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Don't Let Plagiarism Kill Your Career

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In case you missed it, there has been a recent controversy over plagiarism that has received international news attention. A story in The Guardian outlines the major points of the issue between American author Courtney Milan and Brazilian author Cristiane Serruya, who was accused of  plagiarism. The books in question are Milan's The Duchess War and Royal Love by Serruya.

There were numerous instances of Serruya taking several sentences verbatim from Milan's book, and the following is just one example of what she copied:

From The Duchess War - There was a reason they’d kept their conversations to inane niceties up until this point. There was no way to talk about anything else without bitterness. They had no common past to draw on, almost no shared acquaintances. His mother had spent more time visiting Sebastian’s mother—her husband’s sister—than she had lived in Robert’s household as a child.

And she’d chosen to do it. He might have forgiven her at one time. At one time, he would have forgiven her anything.

From Royal Love - There was a reason they’d kept their conversations to inane niceties up until this point. There was no way to talk about anything else without bitterness. They had no common past to draw on, almost no shared acquaintances. His mother had spent more time visiting her lovers and friends than she had stayed with him when, as a child, he came to spend the holidays in Lektenstaten. And she’d chosen to do it. He might have forgiven her at one time. At one time, he would have forgiven her anything.  

If you'd like to see more examples you can find a list of them on Milan's BLOG.

Nora Roberts has a wonderful blog post that stems from this mess of plagiarism and Serrurya. Currently there are 85 books and 36 authors involved. On Twitter you can follow #CopyPasteCrisis  if you really want to spend a lot of time reading about this. Me? I'd rather be writing.

Back when I was working primarily as a journalist, one thing was impressed upon me by editors and other nonfiction writers, and that was the respect shown to other writers by knowing how much one could cite from a book or article without crossing the line into plagiarism. Basically, we could use quotes from other sources as long as we gave them proper credit, and we only used a sentence or two. If we were paraphrasing from a source, we still had to name the publication and the writer.

For instance, if I wanted to take material directly from that story in the Guardian I mentioned earlier, I would cite it by: According to a story in The Guardian by Alison Flood, "Bestselling Brazilian romance novelist Cristiane Serruya has pulled one of her novels from sale after she was accused of plagiarizing some of the biggest authors in the genre."

We were taught to be ethical because being accused of plagiarism can destroy a writer's career and  affect the credibility of the publication. A case in point is what happened to Jayson Blair who resigned from The New York Times in 2003 after it was discovered that he lifted material from other writers throughout his years at the Times. Both Blair and The Times took a big hit. The film "A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism Power and Jayson Blair" by Samantha Grant, premiered on PBS Independent Lens in 2014, and it lays out the whole story.

There are some great resources on the internet for learning how to use quotes, the difference between quoting and plagiarism, and how to paraphrase from a source. On one can find a number of informative articles covering many aspects for academic, as well as commercial, writing. Some interesting cases of notable people who were accused of plagiarism can be found in this article 5 Great People Who Plagiarized written by Jonathan Bailey at Plagiarism Today.

In another case of a career being ruined because of plagiarism, Johah Lehrer left The New Yorker in 2012 after admitting he made up quotes in some of his articles. That didn't make quite as big a splash as the Blair case, but it was enough to sideline his career for a while. More recently, questions of plagiarism have surfaced again as noted in this article in The Guardian by Steven Poole, talking about the 2016 release of Lehrer's latest book, Imagine. The book has since been pulled from bookstores.

We're reading and discussing Rebecca in a literature class I'm taking, and I found it coincidentally interesting that Daphne Du Maurier was once accused of plagiarism by a Brazilian author Carolina Nabuco. Nabuco claimed that Du Maurier took passages from The Successor when writing Rebecca. The allegations were never proven one way or another, although more allegations surface now and then when other cases of work being taken from Brazilian writers and musicians pop up. This 2002 article, Tiger in a Lifeboat, Panther in a Lifeboat - A Furor Over a Novel written in The New York Times by Larry Rohter, points out several instances of artistic property being stolen.

The main focus of the article is on author Yann Martel who won the Man Booker Prize that year for his novel Life of Pi, and the fact that he took the premise of his story from the book Max And the Cats by Moacyr Scliar, published in 1981. Toward the end of the article, Rohter mentions the controversy over the novel Rebecca and The Successor, "The Novels have identical plots and even some identical episodes."

Have you ever suspected your work was being plagiarized? What did you do? Would you like to check your work for possible plagiarism issues? You can do so with Grammarly, a site with monthly fees, or NoPlag that is free. Another site that is available is BibMe, which appears to be geared more toward academic writing than commercial writing, but could be helpful to freelance journalists. You can get a basic subscription to their services for free, which does include checking for plagiarism, and a premium subscription offers help with the actual writing, sentence structure, verb usage, etc. That could be helpful for students writing high school or college papers.

Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. She won her first writing award at age twelve with a short story in the Detroit News Scholastic Writing Awards Contest and continues to garner recognition for her short stories, books, and screenplays. You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Pageread her Blogand follow her on Facebook and TwitterHer online workshop on self-editing, part of a series of online writing workshops from Short And Helpful, can be found HERE


  1. Excellent article, Maryann. I'm always appalled to hear these stories, wondering how on earth a writer could think this is okay. Even more astounding is a writer thinking he or she won't get caught.

    Using the software sounds like a good idea for all writers, but it seems unlikely accidental plagiarism would include more than a short phrase or a sentence. Longer passages have to be deliberate stealing.

  2. Story ideas are one thing, the treatment of a topic quite another. Only so many general topics are available to writers; what makes the difference is a story's perspective on a topic. Take the romance genre, for example. Girl meets boy. Each is interested in the other. Conflict arises. Conflict is overcome. They live happily ever after. While this is an over simplification, it makes a point. I have read numerous romances, and they all follow a similar pattern. Differences lie in character development, time period, locale, dialogue, varied experiences, and unique expression. Genre rules are quite different from lifting word-for-word passages from another's piece without the benefit of attribution. Writing is hard work, and every author's efforts deserve the respect of other writers——that includes not plagiarizing it. This is a great post, Maryann, one we all need to file as a reminder to respect the works of others the way we want ours respected. Borrowing the words/passages of another writer and presenting them as our own is nothing short of theft.

    1. Good points, Linda. When story is reduced to the simplest elements, they are all very much the same. And you are right about how the characters react to those elements is what makes each story unique, or relatively unique. :-)

  3. Didn't realize a similar plagiarism kerfuffle happened with Nora Robert's books being plagiarized by Janet Dailey. Dailey blamed it on a psychological disorder. It probably happened more often than we knew before the internet. Probably happens twice as often with the invention of the e-book. Then there are endless remakes and interpretations of existing books, which could be viewed as stealing other writers' story worlds, characters, scenes, etc. Writing books is hard work. You can invest two or more years on one product. To have someone steal it, or parts of it, is beyond the pale.

    1. I'd forgotten about the Roberts/Daily issue. When that happened, I was shocked that Daily got away with that lame excuse.

    2. Roberts and numerous other others were plagiarized in this latest Serruya debacle. I'm surprised you didn't pick up on that - Nora Roberts has several rebuttals on her blog about it. I don't think she's playing nice this time.

  4. Great post, Maryann. I did know about the Dailey plagiarism. Can't imagine anyone copying Nora Roberts. Serruya was a Kindle Scout winner, as was I. I wondered how she wrote so many books so fast. Ghost writers. Who knew?

  5. Looks like there might be some lawsuits pending with Serruya. I think she messed with the wrong people this time!

    1. Obviously she did. I'm always shocked that folks think they can lift great amounts of work from other writers and get away with it.


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