Monday, April 23, 2012

On Plagiarism

Today there has been a growing discussion on Twitter about plagiarism as it relates to book review blogs. I'm not going to go into that, because I don't have all the facts and I don't want to get involved in the spread of unsubstantiated rumors, but it made me think: where does plagiarism begin and end?

I've read blogs by reviewers in which the blogger copies the publisher's description of the book and then adds her own comments.

 I've read blogs by authors in which the author is angry that his or her words (from the jacket copy) were rewritten without permission.

 I've read blogs in which other blogs are quoted or copied verbatim in the course of a post.

 In the book blogging industry, it's standard practice to use the jacket copy in lieu of one's own description. Quoting from the book, copying whole passages, and generally borrowing someone else's words are frequent occurrences. It's hard to write about writing without bringing in specific examples--but how much can you copy before it becomes plagiarism? And why don't we ever talk about it?

 A few years ago, during my first Summer Reading Challenge at A Great Good Place for Books, one of my secret bonus tasks was for the kids to write a book review, which I would then post on this blog. I gave the kids a general format but they were expected to read a book and write their review independently. For the most part, they did--but, just to be safe, I typed the first two sentences into Google to see if anything came up.

 And, in one young reviewer's case, the first two sentences were an exact match for the Amazon description.

 The rest of the review was fairly original--although the description hit the same points as the jacket copy, the student had rephrased them enough so that I was almost comfortable posting his review. But three of the sentences were identical to the Amazon description, so I asked the student to rewrite it. 

That's when the shit hit the fan.

 First, his mom approached the bookstore owner--my boss--in tears. I wasn't there that day, so I wasn't a part of the conversation, but she is a very loyal customer and a good friend of the owner's and I almost lost my job over it. I had to call her at home and explain myself at great length. I told her that everything I post on my blog reflects on me as a reviewer, and I pride myself on posting original content that is my intellectual property, or the intellectual property of my guest reviewers. I told her that I wasn't comfortable posting a review that borrowed from someone else's writing. Then I had to have the same conversation with her son, the guest reviewer.

 Eventually I managed to save my relationship with the customer, but her son was a different story. To this day, he still doesn't like me. He still doesn't want to read anything I recommend, whether he thinks he'll like it or not. That's a price I'm willing to pay to stick to my guns.

 For me, the line is clear: if someone else wrote it, I don't post it--with the occasional exception of a one-sentence quote or a short paragraph (which is always attributed to the source!). On one occasion I copy-and-pasted the jacket copy, and it still preys on my mind. I realize that I've got stricter guidelines than a lot of bloggers, but that's kind of the issue--they're guidelines, not rules. It's one thing if you copy someone else's blog post and tailor it to look like your own. That's plagiarism, plain and simple. But what about less clear-cut examples, like using the jacket copy instead of your own description? I think it's something we as a community need to discuss--and probably sooner rather than later.


Anonymous said...

That is one thing I do in my book reviews. I post the description from either Amazon or Barnes and Noble and cite it in the review to make sure that everyone knows it isn't my own.

I tend to give away too much of the plot whenever I try to write my own and some spoilers slipped into one post before I switched over to doing this.

Whether it is right or wrong though hasn't been established yet, which makes it hard to decide to go back to my previous way.

A Million Words said...

Yeah, that seems to be accepted by the industry in general--but on two occasions I've heard authors complain that their words were used without permission. It just got me thinking. (Also, I learned that, at least in those instances, authors wrote the jacket copy! I always assumed it was someone at the publishing house.)