Some Final Thoughts on the Jumi Bello Case

Jumi Bello the Leaving Book Cover

Last week was, undoubtedly, the craziest week I’ve had in the history of this site.

For those who missed it, author Jumi Bello published an essay with the goal of explaining why her upcoming book was cancelled for plagiarism. However, that essay contained parts that were plagiarized (albeit with heavy rewriting) from a 2011 post on this site

Even though the plagiarism was far from the most egregious, the meta nature of someone plagiarizing a plagiarism atonement essay and pulling from a site named Plagiarism Today made the story, and my site, something of a national news story. 

That reached something of a zenith on Saturday when the story, along with my voice, was featured on Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me on NPR. 

I wrote most of my thoughts out on this piece here, II added to those thoughts further in a YouTube video I posted on Friday (embedded below). 

That said, now that the dust has settled some, there are a few more thoughts and some questions I want to answer that don’t really fit anywhere else. 

The YouTube Video

1: What I Plan to Do

Several people have written me asking what I plan to do, implying that I may want to take some kind of legal action. However, that is not in the cards at all.

Though Bello’s actions definitely crossed an ethical line when it comes to reusing content, it’s not a copyright infringement that I can figure. This is an area where copyright and plagiarism do not overlap

But even if a lawsuit were an option, that would be an outrageously disproportionate action. The reality is that I was not meaningfully harmed other than having a crazy week. It was a couple of paragraphs rewritten from a 2011 post. 

Frankly, the public response to this story has been far, far more punitive than was necessary or appropriate for this case. Most others that are caught doing this are simply warned, Bello became a character of the week.

So, no, a lawsuit isn’t practical, I wouldn’t do it even if I could and other than the lessons I’ve learned from this and will write about over the weeks and months ahead, there will be no more to this story moving forward (at least from me).

2: How Did it Happen?

Many people expressed shock that someone with a PhD would do this. As I said in my original post, I do not believe that Bello intended to plagiarize from me (or anyone else) and that she genuinely felt that rewriting the words would make them her own.

This comes from reading the full of her essay and understanding her perspective on how you bring outside information into your work.

Anyone who is surprised that a PhD would think this isn’t seeing what I’m seeing. This is a very common misunderstanding about writing at all levels of academia. While we have gotten a lot better at detecting verbatim plagiarism, many have gotten the impression that it’s only the words themselves that matter.

Bello is not an outlier in this way. Though she may not represent a majority, but she at least represents a significant minority, and that is something for instructors to become aware of moving forward.

3: Bello’s Other Works

With Bello’s first book pulled over plagiarism issues and her essay about the subject meeting a similar fate, several have written me to ask about other works she created, including her doctoral thesis or dissertation. 

I am not getting involved with that personally. I have not even checked if she has one. The reason is fairly simple: That would be vindictive, and I harbor no ill will against her. Furthermore, even if I did get involved, I would taint the investigation by not being a neutral observer.

While I believe that Bello has a fundamental misunderstanding of the writing process, that does not necessarily call her academic work into question. Both a novel and a non-academic essay have a different citation standard from an academic work. She may have approached that entirely differently.

In short, we don’t know how different her writing process is between the two, just that they almost certainly are. 

Either way, that is not for me to weigh in on. Any investigation into her previous works needs a neutral observer and, even though I have no ill will, the history makes that impossible for me and I have no real interesting in doing it anyway.

4: The Sound of Silence

Finally, a week after the  story broke. I have heard nothing from those directly involved in or covering the story. Other than NPR, no media reached out to me about the story, and I’ve heard nothing from Bello or LitHub. 

To be clear, I’ve gotten a lot of support from readers, in particular on Twitter, and others learning about the story, but nothing from the news media or those involved. I’m grateful for the support I’ve gotten, but it is still odd no journalists reached out on this tale.

To be fair, this story is a novelty plagiarism story. It’s a low-stakes plagiarism case that became famous because of the meta-ness of the allegations. However, as I’ve repeatedly said, it belies a very serious problem and Bello is far from the only one facing it.

There’s a very real opportunity here to create something good from this story but the serious issues are, for the most part, getting ignored.

Bottom Line

In the end, I’m glad this story is winding down and looking forward to getting back to regularly scheduled posts tomorrow.

For me personally, I’m glad for the lessons that I learned, that several other important posts also got great attention, and the wonderful support of readers of this site (both new and old). While this story has given me a great deal to worry about, it’s also given me a lot of hope too.

So thank you for the kind words and notes of encouragement. It’s going to be a busy few weeks as we move on from this story and parse the lessons into more general and useful chunks of information.

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