Saturday, August 16, 2008

Plagiarism -- Spreading the Word

So Dear Author reported that the Plagiarism panel at RWA Nationals was poorly attended.

It's disappointing, but from what folks have said, both in the post and in comments, I'm not really shocked. I think there are a few things going on here.

First, I agree with those who said that many people who are outraged about plagiarism likely didn't go because it sounded like a "This is what Plagiarism Is" sort of panel, and yeah, we know that already.

Theft of Creative Property
Speakers: Dr. John Barrie, Jane Little, and Nora Roberts
Join Dr. John Barrie, the creator of the architecture and technology behind iThenticate and Turnitin, and best-selling author Nora Roberts and attorney and blogger Jane Little for a Q&A session on plagiarism. Special moderator: Sarah from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

I agree with Gina that this doesn't sound like a call to arms. It doesn't even sound like a call to come and have your opinion counted. Folks later in the comment thread are correct that we need to show that the community in general strongly condemns plagiarism, but the panel description didn't make it sound like an event where people were being encouraged to come and show the flag.

This was a fairly last-minute addition to the conference, so it's great that there was anything and not surprising that neither the write-up nor the basic panel concept were terribly creative or exciting. I'm sure folks will come up with something next year that'll attract more interest. Seressia had some good ideas for panel names and concepts.

Second, however much need there is for education about just what plagiarism is and is not (and I do think there's a pretty huge need), I don't think the people who most need that education are the ones likely to show up at a panel on the subject. In the various plagiarism incidents of the past year, there were plenty of people insisting that the writers involved had not committed plagiarism and had not done anything wrong, and a low but significant percentage of those claimed to be writers, as I recall. These people are already sure that they know what's what, though, and are positive that all the fuss is just a bunch of jealous people being mean. They're not the ones who are going to go to a panel to learn about plagiarism. This education is necessary, but it needs to be all-pervasive through the industry, to the point where the people who don't want to deal with it can't avoid it -- both to educate the people who are mistaken about what plagiarism is, and to smack the people who don't think it's a big deal upside the head with the knowledge that it is serious and that there'll be considerable social censure applied to people who commit it as well as to people who support them.

Because third, I think that's the biggest problem right now, that there's too much of the wrong kind of social support for demonstrated plagiarists. There are too many people, both writers and readers, who don't think it's a big deal, and who therefore see what social censure there has been so far as a bad thing, as people being "mean" or "cruel" or "jealous" or "trolling" or whatever. If copying someone else's words isn't wrong, then smacking people who copy is a nasty thing to do and the writer gets defensive and all her fans or personal friends jump up to defend her with much righteous indignation.

I saw too many people, in the incidents with both Ms. Edwards and Ms. Logan, jump up to defend them out of the belief that supporting a person means supporting every action they take. They think that being a true fan means being on your favorite writer's side no matter what. They think that being a true friend means assuring that friend that of course they didn't do anything wrong, no matter what it was they actually did. The idea that supporting a person means kindly but firmly helping them admit when they've made a mistake and take whatever action is needed to fix the mistake (even if an apology is the only option) is a null concept to these folks, and there are a lot of them.

Sometimes the pressure against plagiarism and plagiarists is enough to overcome the misguided social support around the plagiarist -- as in the case of Ms. Logan, whose book was withdrawn from publication and who I'm pretty sure will never do that again -- and sometimes it isn't -- as in the case of Ms. Edwards, who's lost one publisher but has two more briskly selling her plagiarized work.

There's still social pressure pushing in the wrong direction, in support of the plagiarists. (Poor things, they've been through so much!) Together with ignorance of just what plagiarism is, however much true ignorance there might be, it gives us the situation we have right now. Too many people, including some writers, don't think there's anything wrong with copying someone else's lines. Way too many readers don't even know what's going on, and (judging by responses from readers who did know) wouldn't care if they did. And too many publishers (two out of three of Ms. Edwards's publishers) don't care because hey, since the readers don't care, the publishers are still making money selling those plagiarized books.

