagine what I’d feel like if I discovered that one of my favourite authors had lifted a few paragraphs or sentences. And yeah, I’d feel disappointed, but I’d probably keep buying their books (assuming any more were published) – the enjoyment I get from their work is based on far more than the individual syntax of the sentences. It’s the characters, plots and style that I appreciate.

  37. chris,

    No harm done. I can’t argue/discuss/debate with you when you’re just expressing an opinion without even first looking at the subject at hand.

    First, although plagiarizing one book is bad enough, it isn’t a few sentences, it’s 12 books and counting in the course of 20 years. Second, they aren’t just “research” books (which was her initial defense), one of them is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Third, the sentence-thefts are actually more of wholesale paragraphs-lifting, with one or two word changes.

    These paragraphs have amounted to 48 pages in a PDF file you can view here:

    http://smartbitchestrashybooks.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/cassieedwards-1-13.pdf

    Are you saying that this is minor?

    I can see how this can be of no interest to those who don’t care, but to dismiss it solely because of the genre (not you, but Ned did) reeks of a prejudice that I, as a writer, have to speak against.

    And oh, yes, I know my examples were extremist, but I had to think of an extreme case of thievery and crime that might tug at Ned’s moral compass. The nuking–ah well, that’s the microwaved coffee speaking. I apologize for that.

  38. “…just rather explicitly stated that romance writing is the warm, shallow, yellow-tinged end of the publishing pool…”

    Hey, I thought that was the description of SF (he said, casting his eyes on his shelves upon shelves of books in that genre)!

  39. Wikipaedia is the one that anyone can go in and edit right? well, wouldn’t you wonder about the accuracy of Ms Edwards little bio, and I did see one of her books the other day, it was in the bargain bin.

  40. S Andrew Swann said
    All I hear when people go on like this is that kid from the Princess Bride movie whining, “Is this a kissing book?”

    OK. So I have to admit I do that all the time–to books and movies. But I know very well that just because it isn’t to my taste doesn’t mean it isn’t good. (After all, I thought the movie “Sin City” was very good, but I didn’t like it at all.)

  41. Well now she’s using the ethnic card to excuse not having ethics. So she’s a wanker on top of plagiarist.

  42. I’m trying to imagine what I’d feel like if I discovered that one of my favourite authors had lifted a few paragraphs or sentences.

    I hope Herman Melville isn’t one of your favorite authors. His short novel “Benito Cereno,” first published in 1855, lifts its plot and large chunks of its text from Amasa Delano’s autobiographical “Narrative of Voyages and Travels,” which had been published in 1817. Melville’s plagiarism (there’s no doubt that’s what it was) wasn’t discovered until 1928, by which time Melville and “Benito Cereno” had been placed in the pantheon of great American literature. Melville scholars, though taken aback for a brief moment by the clear evidence that they’d been duped by a fake, quickly reached a consensus: Yes, Melville stole a lot from Delano, but he changed a lot, too — and so made Delano’s story his own. In essence, Melville’s genius trumped his literary thievery.

    Somehow, I don’t think Ms. Edwards is going to get the same treatment.

  43. Looking at some of these follow up posts, I want to clarify where I am coming from. When I think of the romance genre, I think of the mass market paperback crap you can find at a drug store. However, I think many in this forum are defining the romance genre in a much broader way. So please take my arguments in light of my definition.

    Gennita Low said:

    ‘In other words, if it’s not in your neighborhood, let them kill each other, right?

    A wrong is a wrong. I can hear you teaching your kid now: “It’s wrong to plagiarize, unless of course, you’re writing a romance novel, then oh, it’s all right, then, plagiarize away.”’

    First, we are talking about plagiarism, not killing. Spare me your histrionic metaphors. Second, a wrong is not a wrong. This is why we have a system of law that recognizes that not all wrongs are equal and therefore some wrongs deserve unequal attention and unequal punishments. Third, I’ll thank you to leave my kids (or lack thereof) out of this, that’s just bad taste. Fourth, you state in a later post that plagiarism is a crime. Actually, I think it was established that plagiarism itself is not a crime. Stop conflating.

    S Andrew Swann:

    “And frankly, I think anyone who decides that ethics, standards, and respect are due a writer based on the genre that writer chooses to work in is one hell of an arrogant twit.”

    Gosh, I do hope your twit comment wasn’t directed at me, or those who hold opinions like mine. I had thought we could disagree in this thread without resorting to personal attacks.

    I have more respect for certain genres of writing. I think it’s harder work to develop and/or apply a scientific system underpinning a novel’s world, than to write about relationships and romance in a formulaic manner. You can disagree with me, and I can respect that, but to me the type of romance novel Edwards writes all read the same. It’s like names and settings are fed into a computer and out pops a generic novel with the same tired plots. That criticism could be directed at Sci-Fi and other genres to some degree as well; however, my assertion was that other genres are less stale, and less subject to this criticism. Therefore, I was making two arguments: 1) Ben isn’t alone in his opinion, and 2) the impact of plagiarism in these romance novels will have less of an impact on the evolution of the genre (if it is even evolving), and thus, I am less worried about it than plagiarism in other genres.

    One thing I am NOT saying is that the writers that Cassie Edwards stole from have not been wronged. They have. If it was plagiarism, Edwards should issue an apology. If it was copyright infringement, then the aggrieved writers should sue.

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