I was impressed by the arguments put forward on Language Log that the Harvard student whose novel with a silly name has been withdrawn may well be as innocent as she claims. The longest consecutive stretch of plagiarised words from the novel found by the Harvard Crimson appears to be about 14 words. Now, that can’t be chance, but there is no reason to suppose that it must be deliberate, and a great deal of evidence to suggest that it might not be.

This girl is the product of an elite education. This is a process that will require copying huge quantities of other people’s words before regurgitating them. She’s nineteen, and will have been doing this intensively for the last 12 years or so. It is one of the skills most highly prized by the system. The skill of passsing modern exams consists almost entirely of showing that you have read and remembered the required reading load by sprinkling your prose with checkbox constructions. I don’t think that fourteen word phrases, in such contexts, are regarded as plagiarism. The bar surely goes at whole successive sentences.

So she is trying to write a novel — which I take to be yet another sort of exam. She’s eighteen, so she has nothing to say, but an urgent need to say it, and a gift of elegance. What should be more natural than that the writers she has first absorbed should reappear in her work?

However, I then set out to find the original story, in the Harvard Crimson. It turns out that fourteen words is plenty for successive sentences. In Chicklit. As in Blair. And, if the passages themselves weren’t evidence enough, there is the author’s reaction when the paper phoned her:

When The Crimson reached Viswanathan on her cell phone Saturday night and informed her of the similarities between “Opal Mehta” and “Sloppy Firsts,” the sophomore said, “No comment. I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Anyone who reacts like that is guilty. Either you have no comment or you have no idea. But to lose both your opinions and your ideas simultaneously — on a subject of such overwhelming importance as your reputation — shows you have been overwhelmed by shame.

There is also the historical perspective from the glorious Geoffrey Chaucer blog.

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2 Responses to Plagiarism

  1. potentilla says:

    Yes, but that’s assuming that Crimson’s report of what she said is accurate. She might have said “I have no idea etc….” and then (with some vague memory of what people say when being heckled by the press) “no comment” later. I don’t have any reason to think she’s innocent, but I have some reason to hypothesise that the Crimson quotation is inaccurate, despite being in quotation marks, from previous experince of parts of the press.

    Why have I never found your blog before? I really liked “The Darwin Wars”.

  2. acb says:

    Well, I know that the press gets quotes wrong. But this sounds to me the kind of thing you would take the trouble to get exactly right. For a phone call like that, you make sure the tape is running before you even dial.

    I like your book blog. You’re right about EJH and men. There’s a pretty good profile of her that I did for the Guardian some years ago somewhere on the Gdn site.

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