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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

In case you weren't sure what plagiarism is


Well, Cassie Edwards' research methodology has caused quite an internet dust-up. Inevitable, I guess, when a set of controversial bloggers uncover this kind of skeleton in the literary closet of a popular NY-Times bestselling author. What I find interesting is that there are a few bloggers out there that have what I find to be a rather odd take on the whole thing. Here are a few examples:

From the The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.


Now, I haven't read every last bit of the supposedly plagiarized pieces, but they all seem to be factual descriptions of actual Indian rituals, behaviors, beliefs, and so on. And changing the wording substantially, when describing actual real-world things, would tend to make one's description diverge from that thing. The technical term for this is "getting it wrong."

From Lila Schow's Blog o' Fun

This one strikes me as a bit different because, while the issue is still plagiarism, it is plagiarism of non-fiction. Of information.

There are things plagiarism is, and things it isn't. Plagiarism is the appropriation of another author's words and presenting them as your own. You can't plagiarize "information," "ideas," or "plot," unless you directly copy the words conveying said "information," "ideas," or "plot." Many on the internet have accused Christopher Paolini of plagiarizing Star Wars in his novel Eragon, and despite all the parallels they draw between the two, the accusation is wrong both on a legal and a artistic level. Not because Eragon is a different genre, but because, as far as I know, no one has claimed that the words Paolini wrote were anything other than his own. If you research a fact, there is no ethical problem with conveying that fact in the text. It's when you cut and paste the "facts" with minimal editing, you have a problem.

Here I show the whole "stealing another's words" bit. The "borrowed" verbiage is highlighted in green to help illustrate the problem. (examples courtesy Smart Bitches.)

Here is a problematic passage from Cassie Edwards' Shadow Bear:

"In their own way, they are a peaceful enough animal," Shadow Bear said... "They are so named because of their dark legs." "They are so small, surely weighing only about two pounds and measuring two feet from tip to tail," Shiona said. "While alone in my father's study one day, after seeing a family of ferrets from afar in the nearby woods, I took one of my father's books from his library and read up on them. They were an interesting study. I discovered they are related to minks and otters. It is said that their closest relations are European ferrets and Siberian polecats. Researchers theorize that polecats crossed the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska, to establish the New World population."

And the source quote from Paul Tolme. "Toughing it Out in the Badlands," Defenders Magazine, Summer 2005:

Black-footed ferrets, so-named because of their dark legs, weigh about two pounds and measure two feet from tip to tail. Related to mink and otters, they are North America's only native ferret (and a different species than the ferrets kept as pets). Their closest relatives are European ferrets and Siberian polecats. Researchers theorize polecats crossed the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska to establish the New World population.

Now, this is only a few sentences and is unlikely to be legally problematic, but it is ethically troublesome. Not because the passage copies "facts" as such. But because it uses a near-exact copy of another author's language. And, with all due respect to the blog posters above, writing these facts "in your own words," as my 6th grade teacher used to say, does not change the "facts." Is it so hard to write something like this?

"In their own way, they are a peaceful enough animal," Shadow Bear said... "Their name comes from the dark color of their legs." "They are so small, barely two feet long nose to tail, surely they can't weigh much more than a couple of pounds," Shiona said. "While alone in my father's study one day, after seeing a family of ferrets from afar in the nearby woods, I took one of my father's books from his library and read up on them. They were an interesting study. They're in the same family as minks and otters, and are closely related to European ferrets and Siberian polecats. I read the theory that those polecats crossed into the New World via the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska."

It isn't great, but it's only a few minutes work.

4 comments:

Lila said...

"What I find interesting is that there are a few bloggers out there that have, what I find a rather odd take on the whole thing."

If you haven't got an odd take on it, then it's not as fun.

raveBomb said...

...and if you're not having fun, why bother?

Lila said...

exactly!

J said...

My take on this issue is that if you haven't got an odd take on it