Backing up a step, too many schools have lax attitudes toward plagiarism, or only pay lip-service to what anti-plagiarism rules they do have, as in the case of Christine Pelton and Piper High School. Kids are growing up thinking that plagiarism is fine if you don't get caught, and that even if you do get caught, most of the time nothing will happen. These kids are the adults who eventually get caught up in plagiarism cases in the publishing world, either as writers who do it and then get indignant when they're caught, or as writers who defend other writers who get caught at it, or as readers who don't think it's a big deal and keep buying the books they like no matter who actually wrote the words in between the covers, or as publishers who'll keep publishing the works of a plagiarist so long as they sell. This is a systemic problem, and a series of educational "This Is Plagiarism" panels at RWA National, no matter how well conceived or well meant, isn't going to fix it.

It's a good start, though.

Rather than simple instructional panels to discuss definitions, maybe next year's panel (or panels?) could talk about what to do if you've been plagiarized. Can your agent help you? Your publisher? (They darned well should, but we know that at this point they likely won't -- what can we do to help nudge them along?)

What legal steps can be taken, and what will they cost? Could RWA, or some other writer's group, start a legal offense fund, to help writers who've been victimized take their cases to court? Sure, you can sue for expenses, but if someone can't afford to press a civil case in the first place, it'd be nice if there were a fund to help them out; they could sue for expenses and then repay the fund when they win and get their damages-plus-expenses money. Or maybe a list of lawyers willing to take on plagiarism cases, with expectation of payment out of an expense award, could be assembled?

How many of the writing groups have actual statements in their bylaws saying that any member shown to be a plagiarist will be expelled, permanently, period? Any? Maybe some should, whether at the national or local level. It might be something to talk about, at least, in a panel or other gathering.

And if news of even some of these discussions spread, and a few of these or similar actions were taken, that would show the plagiarists and their defenders that their peers in the industry are serious about this, that it is a big deal and that it won't be tolerated. Because the bottom line, in my opinion, is that we have to make plagiarism a socially as well as professionally poisonous act. So long as some large percentage of writers and readers think that plagiarism is no big deal, or just a minor infraction, or that plagiarism means taking someone else's entire book, verbatim, and publishing it with your name on it (and that absolutely nothing less than that qualifies), people will still do it. And so long as some large percentage of writers and readers are willing to "support" their favorite writers or their writer friends who've been shown to have committed plagiarism, people will still do it.

So long as a clear demonstration of plagiarism still has the power to tear apart an industry, a genre community, a social group -- so long as there's still enough support for plagiarism and the people who do it to even make an argument of it -- writers who'd rather take the way of ignorance or laziness won't have any incentive not to.

That attitude of support for plagiarists, from even a few other writers and from any number of readers and from their publishers, makes it too attractive a gamble to take; even if you lose, chances are you'll still have people patting you on the back and telling you that you're wonderful, and you'll still have a publisher (or two) willing to sell your books.

The social support for plagiarists is what has to be eliminated, and doing so will take a prolonged and vigorous attack from many directions. Panels, yes, on a variety of related topics. Discussions of what to do and how to appropriately punish plagiarists, at all levels. Plans for taking legal action in cases like that of Nora Roberts and Janet Dailey, where there's very clear financial harm, demonstrable to a court, and where the victim isn't a Nora Roberts and doesn't have the resources to take that legal action alone. Pressure on publishers to take action. (Which will happen automatically if some large percentage of readers become aware that this is a problem and stops buying books by plagiarists, but I'd hope we wouldn't have to wait that long for the publishers to do what's ethical.) Articles and editorials, fliers and pamphlets, posters and buttons, blog widgets and colorbars, and above all discussion and planning and agreement by a clear majority of the industry that this is not at all acceptable, ever, period.

Only social pressure will do the job thoroughly, and turning around a social impulse is never easy. There's no one solution. But if enough people try enough different things, the mass of pressure and influence will eventually come together and make plagiarism as socially and professionally poisonous as it should be.



Charles Gramlich said...

I'm glad to see this getting more wide spread discussion. Disappointing that more folks didn't attend. It certainly is a problem in schools. many students don't see it as a problem at all.

Steve Malley said...

Ouch. That really is the worst-written ad I've ever seen. One could almost read that as a 'how-to' seminar!

Angie said...

