Author Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergrad who penned How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, got caught. Viswanathan stands accused of plagiarizing passages from Megan McCafferty’s books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. As a result, she lost a book deal with Little Brown and Company valued at $500,000. So far, she appears to be safe from academic censure (although some Harvard students advocate her expulsion), but her reputation as a novelist is tainted. Publishers have a phobia of lawsuits and it is unlikely that the author will find a publisher who willing to print her work anytime soon. In the beginning, when Viswanathan’s plagiarism was exposed, I adopted a ‘give the kid a break’ approach. Isn’t the public humiliation, the scorn of your peers and the loss of a half-million dollar deal punishment enough? But following further consideration, I changed my mind.
I believe over-reacting obscures the issue; plagiarism may be fraudulent, but it is not a crime. If my psychology text is stolen, I am deprived of a physical possession. Should the thief be caught, their thievery results in criminal charges. However, when someone pirates my words or ideas, no legally definable criminal act occurs unless it infringes upon copyright protection. Nonetheless, the violation is as real and ugly as the theft.
The misconception exists that plagiarizing is a victimless and harmless activity. Students expect to be treated ethically and with honesty by their professors; conversely, professors expect to receive the same treatment from their students. Neither party envisions deception as a component of the relationship. Viswanathan’s misappropriation of McCafferty’s material may not be criminal, but neither is it accidental and the author’s sincere apology rings hollow. The passages from Viswanathan’s novel that are at issue belong to McCafferty (Zhou, 2006) beyond a doubt and cannot be easily passed-off as accidental plagiarism.
The question is, “Why cheat?” I believe one of the contributing factors that lead students to commit plagiarism is the tension created between the need to both prove you did your research and be original. Furthermore, excellent grades bring scholarships and bursaries and corporate recruiters’ place a high value on a student’s grade-point average. Also, the production of well-written material requires an enormous investment in time and energy. Then, there are also those who cheat simply for the vicarious thrill involved. However, in the academic disciplines, “plagiarism inflates grades relative to education and devalues honest scholarship. Among authors and journalists plagiarism cheapens the very art of writing” (Bloomfield, 2004). That is the impact the actions of Kaavya Viswanathan’s had on me. Her behaviour brings into question the authenticity of my writing and devalues the expensive education that I am pursuing.
Claims of unintentional usage are the sinner’s primary defence. It is the appeal most plagiarizers invoke to explain the copying of another author’s work; the passages or ideas in question push their way out of the subconscious into the conscious (see Jung pp. 23-26 for an explanation of cryptomnesia) and the writer inadvertently claims them for his or her own. I think this can be true, but note the following for your consideration.
I conducted an informal survey asking a sampling of students, friends and relatives their opinions about plagiarizing. Nearly everyone agrees the practice is immoral and unethical. Yet, when I type the words “essay writing services” into my Internet search engine four million hits occur. Who are the phantoms keeping these service providers in business?
Whoever they are, I hope they also get caught.
Bloomfield, L. (2004). The Importance of writing. Essays by Lou Bloomfield. Retrieved from http://plagiarism.phys.virginia.edu/essays/The%20Importance%20of%20Writing.html
Jung, C. (1968). Man and his symbols. New York: Dell.
McCafferty, M. (2001). Sloppy firsts. Three Rivers, Michigan: Three Rivers Press.
McCafferty, M. (2003). Second helpings. Three Rivers, Michigan: Three Rivers Press.
Posner, R. A. (2003, May 18). The Truth About plagiarism: It’s usually a minor offense and can have social value. Newsday (New York). Retrieved from http://www.law.uchicago.edu/news/posner-r-plagiarism.html.
Zhou, D. (2006, April 23). Examples of similar passages between Viswanathan’s book and McCafferty’s two novels. The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=512965.