Tuesday, October 18, 2005


i think i caught one of my authors plagiarizing today. i don't think i'll be naming who it is here for various reasons (and definitely not before he has a chance to defend himself), but he's a fairly big name in the tech field and he's written books for us before. he even has his own entry on wikipedia.

after a chapter has gone through the various stages of edit (development, tech edit, copy edit), it is sent back to the author in a process called "author review", where the author answers editor queries & verifies that the edits don't introduce inaccuracies. then the author sends it back to us editors to approve (or sometimes reject) before moving it along the process.

i was checking the author review for chapter 11 and came across a query that the author hadn't answered. because this book is a huge sumbitch and it's already taking forever as it is, i went on google to see if i could find the answer to my question.

the first page i clicked on started looking very familiar. many of the figures (illustrations) on the page looked like ones that had been submitted for the chapter. i saw a very distinctive table that had been pasted into the book in two different places—he hadn't even changed the formatting after pasting it, so table rows had pretty colored backgrounds. and most importantly, about 2/3 of the text on the page had been copied verbatim (or nearly verbatim) into the text of the chapter.

the article, on a hardware manufacturer's website, listed no author information or attribution. i suppose it's in the realm of possibility that this author actually wrote the article in question, though i highly doubt it. (though even if he did, that doesn't mean he owns the copyright.) most likely he just thought he could get away with it, or didn't even realize he was doing anything wrong by swiping several pages of text and figures and calling them his own.

the funniest part is that he included the url to the article in the chapter! the url is right there in one of those "for more information, see" sections. now that takes some major balls. (or major idiocy.) nobody ever would've checked the site if he had answered all our queries (and i only stumbled across it by chance), but wow, listing the source of his plagiarism right there, in the same chapter that included the plagiarized material.

plagiarism is a touchy subject in the publishing biz. nobody wants to get sued, and content owners often try to exercise the same type of totalitarian control over their content that owners in the music/tv/film world do. (for example, the site that hosts the plagiarized article has a "link to us" page, where they expect people to ask permission before linking to their website. this "link to us" page actually says "We generally grant permission to reputable organizations for educational and informational purposes.")

so a lot of people in the industry tend to be overly cautious about any sort of copying or quoting, to the point of absurdity. but, at least where i work, we have no formal safeguards to stop plagiarism; we just have a bunch of people who are neurotic about it.

to demonstrate how ridiculous it gets, here's another example from a different book that i've been working on today. it's a certification book (a study guide to help readers pass a certification exam.) in it, the author occasionally wants to quote a few paragraphs—definitions, key concepts, and the like—from various authoritative sources. these block quotes are never longer than a couple paragraphs, and each time she takes care to properly cite the source of each quote. not being totally familiar with the intricacies of copyright law, she will often query the development editor as to whether her quotes are okay.

the development editor, who has been here for enough years that he should know better, answered by saying "if it's in the public domain, we can use it. if it's not, we can't."

whoa there! the laws are pretty clear that fragmentary quoting of a few paragraphs of a copyrighted work is totally acceptable, so long as the quote is properly attributed to its original source. the problem with plagiarism isn't the use of the material, but the attempt to portray that material as one's own creation. everyone uses occasional blockquotes from other sources, and they always have. the law and historical practice are more clear here than they are for, say, audio sampling, as people have been quoting each other for millennia but sampling technology has only been around for a few decades.

here's the worst example, again from the certification book: the author wanted to use a two-word term that she had originally seen used by another author. so this author asked the second author for permission to use it (unnecessarily). the second author told her that she could only use the term if if it's followed by a ® symbol (which we call an "R ball"). an R-ball for two words!

the term in question is "truth advocate". not even a good term if you ask me; it has that ring of business-ese, of marketing-speak, that screams "i'm using business-speak and techno-babble to leverage market forces in your favor!" if you do a google search for "truth advocate" you get 1,050 results. if you repeat the search but add on the name of the author who supposedly has a registered trademark on the concept of the truth advocate (i refuse to reprint the name, lest i give undeserved credit), guess how many hits you get?


authors who want to include fair use snippets in good faith are discouraged from doing so, harming the quality of the work. but true plagiarists don't ask if their unfair use is okay. they just do it. and unless they're unlucky (or particularly incompetent), they won't get caught for it either... at least not in time. what a messed-up system.

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