Charles -- yes, and it needs to go even farther. I'm trying to consider how to pitch a plagiarism panel to an SF convention I go to every year. It hasn't been a public problem in SF recently, and I have a feeling the knee-jerk response will be that we don't have that problem so it's not an issue. I'm pretty convinced that it's a widespread problem, though, and that it's popped up in romance so much just because they're fifty-some percent of the fiction market. I also still believe there's a lot out there that hasn't been caught yet, as I said a couple of (plagiarism) posts ago. This needs to be spread throughout publishing, not just around the romance end of the pool, and schools at all levels need to start clamping down on it hard, no excuses.

Steve -- isn't it? [sigh] That's how I interpreted it too, as in, we're going to explain what plagiarism is, and then take questions. Yeah. I probably wouldn't have gone either.

It was a very late addition to the program, though, and I'm certainly willing to give them a pass for the rush job, but it'd be great if they could have something more compelling next year. Or better yet, several somethings more compelling, each addressing a different aspect of the issue.


Kerry Allen said...

I still don't understand why it has to wait for next year's conference. Usually when someone champions a cause, they make it their mission to spread the message as widely as possible.

Frankly, the tone of the discussion about this particular event smacks of popularity contest. ("Wah, none of those jerks came to my party, so obviously they think plagiarism is okay!") It's turning off a lot of people, and those people are then tagged as plagiarism lovers for what is, really, distaste for the messenger.

Publishers need to be specifically targeted about their responsibility for preventing stolen material from being published in the first place. Authors need to know their legal options when they've been ripped off. There needs to be PR discussion so the victim doesn't come off like the villain for persecuting the poor confused/distraught/elderly thief.

And all of it needs to be ongoing, in every venue it can be presented, not on a stage once a year at a fancy conference.

Angie said...

Kerry -- I think they focus is on the conventions because that's where you can (theoretically [cough]) make contact with and communicate your message to a large number of people at once, in an atmosphere which encourages interest and enthusiasm. It's easier to get people going about something in a large, realspace group than it is online or via newsletter, where the contact is closer to one-on-one and it takes more time and effort for reactions to cross-pollinate.

A lot of the reaction seems to be frustration that the initial push didn't work out, and it's definitely a shame that it didn't. It looks like they thought all they had to do was announce that they were talking about plagiarism and folks would flock in. There was a communications disconnect there which was unfortunate.

I agree with you that there should definitely be more discussion online and a push to spread the conversation in other ways, immediately. I still think, though, that even if we start pushing now, next year's conference is still the best opportunity for a big surge. Getting the organizers to give the topic two or three time slots, with write-ups indicating clearly that each one is addressing a different aspect of the issue, will show, unmistakeably, that the people in charge are taking this very seriously. If there are multiple panels on the topic, where in past years there've been none, or at best one, even people who don't attend will see that yes, this is important and people are taking it seriously. That right there is the most important message to be spread, IMO

Adding in buttons and T-shirts would just emphasize to the scoffers how many people think this is a big deal, and (hopefully) make said scoffers realize that they're alone. Adding in newsletter articles and editorials and discussions within local writers' and readers' groups will also help a lot, plus anything else folks can think of.

But yeah, a big, national conference (not necessarily RWA, but that's the biggest one in this genre that I know of) can act as a pep rally and get people fired up to go home and spread the word. That's a non-trivial consideration.


Stewart Sternberg said...

In a day where so much pirating by the average person is going on, most people don't want to think of what they are doing as stealing. Yet, they are taking someone else's intellectual property and not giving them any form of remuneration.

As for plagarism between writers and in school? I think it's going to get worse as students continue to use the net. I actually had a girl give me a citation from one of those "pay us and we'll do your essay" sites in her bibliography.

Angie said...

Stewart -- it's definitely a multi-media problem. [nod] I used to work in the computer gaming industry, and piracy is rampant there, with jet-propelled roller skates. Not that the publishers are helping any. [sigh]

I actually had a girl give me a citation from one of those "pay us and we'll do your essay" sites in her bibliography.

I think it says something about where we are with the issue in this day and age that my first thought was, at least she was citing material from one of those sites rather than buying the whole paper from them. [wry smile]