Famous Plagiarists: Could it Happen Today?


A recent article on Cracked.com entitled 5 Great Men Who Built Their Careers on Plagiarism has gotten a lot of attention and a few people have emailed me about it.

The five men on the list, Stephen Ambrose, T.S. Eliot, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Richard Owen and H.G. Wells are all well-known cases in plagiarism circles. You can even read more about then (save Owen), as well as dozens more, on Famous Plagiarists.

History is littered with famous authors, scientists and other important figures who we later discovered that their works were plagiarized and only a few cases of where they were actually punished for it. In fact, in all of the cases above, the people went on to lead very full lives and careers despite or even because of their copying.

These thoughts always put writers on edge. The idea of someone using their work, could build a huge career off of it and not be punished, legally or socially, is a very discouraging thought.

Fortunately, the plagiarisms reported in the article, for the most part, took place in a different era. Writers and other artists today have greater protections than they did just 25 years ago. To see this, we’re going to take a look at the five cases described in the article and then analyze what would likely happen if they took place today.

Stephen Ambrose

Ambrose is the only case actually from the last 25 years. His copying took place in the mid-90s to early 2000s and is the only case where some of the plagiarism took place in the post-Google era. However, in Ambrose’s case, even just ten years could have made an incredible difference.

In 2001, Ambrose was accused of plagiarizing large passages out of his then-new novel, the Wild Blue. He apologized, said he failed to cite some passages and all seemed forgotten until a follow up found that he had also plagiarized a great deal out of a 1995 novel, Crazy Horse and Custer. Other works have since been called into question as well.

Both books contained passages virtually identical to previous works by other historians. In the 2001 case, there was citations, but the copying went well beyond what was cited in the book.

Could it Happen Today?

It is worth noting that Ambrose was actually caught. We don’t know what effect it would have had on his career since he died within a year of the follow up being published.

However, if Ambrose had published his first book today, it likely would have been run through a plagiarism detection system such as iThenticate. The system likely would have detected the plagiarism if the source material was in the database and the tool were used correctly.

The question is whether the original works are in the database. However, with the current book scanning projects, including Google Book Search, it seems very likely.

In this case though, getting caught early might have been a blessing for Ambrose. If the publisher had worked with him to properly cite and attribute the material used, it might have averted the entire problem and his reputation might still be intact today.

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot, one of the best-known American poets, plagiarized much of his work “The Waste Land” which, according to the Cracked article was “Most of ‘The Waste Land’ was just cobbled together out of quotes from other writers,” which is a fairly apt description.

Eliot was famous for bragging about his rampant copying, being the most cited source for the “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” quote.

Could it Happen Today?

Very unlikely. As a poet who got into plagiarism by detecting and stopping misuse of his own work, I know well that poetry is one of the easiest genres of work to detect plagiarism in. In the era of Google, putting a passage of a poem through a search engine is one of the easiest things you can do. Furthermore, Eliot would have been a target for checks by both professionals and amateurs from the second he had gained any notoriety, as is any public figure.

Of course, Eliot was also caught while he was alive but most people ignored it and considered his plagiarisms homages. It is only in more recent years that people have begun to use the “p” word to describe Eliot, despite his famous quotes on the topic.

In this case, it is more likely a change in attitudes toward copying rather than the technology that makes a poet like Eliot unlikely to get away with his reputation intact.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King’s plagiarism allegations begin with him as a student. His doctoral dissertation, written in the early 50s, is well-accepted to be heavily plagiarized and many of his earlier student papers have also been called into question.

In addition to that, some his sermons and even parts of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech have shown similar phrasing to previous works, though the plagiarism in them, especially the “I Have a Dream” speech is routinely overblown by his current ideological opponents.

Could it Happen Today?

Almost impossible. Nearly every academic institution has as a subscription to a plagiarism checking service such as Turnitin and runs it on virtually every paper submitted. Dr. King’s dissertation would have almost certainly been flagged for investigation and would have been looked at with suspicion.

Furthermore, when you look at how other current political figures have their speeches analyzed for plagiarism, it is unlikely that the I Have a Dream speech would have escaped similar investigation. In the age of academic plagiarism checkers, search engines and transcripts, Dr. King’s similar phrasing would have almost certainly been found out and subsequently analyzed to death (like Obama’s, McCain’s, etc.).

