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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Writers Life: Some thoughts on Plagiarism

“I use Grammarly's plagiarism scanner because you are only cheating yourself!”

As writers we live in fear of plagiarism...our hard fought words appearing under another writer's name. Plagiarism is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.

We are told “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and if we are honest with ourselves we are probably all guilty of the occasional spot of plagiarism… the unattributed cut and paste from Wikipedia for example. I think, and this is the lawyer in me, true plagiarism requires “mens rea” and “actus reus”… a guilty mind and a guilty act. It is the deliberate act of setting out to take someone else’s work and pass it off as your own. In my time on the committee of a writing organisation I have seen it myself… a book where the characters names were changed and odd bits where the original said “gold” changed to “silver” but in all other respects the SAME book, the same words. The plagiarising author had taken someone else’s book and passed it off as their own. That is pure,unadulterated plagiarim!

Some famous plagiarists:

STEPHEN AMBROSE: In 2002 Ambrose, a highly respected historian and writer, was accused of plagiarising the work of a little known historian, Thomas Childers. In 1995 Childers had written a history of a B24 Bomber crew Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II. Ambrose acknowledged the book in the bibliography to his own book, The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany but it was discovered by Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard that large slabs of Childers book had been reproduced by Ambrose without attribution. Further investigations by Mark Lewis of revealed that other Ambrose books contained blatant examples of plagiarism, a career that began with his own college thesis. Sadly all this emerged just before Ambrose died of cancer and he was never held accountable. However his long, and distinguished career, was forever tainted by the stain of plagiarism.

This chart comes from the Weekly Standard's article about Ambrose, written by Fred Barnes

Read more:

KAAVYA VISWANATHAN: Kaavya hit the headlines in 2006, as a young Harvard student, when her book “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” hit the NYT best seller list. A $1million book deal and movie rights were on the table and then the allegations began to surface. Huge chunks of work from Megan McCafferty were found in the book. Kaavya apologised saying she had been a huge fan of McCafferty at school and hadn’t realised how much she had “internalised her words”. That may have been plausible had not other chunks of work by Sophie Kinsella also been found in the book. Viswanathan was allowed to complete her studies and now practices as a lawyer. 

TS ELIOT: (and this for me is a personal disappointment because he is one of my favourite poets) Eliot's greatest work “The Waste Land” is largely plagiarised from the work of a lesser known poet, Madison Cawein. Cawein’s poem, also title “The Waste Land” was published in the same issue as one of Eliot’s and contains metaphors that appear word for word in Eliot’s poem of the same name. Cawein could take cold comfort in the fact Eliot also plagiarised Shakespeare and other poets in the same poem! Such flagrant “borrowing” from other work has long been justified as poetic allusion to the work of the other authors. Cawein died penniless, unacknowledged and unappreciated while Eliot remains one of the world's "greatest" poets. (AS:  I am grateful to the TS Eliot Society for responding to this post... you can see their comments on this allegation against the great poet in the Comments section below)

Sadly in these days of the world wide web and the pressure produce books to feed an increasing appetite for “instabooks”, it is all too easy to borrow bits and pieces from all over the place and pass them off as your own cleverness. 

Don’t do it… just don’t! 

You are cheating yourself and you are violating another author’s work in a way that is similar to a physical violation. I have seen examples of blatant plagiarism where the only things changed were the names and although it was not my own writing (thank heavens!), it sickened me. When you are found out, you will be publicly humiliated and your reputation for integrity will be destroyed. No one will ever take your writing seriously again. Is it worth it for the sake of a few bucks?

And it's not just books... blogs for example. I have seen a friend's blog post reproduced almost word for word by another blogger without attribution. That is plagiarism.

So to avoid plagiarism:

  • Always attribute your sources in blogs and journal articles (as I have done below)
  • If you have written a piece of fabulous purple prose and you have an uneasy feeling it may not be original, use something like Grammarly's plagiarism scanner.
  • If you are under pressure to produce a book and the quick way out is to do a quick cut and paste from another person's book... just stop and think! Writers take plagiarism very seriously. If you are found out you will be subject to a disciplinary hearing and expelled, your reputation trashed. It is particularly stupid to think readers won't notice. If you are writing in a genre specific area, hard core readers will know!

For more information on famous plagiarists: and and )


  1. Very well said Alison. I can live with the whole 'piracy' thing if I have to, but plagiarism is cheating, and anyone doing it will be, and should be, found out.

  2. Can we set the record straight with regard to the suggestion that TS Eliot "plagiarised" Madison Cawein's poem?

    For a start, it is untrue to say that one of Eliot's poems was published in the same issue of Poetry magazine as Cawein's. In fact, Cawein's poem was published alongside work by Ezra Pound which, it is suggested, gave Eliot "reason" to read that particular issue.

    The two poems are completely different in style. Anyone interested can see Cawein's poem at Immediately one notes that Cawein is writing in a regular metre, and with a traditional rhyming scheme, both absent from Eliot's The Waste Land.

    Inevitably, one can draw comparisons between the descriptions of one waste land and another, or the appearance of a mysterious man - but were it not for the similarity of titles (Waste Land by Cawein and The Waste Land by Eliot) no-one would ever have drawn a comparison.

    Do not diminish either the significance of real plagiarism, or your own enjoyment of Eliot, by trying to substantiate this case.

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to correct the record in respect of TS Eliot. I think it illustrates the fine line between 'creative inspiration' and outright plagiarism which is what Viswanathan argued.

    TS Eliot remains one of my favourite poets and the Lovesong of Alfred J. Prufrock, one of my all time favourite poems!

  4. I heard that Barbara Cartland also plagiarised from Georgette Heyer. Is this true?

    great post thanks Alison.