Friday, February 12, 2010

Plagiarism Controversy

There’s an interesting article in the NYTimes about a 17 year-old, Helene Hegemann, who has published a novel, Axolotl Roadkill. The novel is about a 16 year-old’s experience in the drug and club world of Berlin. The book has risen fast in word of mouth buzz, high acclaim, favorable reviews, and sales, and it is a finalist for a Leipzig Book prize.

However it’s been discovered after publication that many lines, phrases, passages and even entire pages have been lifted from the novel Strobo, by Airen, published in August of 2009, as well as passages from his blog.

The book is still up for the award and still well received. Heggeman defends herself by saying that she represents a generation that freely takes from all media and creates something new, and that: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

Creative people have always been inspired by, and even stolen from, all that is in the world, but I’d say lifting an entire page from another novel is plagiarism. But that’s me.

Remember the Harvard student who plagiarized Meg Cabot (was it Meg Cabot? I know it was someone famous…) and the book never came out and the student is now hiding under shame and lawsuits? I can’t help but wonder since Heggemann has plagiarized a less-than famous work if that is why no one seems to care. In fact, some blogs out there say she has done that author a favor by upping his sales! Or maybe everything is changing and we now live in a world where nothing belongs to anyone anymore.

Oh, gee.

It’s an interesting article and worthy of discussion. Read it and tell me what you think. I really want to know.

fyi: Axolotl is an aquatic Mexican mole salamander. It is on the verge of extinction.


  1. What do I think? This steams me, big time. Creative artists play off each other all the time--most obviously musicians. It's nothing new to try a new spin on another writer's story or painting or song, and in fact can be an interesting creative challenge to see where some other piece of art can lead you. But acknowledge the source of inspiration and for heavean's sake don't make yourself look stupid and venal by lifting pages and passages and calling them your own and then whining about authenticity.

    Man, I'd just gotten rid of my migraine, too.

  2. I wonder if some of it is cultural. I can't believe this would be overlooked in the same way over here. But I also thought that with Opal Mehta (Megan McCafferty was the author) the media frenzy over Viswanathan was partially due to circumstance. She seemed so charmed--Harvard student, young, massive advance, so much publisher support. She was built up so highly, and then brought down fiercely. I'm wondering if it wouldn't quite have been the same national feeding frenzy if she hadn't been such a media darling. There was an adult book a few years back--I can't remember which--where some page was very similar to one in another book. The author rewrote the page and the publisher reprinted the book.

    The justifications in that article drive me bonkers.

    Of course, my husband was recently accused by the curriculum committee of his university of having a problematic tone in the plagiarism section of his syllabus (i.e. too strict), so who knows anymore.

  3. After reading this article, many issues blossom. For one, and to piggyback on each of your posts (though, I am not plagiarizing, just borrowing), the article downplays Heggeman's accountability. Plagiarism, at least in recent years, has become strictly defined, yet often unenforced (at least in the university arena). Like LJC, since Heggeman lifted whole passages and at least a page from another source, without acknowledging it, her actions are not artistic and creative. This is plagiarism. Period. There have been a few instances in my classrooms where students "recreate" an author's ideas or words and do not properly cite them. Here's the kicker: they think because they placed the effort into "paraphrasing" and using their own words to characterize someone else's, the work morphs into their own. Each semester, I have a lengthy discussion about this very issue.

    I have a few other issues with this situation that may display my ignorance about intellectual property and an author's rights...where is the publisher's liability here? How come they did not catch this? I do not pose this question to lessen Heggeman's responsibility here. What about Heggeman's age and the fact she is a minor, though I could be wrong about a minor's standing in her country.

    The bottom line...Strobo's rose by this other name does not smell as sweet...


