Plagiarism has been in the news lately.
On May 9, Jumi Bello’s personal essay explaining why she plagiarised parts of her debut novel The Leaving the novel was pulled from the website Literary Hub because the essay itself included plagiarised material. The Leaving had been scheduled to come out in July but was cancelled in February by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, after Bello herself disclosed her plagiarism to the publisher.
Although the Literary Hub did not mention who Bello had plagiarised, it turned out to be Jonathan Bailey, the author of the website Plagiarism Today. He writes in his post ‘Plagiarized in a Plagiarism Atonement Essay‘ that Bello copied from two articles of his on plagiarism, one for his site in 2011, another for Turnitin in 2019. ‘It’s pretty obvious that she copied my words and then rewrote them to fit her style and message,’ Bailey said.
In the now-pulled essay, Bello explained she copied and pasted ‘literary descriptions of pregnancy’ (she herself has never been pregnant), telling herself she was just borrowing the language and she’d ‘rewrite these parts later during the editorial phase. I will make this story mine again.’ The problem is she forgot. The way to avoid plagiarism, Bailey notes, isn’t to change the language later on but to not have that language in your work in the first place.
Unsurprising, considering her flawed writing process, Bello’s essay, was just more of the same. Cut and paste.
Closer to home, last week Guardian Australia broke the news that John Hughes had plagiarised the 2017 English translation of Svetlana Alexievich’s nonfiction book The Unwomanly Face of War in his novel The Dogs, longlisted for the prestigious Miles Franklin Award. Anna Katharine Verney had come across the similarities between the two books by coincidence. In a now-deleted tweet, she said she ‘first detected some similarities between the books when she read them one shortly after the other’. Using document comparison software, the Guardian Australia found 58 similarities and instances of identical text including the central scene from which Hughes’ novel takes its title.
In explaining how he used parts of Alexievich’s work ‘without realising’, Hughes said he started writing The Dogs 15 years ago and had done interviews with his Ukrainian grandparents, who told him of similar instances to those described in Alexievich’s book.
When he eventually read The Unwomanly Face of War, he’d taken notes and typed up passages he wanted to use. At some point, he says, he must have added them to the transcripts of the interviews and come to think of them as his own. In his mind, his grandparents’ stories had become conflated with Alexievich’s oral histories. ‘I could no longer unpick them, even if I had wanted to,’ he explains. Why not?
As for the scene with the dogs as the Russian women were hiding in the swamp from the Germans, it’s difficult to understand how he could forget this was from The Unwomanly Face of War. His grandmother may have shared a similar story, but his reading of Alexievich’s book came much later.
Hughes’ publisher, Terri-ann White, at Upswell Publishing, said as a writer she understood ‘how creativity can get mixed up in the making of a long work’. She says it was a ‘clear appropriation of other people’s words’, but not deliberate. It was human error. White explained: ‘It is a salutary reminder to imaginative writers who don’t use the formal tools of scholarship that ‘false memory’ – self-attribution of the writing of others after becoming very familiar with its locution – is a serious consideration before submitting for publication.’
In an article in Meanjin, Elisabeth Hanscombe is reluctant to call Hughes a plagiarist: ‘When we write, like magpies we collect bits and pieces of information and words from others that we weave together to form narrative tapestries to enthral our readers. In doing so we can lean too heavily on someone else’s words and confuse them with our own. As we might do with memories … It’s not a process of stealing so much as a type of absorption into our DNA of words and experience that blend into our identities as if they are our own memory.’
None of these explanations are good enough. Authors are not magpies. We can file and label and use quotation marks.
Five days after Hughes apologised to Alexievich, the writer Shannon Burns and academic Emmett Stinson found that other parts of The Dogs have been copied from classic novels including F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
Hughes responded by stating that ‘it is a great simplification to call this plagiarism’. He says he’s always used the work of others in his own. ‘You take, that is, and make something else out of it; you make it your own.’ He explains that he does not keep notes or drafts of his writing, as ‘they become too much of a weight’. His writing practice is to write over each draft, so there is only one version. ‘It may not be a process that works for everyone, but it’s worked for me.’ Clearly, it hasn’t. Svetlana Alexievich wouldn’t agree either. She had earlier told Guardian Australia, ‘The verbatim takes from my book are outrageous.’
Most plagiarism is discovered by accident, stumbled upon by an astute reader or reviewer, such as Anna Katharine Verney, and their ability to spot a sudden change in writing style or recognising material copied from other sources. Jolisa Gracewood discovered award-winning Māori author Witi Ihimaera’s plagiarism in The Trowenna Sea back in 2009. While reading the novel, she had a feeling something was not right with parts of the text. She’d never heard of its subject, Hohepa Te Umuroa, who was convicted of rebellion and transported to Tasmania in 1846, so looked him up on Google where she found ‘uncanny resemblances’ with other sources.
It was the ‘literary news story of the decade in New Zealand‘, considering Ihimaera was a professor of English and distinguished creative fellow in Māori literature at Auckland University. Ihimaera brought back the remaining stock of his book, about 1800 copies. He stored them in a storage unit in Auckland and visited them every month as he could not bear destroying them. He was ‘proud of them’ and loved them no matter what.
Gracewood said as a writing teacher, ‘I’d occasionally come across a phrase or a paragraph that was somehow out of kilter with the surrounding text. It’s a curiously physical phenomenon: the hairs on the back of your neck go up, and your heart sinks … There really is no joy in stumbling across a story like this one.’
