Credit where it’s due

Some Goodreads friends might have already heard part of this story when it was in progress. I figured a little time passage would be a good thing before a blog post.

So … Last year I read a non-fiction book for review. I read a lot for review nowadays, and some non-fiction, and I’m not going to specify what the book was or whether it’s one for which I’ve posted a review or not, since I don’t know where I’d stand on libel issues. (Though everything I’m about to say is fact, with my luck there would be some bizarre extenuating circumstances and I’d end up losing the house, all my books, and my dog. (I don’t have anything else.)) (It won’t take a rocket scientist to track down what book I’m talking about, just a bit of web searching.) (There’s a certain irony to that.) It wasn’t a very good book, we’ll stick with that; if it had been, I would never have discovered that it was, to all appearances, plagiarized.

It’s remarkable that no one in the course of this story has used the “p” word, except for me, and that only in private conversation. It’s such a vile charge to lay against someone that even with a mountain of evidence even I still kept avoiding it in “official” correspondence.

It was the damnedest thing. The book was, as I said, not good. There were all sorts of problems with punctuation and grammar and style. The text was bad enough that for me it cast doubt on what it conveyed. As to the latter, it was choppy and somehow didn’t really sound like the same voice throughout – which makes a lot of sense, in retrospect. As it turns out, many of the complaints (not all) I had about the author’s writing were invalid, because most of the chapters I complained about were not original to this book.

Plagiarism (EP)

Plagiarism (EP) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More than midway through – Chapter 12, it was – I noticed that a quote was used twice, a handful of pages apart, once before and once after a battle. It was confusing, and it mattered when this person said what he said, so I copied and pasted into a search engine (Goodsearch ended up getting quite a workout from this book before I was through). It’s sad, and a little scary: if he hadn’t made the mistake of using that one quote twice in just a handful of pages, if I hadn’t had the laptop handy and stubbornly wanted to know when exactly the quote was originally written, I would never have discovered that something like 95% of the chapter the quote showed up in (twice) was identical to an article on, which was originally printed in Military History magazine. By someone else.

I literally started shaking when I realized what I’d found. I’m a reader (obviously) and a writer, and plagiarism is tantamount to murder in my world – or at least grand theft. It’s just about the ultimate sin. It’s hateful.

Well, hold on, I thought. Maybe it’s the same writer using a different name. It would be odd, in this context, but it happens, I imagine. Though usually a writer will use a different name only when writing in a different genre: i.e., e.g. Barbara Mertz/Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters, Jill Churchill/Janice Young Brooks, etc.

Yeah, that wasn’t it. I kept looking, and found more and more – and more – different places where I was able to match whole chunks of text almost verbatim. The only differences were occasional edits to make the online material fit the context into which it was placed; occasional edits to, really, dumb down the vocabulary; and a few elisions. Otherwise, I discovered, at least five chapters of this book were virtually identical to articles from three different websites. The one that was sourced three times happens to be a non-profit, and I believe all the material on it is submitted by volunteers. As if the basic fact of copying material wasn’t bad enough on its own.

I had no idea what to do. I started by contacting the website I had obtained the book from (not Netgalley), and they responded that, basically, they have no control over the content of what they pass on but they would notify the publisher. I replied that, thank you, I would notify the publisher; at that point all my suspicious nerve-endings were live, and while I didn’t suspect that the review organization would neglect to say anything, I wanted my hands on this thing.

Meanwhile, I emailed the first two websites from which I had discovered material. Then I hunted through the publisher website. It’s not a big publisher, but they don’t seem to want to encourage general inquiries; the options I was given were none of them quite right, but I finally found one of those “help” forms to fill out, and sent it on in; it took a couple of days to reach someone useful, apparently.

Out of sheer perverseness I sat down with the first article I’d found, along with the book, and started marking out in red all of the online material that also appeared in the book. It was a bloodbath. Interestingly, most of the differences were in substitution of synonyms, often (as mentioned) “dumbing down” a word to a more commonly used adjective than the original, and occasional tailoring to fit the context, including some excisions. (Funnily, there was only one alteration that was dreadful; in every other case the problem that made me make a note of a quote was part of the original material, wherever it came from, but “alienated party stalwarts by eschewing party politics” (a poor sentence to start with) was changed to “alienated his party politics” – which just makes no sense.)

The publisher wrote me back thanking me for bringing it to their attention, and asking me if I’d found any “additional examples” – of what, they left to me to fill in. See how hard it is to come right out and say it? I was a little surprised at the question; I’m just a reader who stumbled onto something. It’s not really my job to supply them with examples. However, as it happens, I’m just a reader who stumbled onto something which – like all those housewives and caterers who stumble over corpses in cozy mysteries – I couldn’t leave alone. I felt a bit bad for the gentlemen who emailed me, described in his signature as Vice President of Acquisitions and Editorial, Nonfiction Trade Group. He probably expected a short little reply saying I hadn’t looked, or something. But I did look. And (as anyone who reads this blog knows) I don’t readily do short.

