Last week I wrote a funeral scene that pleased me enormously. Wrenching, raw, powerful. Wow, I thought, I nailed that! I kept coming back to two images I’d used, one in dialogue, “mothers are such wingless things,” the other in description, “lullaby, with elegy blowing through it.” I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I kept pulling up the paragraph and re-reading. I couldn’t let it go. (This is not normal behaviour for me, FYI. I love beautiful prose, but I don’t generally fall in love with my own. I’m a believer in prose serving story and character, not standing out from it.) Gradually, I grew unsettled. Then suspicious. These images didn’t feel quite right. Good, yes; evocative, absolutely; perfect for the period, no doubt. But not right.
I tried to trace their origins back through that labyrinthine machine I call my writing mind, and the trail petered out.
By now I was feeling thoroughly disturbed, so I did something I’ve never done before: plugged something I’d written into Google. And, bang, there it was, a poem, “The History of Mothers and Sons,” by Lisa Furmanski. I’d lifted not just the imagery but the words, wholecloth.
I’ve never believed those sad sack writers who, when pilloried for plagiarism, wail, “It was accidental!” But now it’s happened to me. Well, almost; I caught it long before publication.
But it feels like a very narrow escape.
So how did it happen? I don’t know. I used to read Poetry magazine, so my guess is I read “…Mothers and Sons” in the magazine one night before falling asleep and the imagery burrowed deep into my subconscious. But I still have no idea how and why my brain encysted those exact words, then presented them to me as my own in another context. I tremble at the thought of what might have happened if I hadn’t caught it.
And now I’m worried that I’ve lifted other things by mistake.
So my question is: how do we, as writers, guard against this? We can’t plug everything into a search box. (Or can we? Has anyone out there tried plugging a whole novel into a search engine?) I rely on my subconscious to provide me with nifty images. I trust it. Now I’m wary of it. I hate that.
Does anyone have any similar stories to tell? Even better, do you have any tricks for dealing with this worry?
31 thoughts on “Accidental plagiarism: a terrifyingly narrow escape”
I know I did it in my early years. As for more recently, not sure. But it's an unsettling thought.
Well, you could always just stop reading other people's stuff …
ssas, definitely unsettling.
anon, well, that's what a lot of amateur writers do. And they stay amateurs…
I'm nowhere near to being a novelist, but I worry a lot about lifting things accidentally because of the damage to my memory. It's a scary prospect.
Yep. Scary. Because unless it's happened to you, no one will believe that it's accidental. Shudder.
Universities in the UK now us software through which they run essays. The software identifies plaguarism and even give a percentage of how much of the essay is plaguarised! The software is also able to compare the authenticity of the voice used in one essay compared to another – ie it can tell if the same person did or did not write both essays. It is having a radical impact as you can imagine. Lel
Lel, that sounds like the kind of thing I wouldn't be able to resist testing, as a student. And as a writer, of course–seeing what does and doesn't alter 'voice' to create 'authenticity'.
Any idea what software they're using?
Can find out next term, will let you know,
Wow on the software. A lot of students plagiarized (intentionally) at my second college and it used to drive me nuts.
Oh wow, Nicola, that is definitely, horrifyingly unsettling.
I propose, though, that it was a one-time fluke. Your subconscious alerted you to it. It won't happen again, but if it does, you will be alerted again. Don't the fear of recurrence hobble you.
Kelly, fearless 'r' us!
The anti-plagiarism software the universities are using is almost certainly Turnitin (which does nothing to protect against the growing problem of students commissioning new essays from online essay writers, but that's another story…). I don't know whether it's available to private individuals to use, I imagine the price might be pitched at universities to discourage students from doing their own test runs…
One anti-plagiarism program is Turnitin (http://turnitin.com/static/index.php). We use it at the University of NSW where I work. Of course, though, the material has to be up on the Internet for the program to find it. Not everyone's every poem is going to be there! And it's set up for institutions; I don't know how suitable it is for individual use.
Oh, someone already told you. READ before posting, Margo. :D
Most universities use Turnitin, a plagiarism checker that checks essays submissions against its own by now extremely extensive bank of essay submissions and against electronic versions of journals and books. You can fool it very easily by plagiarizing from non-electronic books, which is most of those before a certain date. However, that is a lot of work and most plagiarists (but not all) are looking to lower their work loads, generally don't have good research skills, and are often bad at trying to make something coherent out of bits and pieces of several people's work. I once marked an essay (pre-Turnitin but not pre-Google) that had a paragraph on page 3 start with the words,
“As I discussed in chapter two…”
Nicola, the phrases you are talking about are barely enough to trigger a match. You can set the sensitivity of Turnitin, but generally a 3-word phrase is about minimum to be useful.
