August 2012: Plagiarism and other literary crimes and misdemeanors

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

No writer ever wants the word “plagiarism” in a sentence that includes his or her name. And if they write nonfiction, they also don’t want to see themselves linked to phrases like “fabricated quotes” or “fabricated facts.”

Some prominent authors and journalists have been in the news recently for some of these “literary crimes and misdemeanors.” Jonah Lehrer of the New Yorker admitted creating Bob Dylan quotes in his bestseller Imagine: How Creativity Works. He resigned from the New Yorker and his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, recalled his book. (Somewhat surprisingly, Wired magazine decided to keep Lehrer as a contributor).

A clear case of plagiarism by commentator Fareed Zakaria in a Time magazine column caused that magazine (and CNN) to temporarily suspend him. To his credit, Zakaria made no excuses and apologized. After a brief investigation which found the plagiarism was an isolated incident, Zakaria was reinstated by Time and CNN.

There’s no question that Google has made it child’s play to surface instances of plagiarism—especially word-for-word copying—and fabrication. Just cut-and-paste a few passages from Article #1 into Google Search and see if there are multiple hits for the words and phrases.

(If you try this technique with the preceding paragraph, or with this blog post, you should find the words and phrases are attributed to Jefferson Flanders.)

You would think that anyone who writes for public consumption would recognize this new reality. If you copy or fabricate, you will likely be found out. The more famous or well-known you become, the more likely it is that someone will Google check you and expose your borrowing.

A persistent problem

So why do high profile writers still get caught plagiarizing and fabricating?

I think there are several plausible reasons for this persistent problem:

  • Some writers employ a work process—employing interns to do research or create drafts or copying directly from digital sources—that invites trouble. If you look at the details of the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism, it looks like the author (Zakaria? an intern?) line-edited material on gun control from the Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article on the topic. The structure of Lepore’s paragraph on the historical adoption of gun control by state governments was retained with some only slight rearranging of words and rephrasing. Was this a case of someone rushing to complete a column on deadline? It certainly looks that way. Worse, all Zakaria needed to do was openly credit Lepore or quote her.
  • Some writers can’t resist the temptation to strengthen their work by tweaking quotes or, in the worst case, the facts. Whenever there’s a quotation that fits seamlessly into an article, or an anonymous source says something that elegantly validates an author’s thesis, I become suspicious.
    My guess is that this sort of fabrication begins when a writer decides to make slight “improvements” to the quotes he or she has elicited. This “shaping of quotes” can dramatically improve the narrative quality of a piece of writing and over time, it seems, some writers find themselves taking greater and greater liberties (or even inventing interviewees). Lehrer only got caught because he didn’t actually have access to Dylan—had he interviewed the reclusive singer he might very well have been able to pass off as genuine any made-up quote that he wanted to (as long as the fabrication put Dylan in a favorable light and didn’t cause the singer to challenge it publicly).
  • Some writers are prepared to beg, borrow, and steal to advance their careers. This was the case with Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, who both fashioned journalism that—upon closer scrutiny—turned out to be too good to be true. In the short run both Glass and Blair became “stars.” In the long run they were exposed and questions were raised about their emotional health—since it was just a matter of time before they were caught and they had to know that.
  • The pace of today’s literary and journalistic world encourages short cuts. The Internet has placed a premium on the quantity and frequency of what writers can blog, tweet, post, and aggregate. Publishing houses are, it is reported, pressuring authors to produce books on an accelerated schedule. Some percentage of those “content-creators” will succumb to the temptation of rehashing existing content—and depending on how careful they are in giving credit or in avoiding word-by-word lifting they will get away with it. For a while. Then, inevitably, they will borrow a little too much and get caught.

I’ve always thought that having a distinctive voice or style makes it less likely that a writer will plagiarize, either consciously or unconsciously. I try to read aloud whatever I have written during the writing process and if it doesn’t sound natural—something I would say—then I take the red pencil to it. Writers who revise extensively are also more likely to avoid missteps. Finally, writers who cut-and-paste digital material from the Web and are careless about citing sources are playing literary Russian Roulette.

And that’s a game that usually ends badly.

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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