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  5. This author lacks authenticity and integrity in her defenses. On the one hand, she says that her creative goal was to explore the cultural process of mixing and borrowing. However, she originally presented her book as entirely her own words. That undermines her own case for the work's artistic merit. She could have contacted the other author before the book's publication, cited the borrowed texts, and negotiated compensation for their use. That is a standard procedure for quoting song lyrics and book excerpts that aren't in the public domain into another book. Instead, she gambled that her plagiarism wouldn’t be discovered--or matter. Now she's pursuing a public relations strategy for getting the most financial gain from doing something wrong. Being young and cute doesn't automatically make her authentic.

  6. Cheryl, that was really nicely said.

  7. Like Mellisa, I teach college courses. I have some real objections to this "generation that freely takes all media." And I see it as reflective of an attitude of entitlement in our Napster-fed society. If it's out there, then it must be free for the taking.

    Sadly, I see this in young college students and in older ones. Sometimes it is a result of ignorance of proper protocol for correctly citing sources. Sometimes it is cultural (I work with many international students who come from cultures where this is accepted). More often it is the result of laziness and/or desperation to meet a deadline. In the worst case, it is blatent deception for gain (i.e., obtaining a paper from an online paper mill, or purposely taking whole passages from another author's work and submitting it as original material).

    In the "olden days" students had to plagiarize by writing things out longhand. These days a simple swipe-copy-paste will put words on the page. Luckily, it also makes it easier for instructors to find the sources. When I find it, I use it as a "teachable moment," but also zing the student pretty harshly.

    The case in point above also shows us how little the publishing industry for ADULT books does the fact-checking it should. Interestingly, in my nonfiction work for educational publishers, the fact-checkers questioned everything and required me to show them every source. Children's writers are never allowed to use works written for children as sources, even though the fact-checking is much more rigorous than in the adult publishing world. Ironic.

  8. I agree, Cheryl. The fact that she presented her text as her own and then, after her deeds were unveiled, plays damage control by concocting (sp.) a social/cultural justification is disturbing. It smells like scienter (guilty knowledge) and not "teen spirit" to me (Nirvana).

    She is young, but she likely knew what she was doing when she did it, or else, why consciously claim the novel is her own from the beginning?

    Tradition and a new "cultural movement"(gag) aside, this is obviously an issue grounded in ethics and understanding right from wrong. There is no justification for her behavior. At this point, the media and her buyers (potential buyers) and perhaps, other players, will determine the outcome of she and the text. We all borrow information from the world. After reading Lyon's novel, I was inspired. After workshop and listening to Kelly and Mary tell each of us to experiment with our work, I did. I took a third person pov piece and morphed it into a first pov, which it desperately needed. Lyon's inspired the notion of a female protag. in the throes of slavery during the Civil War. This "modern slavery" piece is fresh, or so I think, but that will be addressed during a different semester...

    Heggeman, like some students, do not understand that "unintentional plagiarism (yup, there is a label for all levels of this intellectual crime (copy and paste, etc.)) is still plagiarism. For some, unintentional plagiarism is often the result of "laziness" or misunderstanding the dichotomy between what "They say" vs. what "I say." In this case, I don't buy into her actions as being "unintentional plagiarism."

    I do, however, buy into damage control, which seems to be the name of her game at this point.

  9. Mellisa, I gotta say, your book sounds really cool.

  10. Thank you, Anne! It's in a virtual drawer right now while I work on the only other piece I have. This semester's project is MG anthropomorphic. Three animals and a child are deserted by their owners/parents during a hurri-canine. The trade winds take them to Egypt where they duck and hide from an "international animal hunt" that is launched to bring hte child home. While in Egypt, a pyramid unlocks all (well, some) of the secrets that dogs and cats have. The child finds a new family with the three "scallywags."

    This one is LOTS of fun!!!! They both are, in their own ways! :)

  11. Great discussion!

    It seems to me that Heggemann's plagiarism was intentional--how could one unintentionally copy an entire page?! Okay so she did it and somehow no one noticed or cared, but now the book ought to be taken off the shelves and she ought to be punished or reprimanded in some way. But not necessarily to the destruction of her career. She is talented after all and, if humble enough, she could learn from this.
    It's forgivable that she plagiarized (as long as she never does again) but it's unforgivable that no one seems to care, therefor making it okay. She must have really excellent PR people working for her. That's what steams me--anything can be "legal" if marketed well.