Standards have changed, too. Dorothy Sayers quotes massively in Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon, almost always without quotation marks, let alone a citation. Most readers, I think, regarded this as a literary game of spot-the-quotation. It would be much harder to do that today…
All of that said, I have no useful suggestion as to how to catch such unconscious borrowings in one's own work, but I think it applies to non-fiction just as much.
A partial phrase of this kind is not necessarily a plagiarism. It could be a tribute, if properly acknowledged in the book's front matter (or end matter). Not sure if you need permission for small phrases like that. That is to say, you don't necessarily have to keep yourself from using them.
Wendy, Leo, in Ammonite I consciously use a phrase from John Mansfield, and then let the reader know it's a quote, though I don't say from whom–that wouldn't have worked in context. Then I forgot to mention it in the acknowledgements. But I don't feel bad because I'm not claiming it, consciously or unconsciously, as my own.
It's the claiming as one's own of another's art, the beauty, that makes me fretful. I'm imagining others have been through this. It would be great to know how they handle it.
Nicola, it is an unsettling and beautiful poem about motherhood, about loss. It is kind of restless and aerial. I can't help myself wondering, as the future reader of Hild, how your writer's mind connected these imageries and words of death, motherhood and that thing that seems to flutter around in “wingless ” , “blowing through”.
Sorry , not helping at all here as worries about plagiarism are concerned , just thinking about that page I will read one day …
Patricia, hopefully the scene will be even better than it was, now that it's all definitely (probably, hopefully, presumably, maybe…) all mine.
Here's another: http://www.checkforplagiarism.net/free-vs-paid-checking.html
About ten years ago, I wrte a wonderful piece of music on the guitar that I was very proud of. It sounded a step above anything that was popular at the time. On top of that I had written it in a single night.
Then I played it for my roommate and he told me that I had just written Radiohead's “Karma Police”.
I'm still upset with myself about it.
One time at a poetry group reading,a poet read her poem. In which she used the sound a camera makes to frame each stanza.
“The light behind their heads
Rumpled sheets from the bed
This was just after we had discussed some of our feelings about the danger of another writer stealing our images
The very next day I wrote a new poem and asked my wife to listen to it. After I was done she had a strained look in her eyes. While I began to realize that I had used the poet's technique in my poem and that I had done so without realizing it.
I had no explanation and still don't as to how my mind could have blacked out the connection.
I once proof-read someone else’s poetry and found an entire line of their work cropping up in the next thing I wrote. Fortunately I noticed, but like you I am uneasy with any line I think paticularly good – where did I swipe it from? As for authentic voice – crikey, I write deliberately in different voices, so where does that leave me?
Ha, I’m not uneasy with anything particularly good—I think a lot of what I write is pretty good—but when something pings my radar it’s worth checking out.
Just call it an homage and say, “You’re welcome.”
My dad, who was a professional musician, once recounted how a friend asked him to listen to a song he’d just written and tell him what he thought of it. My father dutifully listened to him play it on the piano, then said, “Congratulations, I think you’ve got a hit on your hands. You’ve just written ‘Stardust.'”
Yep, it’s been happening since there were people. I think it happens with every field of human endeavour.
Years and years ago, I wrote a novel, TAIN, based on the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, the epic verse version of which has been translated best by Thomas Kinsella. His was the starting point for what became an obsession. I spent probably eight years researching and then assembling and writing the book and its sequel, reading Lady Gregory’s version, lesser versions, and partial, recovered stories & scenes–the scope of it exists only in fragments. And when the first book was done, I wrote an introduction at the end of which I started with an epic line I knew had been repeated pretty much in every version The Táin…only to notice–after it went to press naturally–that it was almost verbatim Kinsella’s translation of the line. I had purposely not looked at any of the translations while writing the book so that I wouldn’t do the very thing that I almost did by not looking.
I’m guessing that if all writers plugged in our prose we’d find these nuggets that others had written. Sigh. The best we can do is catch the most obvious and hope the universe forgives us for the rest. Did anyone brace you with that borrowed line?
Not as such. An editor (who I will not name) said “Fuck it” on the grounds that it wasn’t word-for-word and it was in the introduction, not even in the novel. On some level I probably churned over it more than anybody on the planet.
It sounds like a reasonable response (from the editor). But I understand the angst.
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