I had jotted down quite a number of notes as I read for possible inclusion in what was looking more and more like a scathing review. When I found that … similarity, I went back to the list of notes I had typed up and proceeded to Goodsearch (and Google) each of them, with and without quotes. When I finished the list I went back to chapters that had remained “clean”, and sampled various words and phrases. I won’t say it was an exhaustive or scientific search – I would almost like to do one, but I simply can’t devote that kind of time to the thing. It’s already eaten up hours in which I could have been copying – er, writing my own book. (Sorry – inappropriate humor.)

I found single lines – and not generic sorts of sentences. There were some odd turns of phrase I had noted because they were odd in a bad way – and as it turns out the book’s author can’t be criticized for writing them. Only for stealing them. I found entire paragraphs, with maybe a word changed here or a comma added there. I found more whole chapters. In the end, my email back to the VP of Acquisitions and Editorial included thirteen examples. My grand total was two hits through Google Books, one Wikipedia article, what looks like a bound magazine collection published a long time ago, and six websites. One of the websites yielded four articles which had been reworked into chapters 7, 8, 11, 12 (the first one I found), and part of I believe 13. What troubled me even more, if possible, was that the books turned up in the searches through Google Books were not digital, found only in samples on Google. Which leaves me wondering about all those sections I did random spot searches on and came up with nothing, and all those non-digitized books I couldn’t search.

I closed my long (almost 3 pages on Word) email with “Thank you for pursuing this matter; to me as a reader and a writer this has felt a little bit like coming upon a bloody crime scene.” I wasn’t exaggerating. There was a similar element of horror – how could someone do this? combined with how could someone be so stupid as to do this so poorly? – along with a similar need to investigate.

It’s a fairly common truism that plagiarism can be almost as much of an effort as writing something original. This proved it to me. It all certainly began with cut-and-paste, but there had to be attention paid in the stitching together of the resulting crazy quilt. The study I did of Chapter 12, the word-by-word comparison, was strangely instructive. (One thing I discovered was that when I had made note of a passage with the purpose of citing it as being oddly colloquial in the middle of more mundane text, that passage was frequently a reworked and uncredited quote from someone’s journal or something like that.)

I don’t know which baffles me more, the use of entire articles or the use of random sentences.

A few examples…

From the book (page 50):
“At the bottom of a steep stairway of several hundred steps stood the little Methodist church of brick, and there [ ], his wife, and their flock of four small children were to be seen almost as regularly as the deacons themselves – they even had their own pew.”

From a website article:
At the bottom of the steep stairway of several hundred steps stood a little Methodist church of brick, and there
[ ], his wife, and their flock of small children were to be seen almost as regularly as the deacons themselves.

Where did the bit about the pew come from, I wonder? I mean, really, it’s odd.

There was a line about the subject’s “self-poise and confidence in himself” – which was such an awful sentence I made a note of it. Come to find out, it came from that bound magazine collection. As far as I found the surrounding material was not from the same place. Which begs the question of why anyone would steal a bad sentence.

Even some of the smaller swipes were altered slightly:

From page 154 – “Like all of [1]’s campaigns in [2], [3] was not tactical but strategic.

From an online article:

“Like all of [1]’s [2] operations, the siege of [3] was not tactical but strategic.”

(Take it as read that [1], [2], and [3] are identical in both.)

A paragraph in another chapter switches, out of the blue, from past to present tense – because the source material used present tense. It’s the only bit of present tense in the book. Why was the attention paid elsewhere not extended to recasting this paragraph?

An example of the dumbing-down:

“Which hindered his effectiveness” becomes “which damaged his effectiveness”

And another:

From page 176:
Coming into office [ ] alienated his party politics. [Which is nonsense.] …This strategy led to some good cabinet appointments but also to a number of poor choices…

From the ‘net:
Coming into office, [ ] alienated party stalwarts by eschewing party politics. …This strategy led to some good cabinet appointments but also to a number of dubious ones…

Other than those two changes, which I just find sad, the entire paragraph is identical.

As I mentioned up at the top somewhere, I would never have found the … problem … if there hadn’t been one

Book covers - HMS Press (Toronto/London) Canada

Book covers – HMS Press (Toronto/London) Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

glaring error, an overenthusiastic copy-and-paste missed by an underenthusiastic editor. All I wanted was to know the original date of a quote. If not for that, I would have simply dismissed this as just a bad book, and moved on. Maybe there’s a lesson in that: if you’re going to put all this effort into plagiarizing something, put enough effort into making it seamless. No, wait: the lesson, of course, should be that – honor aside, honesty aside, legality aside, let’s appeal to common sense: if you’re going to put this much work into something, you really ought to write it yourself.