It’s likely that a lot of plagiarism slips past undetected. Gracewood told me that plagiarism stories get media attention when they involve major public standing of some sort, such as the status of the author, the affected parties, the size of the publisher. Or if any awards, prizes, plum jobs or public funding are involved. Which is why most readers would not have heard of my sister’s plagiarism, which I, too, stumbled upon by chance.
The first I heard about her book Oscar Garden: A Tale of One Man’s Love of Flying (Mary Egan Publishing) was the day before it was released. An excerpt published in Stuff, New Zealand’s largest news site, featured my father’s epic solo flight from England to Australia in 1930 in an open cockpit Gipsy Moth. When I read the excerpt, I thought it was a bit strange. The language in places was odd and the writing was uneven. I did not consider plagiarism of other works at the time. I was more concerned that she had stolen bits from my own book, Sundowner of the Skies: the story of Oscar Garden, the forgotten aviator, published the previous year and shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History Award 2020.
A year later, by accident, when I was working on a feature article, I checked one of her references and discovered she’d copied and pasted an entire article from a 1930 newspaper. I began examining her book more closely and found numerous other examples. Unsurprisingly, there are plagiarised passages in the Stuff extract (which explains why the language is odd), including these two from Sydney Mail and Sunday Mail:
When he was ready to leave Croydon, he told his people what he intended to do, and naturally they were somewhat alarmed; but he got away before they could even come to see him off or to persuade him not to make the flight.
Something happened that might have easily put an end to the flight and to him. He didn’t know how, but when he started from Munich the throttle was open wide… When an aeroplane is started with the throttle open that is usually the end of the machine. It just starts out and wrecks itself. He realised what had happened; the aeroplane would dash around in circles.
As well as lifting stuff from other newspapers, I found she’d copied substantially from two books, Ian Driscoll’s Airline (1979) and Maurice McGreal’s A Noble Chance (1994), and Ian Thompson’s Master’s thesis A History of TEAL (1968). In many places she simply replaced Oscar Garden with Dad, with quotes changed ‘I’ to ‘my father’. Just from examining a few chapters, I found 100s of examples with over 5000 words cut and pasted. My sister obtained a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Boston) in 1985, so you’d expect her to have ‘the formal tools of scholarship’ that Terri-ann White says imaginative writers like Hughes may not use.
I sought legal advice from a lawyer specializing in intellectual property. Although he could not do anything about the plagiarism of other authors, after reading both books he said there could be a case for copyright infringement: ‘It’s clear that your sister took your book and rewrote it poorly. It’s also clear from some quotes she’s included she’s sourced that from material you collated and gifted to MOTAT [Auckland’s Museum of Technology & Transport] ‘ They wrote to the publisher and my sister and offered to run a plagiarism check.
While not accepting liability, Mary Egan agreed to cease publishing and distributing the book and not publish any reprints. Although she refused a plagiarism check, my sister agreed to remove all copies of her book from museums and libraries. In a letter to MOTAT, she admitted to ‘some inaccuracies in my book as well as some inadvertent plagiarism’. She has given no explanation for her plagiarism. Her last words to me were, ‘Auckland Museum has finally removed the book. I think that’s that then?’
Gracewood told me, ‘One thing I was often told after my experience stumbling across it was that it’s a bit like other misdemeanours—the first time you catch it is not necessarily the first time it’s happened.’
It was not the first time for Ihimaera. His novel The Matriarch (1986) contains unacknowledged material from Keith Sorrenson’s entry on Māori land in the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966). Mark Williams wrote in the New Zealand Review of Books, ‘Ihimaera does not simply take over Sorrenson’s account. He works over the passage he borrows, inserting new sentences and deleting others. This process is deliberate, even calculated.’ Ihimaera learnt nothing. In writing The Trowenna Sea, Williams suggests he simply followed ‘the same method of ‘doing’ historical fiction he cobbled together writing The Matriarch’.
It is possible, then, that further plagiarism will be uncovered in Hughes’ other books. And my sister’s, not that I can be bothered investigating. She has authored seven books, most of them self-published. Her latest is Burn Out and the Mobilisation of Energy, printed by the vanity publisher Austin Macauley.
Unfortunately, software such as Turnitin.com is only as good as the texts in the program’s database. They often don’t cover general books. Plagiarism, however, can usually be avoided by simply citing or adding a note to anything pasted into your work. An author should not rely on memory and believe they can leave citation for the editing process.
This has been a deeply distressing situation for publisher Terri-ann White, who only launched Upswell Publishing in late 2021. In a statement posted to their website on 17 June, she says she has read most of the books Hughes quotes without attribution in The Dogs and simply did not recognise them. ‘That’s a trust thing, I think.’ ‘Upswell relies upon credibility and trust. That has been damaged this fortnight, and I seek to reaffirm my position. I am currently thinking seriously about my options. This will take time to untangle mess.’
In signing a publishing contract, the author certifies that their book is an original work in its entirety. If bits are stolen, deliberately or unintentionally, then that is literary theft. If the theft is extensive, then the books should be recalled.
Hughes has not offered to buy back copies of his book. However, with each attempt to explain or justify his plundering, he seems to be digging himself deeper into a hole, even though the dogs are barking.
Mary Garden is a writer and author of two books, The Serpent Rising (1998, 2003, 2020), winner of the High Country Indie Award 2021, and Sundowner of the Skies, short-listed for the NSW Premier’s History Award 2020. She has a PhD in Journalism (USC), and her writing has appeared in a range of publications including The Weekend Australian, Australian Financial Review, New Zealand Geographic, The Humanist, Northern Times, Guardian Australia and Journalism: theory, practice & criticism. She knows how not to plagiarise.