Authorship and plagiarism: an object lesson.

Even though it's outside the realm of science, given its relevance to recent discussions here, I just can't leave this story alone:

Via Nanopolitan, the latest on the sad case of Harvard sophomore and author(?) Kaavya Viswanathan, whose situation keeps unravelling. Viswanathan got herself a book contract while still a high school student, and then wrote (maybe) the young adult novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Recently, it has come to light that dozens of passages in that novel bear an uncanny resemblance to passages in two novels by Megan McCafferty. Some seem to have been lifted word for word, while others seem to have modified just enough not to be immediately detectable with Google.

In the business, we're accustomed to calling this plagiarism. The only complication here is whether Viswanathan is the one who committed the plagiarism here.

Here's where things get interesting: the Harvard Independent reports that How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was produced with the "assistance" of a "book packager". Book packagers, it seems, have stables of hungry young (and swift) writers who will do that pesky writing involved in turning out a novel (or many novels in a commercially popular series) for a paycheck but no author's credit. Viswanathan gets her name on Opal Mehta, but she doesn't have to sweat over actually writing it all. Indeed, under the terms of the arrangement, it's unclear that the public would ever get to know how much of the resulting novel was written by the author of record and how much was written by those anonymous wordsmiths.

Kind of a literary Milli Vanilli kind of thing.

But if Viswanathan claims the credit (as author) for that novel, what happens when substantial portions of it seem to be the result of plagiarism? If she's going to claim the credit, doesn't she have to eat the blame, too? As the Harvard Independent explains:

So how much "packaging" did 17th Street [the book packager] do for Opal Metha? Was it, like a Sweet Valley novel, brought to life by an anonymous writer for hire on the basis of an outline by Viswanathan? Or was Viswanathan more deeply involved? If someone plagiarized Megan McCafferty's books, was it Viswanathan herself -- or was it one of 17th Street's unnamed freelancers, cracking under the pressure of six-week deadlines and reaching into the work of a successful competitor for a paragraph here and there?

So far, it's impossible to say. And either way, Viswanathan lacks an obvious graceful exit. If she confesses to plagiarism, she risks jeopardizing her professional and academic future. If she palms it off on her book packager, she risks discrediting her debut novel -- to say nothing of its planned sequel and cinematic adaptation -- as a fraudulent patchwork composed by committee. Much of the appeal of Opal Mehta, after all, lies in the figure of Viswanathan herself, precocious, pretty, and poised. Opal might have sold well without its nominal writer's biographical backstory, telegenic looks, and media-friendly personality -- but it almost certainly would have sold less.

But as Viswanathan is now learning, going up on the marquee isn't all fun, games, and TV interviews. Sometimes it means you take the blame for the production -- whether or not you really deserve it.

Authorship is about credit and accountability. It's a package deal, folks.


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Hey, thanks for the link!

Actually, on the day the scam broke, I read somewhere that two possibilities could not be ruled out: (a) both the authors used the same ghost writer, or (b) both used the same 'Writing for dummies' kind of manual. I just had a good laugh when I read it. Just a couple of days later, I learnt -- to my horror -- about all this 'handling' and 'packaging' ...

Let's just say this doesn't pass the smell test by a long shot.

Not only was this book packaged for publication, but Kaavya Viswanathan herself was 'packaged' for Harvard by a college admissions counselor, for which her parents reportedly paid thousands of dollars. Question is, did the 'packager' write her college admissions essay, too???

Gawker has a bunch of revealing (and funny) posts on KaavyaGate:

By Double Tall Latte (not verified) on 26 Apr 2006 #permalink

What is even more curious is that in a frontpage story in today's NYT, it turns out that the books from which the disputed passages came were packaged by the same company. The books by both authors credit the same editor in their acknowledgements. The more I hear about publishing, the more it sounds like the manufacturing industry.

The HI got it right: there is no way out for her.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 27 Apr 2006 #permalink

Wow. If the college counselor thing is true though, how much of this can really be blamed on Ms. Viswanathan? If her parents paid thousands for a college counseler packager, might her parents' behavior be to blame? If they've put her into situations where she's over her head by pushing her too far and paying money to make her seem more appealing, AND taught her that you don't have to be responsible for the quality of your work and can pay someone else to do it, her parents share responsibility for the plagiarism scam.

There are so many things at play here. The manufacturing machine of publishing, but also the ways parents push their children and the assumed prestige by going to a university like Harvard (which is not necessarily a better place to learn than other universities, but its diploma seems, to many, like a ticket to a better life). I also wonder if the ways in which universities are accreditation machines (with increasing TA and adjunct teaching exploitation, cost cutting, bloated middle management and presidential salaries at a quarter to half a million a year) and are clearly passing on prestige without necessarily skills or knowledge is also part of the problem.

Reminds me of something I read by a guy who churned out large numbers of novels for a pulp publisher in the sixties -- he said he had some stock scenes that he reused several times. Of course he had to retype them each time on his typewriter; it's even easier now with cut-and-paste. Since he only recycled his own material, he can't really be accused of plagiarism. Now, both Viswanathan and McCafferty's books were produced by the same "packager" -- suppose they had the same ghostwriter? It might well not be plagiarism, just hackwork. The unethical behavior would be on the part of the publishers marketing the books as something they weren't, as the sole work of telegenic bright young things. And on the part of the "authors", mind you, allowing themselves to be used this way.

I agree that authorship is about credit and accountability, but I don't think you can validly elect to accept both of those: You either merit them or you don't. If she didn't write it, she didn't deserve the credit, nor does she deserve the blame if her "packager" plagarized or recycled material. Just because she was moving along fine, rakin' in the dough before the scandal broke doesn't mean it's ok to slam her with a plagiarism reputation if she wasn't the one who plagiarized. The author should be exposed for what she is: a kid willing to take an easy route that's presented to her for the sake of success. Plagiarism is a far worse charge, I think.

By ThePolynomial (not verified) on 27 Apr 2006 #permalink

I think, though, the only way for Viswanathan to avoid being tarred as a plagiarist is for her to own up to the fact that she didn't actually write the novel (at least in the sense of "write" that most of us expect of bona fide novelists, as opposed to articulate spokesmodels).

Has she stepped up to do that yet, and to recognize that the "authorship" she asserted was a misrepresentation? Until she does -- that is, as long as she maintains that she is really the author -- I'm afraid she has to own the mantle of plagiarist, too.

Very true. And if she hasn't done that and the book really was "packaged" in the way described, she definitely needs to do so.

By ThePolynomial (not verified) on 27 Apr 2006 #permalink