The worst part of all of this is the biography of the … author. It describes a man who teaches at a fairly prominent school, and who also works for the U.S. government investigating stolen documents. He’s even done interviews on television, in newspapers, and in documentaries about the theft or falsification of archival documents.

I’m just going to let the sad irony sit there and echo.

I hope I’m kept somewhat in the loop about this. In the greater scheme of things, it’s not a breaking news story; it’s not a huge publisher, the author is not a Name, and nor are those writers whose work got sampled. But the author – I’m being nice and not putting that in quotes – of this book is a professional. He has a lot to lose.

A while after I initially discovered and reported the plagiarism, I was wandering about Amazon and decided to wander to this book’s page – and was a little dismayed to find it still for sale. (I was more dismayed to find that this really very bad book has an average rating of about four stars. Come on, people – even if you got it free, reviews are supposed to be honest. Are your standards really that low?) When I wrote, in October, Amazon had a note “Hurry! Only 17 copies left!” That note is gone now – and it’s still for sale. And there are seven used copies for sale – advanced copies?

… … … … …

… Okay, I went and contacted Amazon. I was honestly curious about what they would say. What the initial response email said was “why yes, we do list that book, and its current price is $15.59. You’re welcome!” There’s a link at the bottom of the response: “Did we answer your question? If yes, click here, if no click here” – I always take a vindictive unholy joy in answering those “no, you really failed” surveys.

(Hey, I was in customer service for far too long. If I pulled the kind of crap I seem to deal with in every phone call or email, I would have been fired. The company I worked for had standards, and I never appreciated them until I no longer had to live up to them – but now I expect everyone I speak to or write to to adhere to the same standards. Doomed to disappointment, me.)

I ended up on a phone call with an Amazon rep (American, I think! Amazing) – and he was pretty good, actually. Although I did have to explain several things twice. He said that at that moment the listing indicated that it was currently out of stock, but would be restocked soon. Oh dear. He said that he would pass the story on to the research department, and in fact before I hung up the listing had changed: it read, and reads, as only available from Amazon sellers. To back up the phone call I forwarded a copy of the long “other examples” email to Amazon customer service. I’m not sure why a it’s ok for a plagiarized book to be sold through other agencies, but at least it seems to be shut down – I’m very glad that Amazon will take firm action. Maybe there was a miscommunication between the publisher and the site; anyway. It’s down.

It is, I believe and hope, over.

Heaven knows I learned a thing or two – I can only hope that the publisher did as well, and – especially – the author. I can’t help wondering if I did the right thing, in the right way, and what resulted. Was there someone else I ought to have contacted? What were the repercussions on the author? What about the rest of his books? He wro – er, produced another book in a similar vein; is it clean?

More, he teaches at Norwich University – – and the US Naval Academy. That, to me, is alarming. I’ve left this alone for over two years now – and it’s not libel or slander if it’s true. So: The book was Grant, in The Generals Series by Thomas Nelson Publishers. The author was Mitchell Yockelson, who … it hurts to write it: on his USNA page is this: “Research Interests: Specializes in military records for the World War I period and works in the Office of the Inspector General, National Archives, investigating stolen documents cases.” Emphasis mine.

I don’t understand. Over two years ago it was proven that one of his books was substantially not his work – and he is still working with the Smithsonian, National Geographic, Norwich University, and The US Naval Academy? Apparently Thomas Nelson just … quietly pulled the book and went no further? I never wanted to sully his reputation or his career – but then again, he rather did that himself when he lifted entire pages from other people’s writing. I suppose I expected something to happen – justice to prevail, righteousness to win out, honesty to shine through, or some such nonsense.

Apparently it’s just been business as usual.

I don’t understand.

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16 Responses to Credit where it’s due

  1. Drops of Ink says:

    Very astute post. Enjoyed reading it. Thank you for the pingback. :)

  2. Jane Steen says:

    Vigilant readers who take the trouble to complain are the best defense against plagiarism. Thank you! And as for the “author” – well, I can’t help suspecting he became a “professional” by similarly misrepresenting himself. Shame on him.

  3. stewartry says:

    He has a third book which from what I can see has gotten a lot of praise. I may need to head to a library one day and see for myself. Part of me feels sorry for him – but the rest wants him to never be able to publish so much as a classified ad ever again.

  4. Mary says:

    Wow. Just, wow. I’m nearly positive I know which book you’re talking about, and if I’m right I also reviewed it. I’m embarrassed I was not nearly as thorough as you. Your book research is certainly nothing to sneeze at, I’ll grant you that. (See what I did there?)