    I recall when I was in college and a super smart kid plagiarized parts of his senior thesis, which he tried to publish, and he was expelled.

    Plagiarism is a serious offense. Thanks for you teachers, Melissa and Debra for treating it as such with your students.

    On the other hand Maurice Sendak has been known to say that good artists borrow, while the best steal. Look at his illustrations in In the Night Kitchen next to Winsor McCay's Little Nemo and they are almost exactly the same. Would the equivalent of plagiarism in art then be actual tracing?

  12. Lisa, et. al,

    Your comment at the end of your response about Sendak makes me think about the movie, "Mona Lisa's Smile." I'm sure you know the movie. There is a part where Julia Roberts introduces her students to a VanGogh Paint by Numbers set. Replicas of anything should be acknowledged as such. A person who lifts parts or whole passages from a source OR rephrases them (to put it simply) should follow suit.

    In terms of unintentional plagiarism, I often think of the person's intent at the time they commit the offense. Of course, lifting whole passages is intentional. However, when I think about snippets Heggeman may have lifted or, perhaps, rephrased, I wonder if she justified the act in her (own) mind. That aside, and considering all of the circumstances, her act is intentional. No matter how we assess it, she plagiarized. Period.

    I know it is speculative to discuss the outcome of her book and/or career, but how will she recover from this? I know she is young, but the media can often act like a dog with a bone. It is certainly forgivable, but her justification seems indicative of her outlook on writing and any future allegation, respectively. With this justification, what proof has she offered that will change the way she approaches her next novel?

    I'm going to act like Candace Bushnell's character, Carrie Bradshaw, and ask a question(s) at the end of this exposition.

    Will Heggeman's efforts to justify this act harm her future works more than the act itself? Will her damage control "damage" any future control she may have over the way her texts are received?

  13. Here's the first sentence to my new novel called IT'S MINE NOW, SUCKA.

    Well, call me Ishmael cuz, like, all happy families are, like, alike unless it's a dark and, uh, strummy -- no, wait. Stormy night.


  14. By the way, Ron, I learned on Fuse #8 that, in the British edition of WRINKLE, it begins, "It was a dark and stormy night in a small village in the United States."

  15. Ron's sentence is a mashup, and, at least in music, mashups can be sublime, e.g. there's a mashup of "All the Single Ladies" and "The Andy Griffith Show Theme" that is 1,000 times better than either of the original songs on their own.

  16. Okay, I am not going to play Devil’s advocate here, I just want to comment on why Heggeman is not going to get her ears slapped back like Kaavya Viswanathan did. Viswanathan’s career, at least under her real name, is virtually over.

    Heggeman was attempting to be clever. We don’t have the work in front of us to clearly understand the situation, only the act itself to work with. But it would APPEAR that she was attempting to be clever (in a literary way) by doing herself what her character in the novel was doing. Her character Edmund was a “mixer” and was doing the cribbing and plagiarizing that Heggeman herself used SPECIFICALLY in those sections. She is commenting on the current culture of “mixing” and the young. Hence when the nomination panel for the Leipzig Book Fair acknowledged the fact that they knew about the plagiarism and nominated the text anyway, I think there is something deeper going on.

    Incidentally, I am not all together sure this wasn’t worked out in advance, and this mysterious blogger person “Arien” is in on the whole thing. Wouldn’t it be UBER clever if it was planned?

    I do think that young people think that anything on the Internet is “public domain” and should be free and there are many countries (Netherlands specifically) that support this idea. Taking something from the Internet ether and claiming that it is your own creation is deplorable, but in this situation I think she is going to get away with it, all the way to the bank…