Most mornings, right after I wake up, my morning tasks include gathering any copyright and/or plagiarism news stories that I can find on the internet.
I read pretty much all of them, some copyright-related ones go into the 3 Count column and other stories get set aside for additional research to become full posts on the site. It’s a ritual I’ve done nearly every weekday morning for over a decade.
Today’s ritual did not go as planned.
In Google News, I ran across an article written by author Jumi Bello entitled, “I Plagiarized Parts of My Debut Novel. Here’s Why.” However, when I clicked it, I went to an error page. I put it on the back burner, but eventually sought out a cached copy of the article to read, even if I couldn’t write about it or link to it.
Reading it, I recognized some information in it, specifically a paragraph about what many consider the world’s first plagiarism case involving the Roman poet Martial in 80 AD. However, that information is not unique to my site, and I include many linked citations in my write-up on the topic.
However, as I made my way through the article, I got an alert from WordPress that my site stats were “booming”. This is not uncommon either, but the timing was strange.
I decided to investigate Bello some more, so I could prepare a potential response/follow up when I found this article on Gawker. Looking at the comparisons, it’s pretty obvious that she copied my words and then rewrote them to fit her style and message. Specifically, she’d actually copied from two articles I wrote on that subject, one for my site in 2011 and another for Turnitin in 2019.
In short, Bello, an author who admitted to plagiarizing in her now-cancelled debut novel, wrote an article about the experience and, in that article, included poor paraphrasing without attribution of an article that I wrote over a decade ago.
It’s a moment that even 16 years of work in this field did not prepare me for. To be honest, even as I write this, I am still confused trying to figure out how to approach this both intellectually and emotionally.
However, I do know a good place to start, and that’s with Bello’s original essay.
Bello’s Non Explanation
Until February 2022, Bello was a hotly anticipated new author that was preparing to publish her first book, The Leaving, in July of this year. However, that book was abruptly cancelled by her publisher, Riverhead, and neither Bello nor the publisher explained why.
It wasn’t until Bello’s essay that the reasons came out: Bello realized that her work contained plagiarized passages and, rather than wait for it to be published, she did the right thing and informed her publisher of the issues.
While this meant the loss of her book, it protected her reputation. That made her decision to publish the essay an interesting one. But, as she said in her closing, “I’m interested stories of redemption…” and that seemed to be very what this essay was about, setting the stage for her redemption.
To that end, Bello’s original essay is over 4,500 long. The word “plagiarism” or its many variants only are used 11 times. In fact, she only really focuses on her plagiarism in one paragraph. There, she describes copying and pasting “literary descriptions of pregnancy”. Since she has never been pregnant, she wanted to lean on other experiences she could find.
However, according to her, she failed to go back to fix those sections. At the time, she told herself, “I’m just borrowing and changing the language. I will rewrite these parts later during the editorial phase. I will make this story mine again.”
This is a deeply problematic approach and, as I recently highlighted in my article on How to Actually Avoid Plagiarism, the way you avoid plagiarism isn’t to “change the language” but to never have that language in your original work in the first place. Furthermore, the editorial process is not the time to paraphrase or add citations, that needs to be part of the writing process.
In short, Bello has, by her own description, a deeply flawed writing process. One that makes plagiarism not only likely, but inevitable. However, her writing process wasn’t the focus essay. Instead, the essay focuses heavily on the struggles of her over the year she worked on the book. Those struggles included attending graduate school, dealing with pressures from the publishing industry and, most importantly and prominently, her mental health issues.
As someone with severe mental health issues, I can relate and sympathize. Though I would never seek to compare my experience with mental health to hers or anyone else, I can definitely understand the struggles of trying to complete Herculean tasks while also struggling with one’s own mind.
But the issue with her plagiarism isn’t her mental health. It’s how she writes. An author should never paste the works of another into their paper without immediately citing it. Notes need to be kept in a separate location. Furthermore, citation should never be left for the editing process and, instead, be part of the original writing process.
If Bello had done that, her pressures and issues may have hampered the book, but would never have led to plagiarism.
However, it’s pretty clear that this is simply how she writes. We know this because of what happened in her essay. That style of writing bears all the hallmarks of “paste and rewrite” plagiarism that she described in the essay itself.
While I do not dispute any of the struggles that Bello claims to have had, until she addresses the way she approaches writing, these issues will continue to follow her.
The One Thing That Does Upset Me
When it comes to Bello, I’m not angry. What’s at issue here are a few paragraphs in a decades-old post. This is far from the most egregious plagiarism I’ve seen of my work. It seems unlikely to me that Bello intended to deceive and, instead, this is simply how she writes. She even said in her inner monologue that changing the words “will make this story mine again.”
That is not how writing works, and it is an idea Bello needs to disabuse herself of. However, she’s far from alone in that line of thinking. The amount of confusion over paraphrasing and citation is incredible and only seems to be growing.
So, no, I’m not angry at Bello. What does upset me is a simple fact: No one contacted me about this.
Not Bello herself, not the staff at LitHub, not the journalist who wrote the Gawker piece and not even any of the readers of that piece. While I clearly found it fine on my own, the fact that there has been zero outreach is, in a word, surprising.
For one, I could have clarified why the Turnitin piece is similar to my original one (I am the author of both). Note: I have sent Twitter DMs to both Gawker and the reporter directly with this information. More importantly, it would have been nice to know that others wanted me to be aware of what was going on with my work.
I understand that this is not a story about me. I’m not the celebrity here. But when the mob goes after the celebrity plagiarist, it would be nice if there were a few thoughts for the victim(s). This isn’t just true in this case, but in countless other cases I’ve seen where the victims are left out of the conversation.
It’s frustrating, especially given the inaccuracies in the reporting, but it is a potentially valuable learning experience.
This has been an interesting experience for me. I’ve been on the reporting side of plagiarism scandals and stories so many times, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be the victim in one.
Yes, I have been plagiarized hundreds of times before. However, none of those generated headlines. There was no article in Gawker, no press, no fame. Just quiet struggles against those that were taking my work, often wholesale.
Usually, when I come into a plagiarism story, I’m on the analysis side. This is largely after the dust has settled, the facts are known, the parties involved have had their say and the outcome is more or less decided.
Still, even with that distance, I’ve often struggled with how to present plagiarists. Plagiarism is often a stain that lingers for many authors, whether justified or not, and I’ve long worked to find a balance between the relative permanency and prevalence of this site and the wrongdoings of the plagiarist.
However, as I’ve realized, it’s easy to lose sight of the victims, especially in headline-grabbing cases. While I certainly don’t require any coddling or comfort, I also realize that very few have anywhere near the experience I do in this area.
So one thing to expect from me moving forward is more advocacy for the victims, especially in these kinds of cases. It’s one thing to be anti-plagiarist, it is another working to help the victim.
I’ve made a strange career of finding holes and challenges few were addressing, this is another one of those times.
Update: Shortly before publication of this piece, LitHub published a statement saying that the article was removed due to, “inconsistencies in the story and, crucially, a further incident of plagiarism in the published piece.”