    All joking aside, I feel sick right now. I’ve read other biographies from the same publisher and now I’m wondering if they can be trusted to be legitimate (non-plagiarized), or even if the publisher can be trusted to have sufficiently high standards.

    Of course, maybe I’m incorrect about which book it is. The one I’m thinking of is currently still available on Amazon…

  5. Mary says:

    HOLY CRAP! I just checked page 50 of the book I was thinking of and, yeah, of course that’s the one you’re talking about. OMG.

    I’d like to make mention of this on my blog. I don’t know how best to proceed though. I know you were careful not to specifically mention the book and I don’t want to post on my blog “Stewarty accuses [insert author] of plagiarism” but could I link this post on my Twitter/Facebook, saying “Check this out” without exactly saying which book it is?

    I’m wondering if I should update or delete my own review of the book. I really do feel sick about this.

  6. Mary says:

    I think maybe the next course of action should be to try to contact the authors of the articles that were ripped off?

  7. stewartry says:

    I know – it is nauseating, isn’t it?

    Yup, sure enough – I just found your review. It *was* set up to be a really good book, wasn’t it? I’m not sure how this should be handled (obviously!). Your review was your opinion, and every bit as valid as mine; I’m just a bit obsessive and/or had time on my hands. :P

    Y’know, that’s something I didn’t even mention up there /\ – the anger at having been duped. I mean, we got the book free, thank goodness. What if we’d paid the $15-20 for it?

    I don’t think I’d be hesitating to name names…

    I might be being (be being?) overly cautious about this, but I honestly hesitate to come right out and say “‘My Book’ by John Doe was plagiarized!” I mean, hello, proof galore – but I it’s such a bizarre situation. I wonder if I should contact the publisher again and ask.…

    I’d be happy if you’d like to spread the word about the post – if nothing else, maybe someone out there knows the legalities! Thanks!

  8. stewartry says:

    I contacted the first two I found; I believe they were going to contact the publisher. You’re absolutely right, though, and I never thought of it – I should let the others know, because there are still copies of the book floating about. I’ll work on that tonight. I’m glad you said that!

  9. tmso says:

    It seems your post was/is cut off there at the end. Regardless, well put together post and that must have been nerve wracking for you to do. But, I think you did the right thing. I don’t know about the specific steps to take (though contacting the authors is a good idea), but calling out plagiarism when we see it is the right thing to do. I mean, you’d call 911 if you saw a bank being robbed, right?

  10. stewartry says:

    Huh – I wonder what that sentence was going to be; I have no memory. :) Thank you.

  11. Jane Steen says:

    I would support deleting the review and/or substituting a review that says “parts of this book are remarkably similar to…[insert examples]. Or even just saying something like “the book covers no new material that isn’t already publicly available for free on blogs – don’t waste your money” – that damns the book without actually making an accusation of plagiarism. After all, reader-critics are becoming the new gatekeepers against bad books: the old-fashioned professional reviewer who isn’t afraid to get out the knives seems to be disappearing, so we NEED people to say what they really think.

  12. calmgrove says:

    Fascinating post, thanks! What’s surprising is that the ‘author’ appears to expect to get away with it. Interestingly, you write that theauthor’s biography “describes a man who … works for the U.S. government investigating stolen documents. He’s even done interviews … about the theft or falsification of archival documents.” Post-modernist irony perhaps on his part?

  13. stewartry says:

    Irony just drips from the situation.

    And your comment is exactly part of why I can’t leave this alone. I feel like I need to know he’s had to face consequences for this. And the publisher too – the person I dealt with was very pleasant and fairly communicative, but apparently they’ve never had to deal with something like this before; and they wouldn’t have to now, I can’t help but think, if someone in their editing department had just done what I did.

  14. Bronwyn says:

    Holy cow. I still don’t know what the book you read is, but that’s just appalling. I found the quote from page 50 in a book from 1898 which is where I’m guessing the article got it (no articles turned up for me, oddly), so it’s not like it’s even hard to find! It’s amazing that such a stupid mistake on writer’s/editor’s/someone’s part is why you even noticed it. Having studied history and hoping to write non-fiction in the future, I’m just appalled.

  15. stewartry says:

    It’s insane, isn’t it? It feels a bit silly to keep not saying the name of the book: it was a biography of U.S. Grant I read last summer.

    The example I gave, citing page 50 of the bio, can be seen on Google books (I can’t make the link pretty, for some reason):

    – And And here, which as you say is from 1898.

    Chapter 12, that started it all, is here; the article I found on the history website is here.

    I felt like I’d caught a killer in the act – now I kind of feel like I watched the killer get off scot-free.

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