However, this is a rare case where I think history is glad that Dr. King’s plagiarisms were not detected. If he had faced modern academic punishment for his plagiarism, likely including expulsion, he may not have been able to go on and achieve the things he did. He was a flawed man, of that there is no doubt, but he did achieve great things and his mark on history is a positive one.

Imperfect men routinely do great things.

Dr. Richard Owen

Dr. Owen is considered by many to be the father of modern paleontology. The problem being that he lifted one of his his most important discoveries, the Iguanadon, from another scientist named Gideon Mantell and then worked tirelessly to ensure this other scientist never gained any credit for his findings.

He, like many of the others on the list, was found out during his lifetime, even so far as to be fired for plagiarism from one of his more prominent posts, but the full realization of his abuses only came after he had built a great career and reputation.

In the end, it was scientific disagreements, especially over the theory of evolution, as much as plagiarism that caused him to fall out of favor with his peers in his later years.

Could it Happen Today?

Possible, but less likely. Since there was no mention of verbatim plagiarism, only the plagiarism of a discovery, most of the tools we use today to check for copying would be rendered useless.

However, scientific discoveries today are shared much more quickly than they were in the 1800s, which was Dr. Owen’s era. Plagiarism of a discovery relies upon reading about an obscure finding and then republishing it before other scientists hear about it. In an era where journals are published worldwide in a second, this is much more difficult.

This type of plagiarism does still happen and often goes undetected for long periods of time. These days, it more often involves works in other languages that have not been translated. For example, a Russian scientist may claim a discovery from a British scientist or vice versa since such research can take years to translate.

It is unlikely Dr. Owen would have been as successful with his plagiarisms today, but there are ways he could have worked around these issues, especially if he could read multiple langauges.

H.G. Wells

Wells’ 1920 book Outline of History was largely plagiarized from an unknown Canadian author named Florence Deeks. Deeks’ book, The Web of the World’s Romance, had been submitted to Wells’ publisher a year prior but had not been picked up.

Wells used the outline and phrasing from Deeks book to create his work and, when Deeks sued, she lost in court.

It has only been in recent years that scholars have come to realize what Wells did with that book and called into question his plagiarism. He proceeded to have a long, prosperous career. Though other plagiarism allegations did arise, none seemed to go anywhere.

Could it Happen Today?

This one is tough because the implication is that Wells’ publisher was, somehow, in on the plagiarism. If the publisher, the first line of defense in these matters, wants to turn a blind eye or even help a plagiarist, there’s not much to stop a plagiarist from getting published.

By all accounts, Deeks lost her case, which took place both in Canadian and British courts, more on the grounds of her gender than the facts of the matter. This is something that would likely not happen today. Though there was little verbatim copying, the paraphrasing seems to be enough to warrant a lawsuit as a derivative work and the evidence, when one looks at the mistakes made in both books, is pretty damning.

In short, if this were to happen today, Wells would likely have gotten his book published, assuming publisher compliance, but probably would have lost the lawsuit. As such, it is much less likely that he would have found a publisher willing to take such a large legal risk.

The legal climate today would not allow a publisher to take on a book that they hard reason to suspect or know was plagiarized (see what happened to Kaavya Viswanathan).

Bottom Line

In the end, we’re in a very different age when it comes to plagiarism. Just 25 years ago, it was pretty trivial for someone who wanted to plagiarize to build an academic or creative career by lifting other people’s works. Today, with advanced plagiarism detection tools, Web searches, scanned books, and so much more, it is getting almost impossible.

Though plagiarism may be easier, getting away with it is much harder.

In all of the cases above, the plagiarist would have either had a much greater challenge getting away with their copying or would have found it almost impossible. Where successes like Eliot and Wells were the face of plagiarism a in decades and centuries gone by, Kaavya Viswanathan and Jayson Blair are the faces of modern plagiarism.

Of course, the caveat in all of this is that we can only report on the plagiarists that have been discovered. Those that escaped detection aren’t available for analysis.

One has to wonder how many plagiarists have truly gotten away with their lifting.

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