Is Plagiarism an “Author Behavior”?

(This was originally posted on Goodreads.)

I’m going to talk a little off-topic here for a while, Intern Jimmy, so read to the end before you summarily delete this review. Thanks.

This whole Goodreads “author behavior” thing has gone on a number of tangents, at least insofar as the garrulous activities of the most invested Goodreaders are concerned. I’m not saying this is a problem. I think any community works best by the active engagement of its citizens. I’ve been around for some controversies here on GR, from Semennact to VirJohn, to the before-my-time Ginny Jones plagiarism mess. This sometimes very, very heated discussion thing is something we Goodreaders have always done. It gets ugly and personal a lot, and I have seriously considered punching and/or unfriending a number of people in this whole mess. It’s a testimony to our commitment (whichever side we’re on) that it’s such an emotional, fractious, wide-ranging issue.

Which is why the deletions for “off-topic” really bother me: instead of allowing the argument of one group of Goodreaders, Goodreads has opted for silencing them. Setting aside the Hydra reviews (which haven’t really been my thing, as I think they alienate and annoy people) it is absolutely ludicrous that Goodreads deleted a review of a book about censorship when the reviewer herself was talking about the concept as applies to Goodreads. That’s an unbelievable dick-move, and also bullshit. These are both technical literary terms. Sorry to be so litcritical.

But rather than chase down tangents, I want to back up and talk about why I’m so damn irritated with Goodreads in the first place. The narrative got set real early that the initial deletions were about bullying and trolling. Isn’t is reasonable that a book review be about the book? Why should we defend ad hominem nastiness? To the second question: threats and the like were already forbidden on Goodreads, so the policy change seems to be aiming at something else entirely. And to the first: many of the reviews deleted under this new policy had nothing to do with “author behavior”.

A lot of the reviews I’ve been writing recently have been test cases, because Goodreads refuses to talk about what exact kind of author behavior they deem actionable. I’ve written about a writer being a convicted pedophile, and about an author being a serial plagiarist. I even wrote a review about the single book in the serial plagiarist’s catalog not recalled by the publisher warning people off. Science writing has standards, friends, and Jonah Lehrer does not have them. People have flagged these reviews for me, and both kinds of reviews were deleted in the initial purge, and sometimes for the exact same book. (You can find a list of the deleted titles here.) The reviews the initial 21 had deleted did nothing different from mine, and they were deleted while mine still stand.

I would like some clarification on this point, Goodreads. Fuck you for deleting reviews that ask for that clarification in a review field, when you’ve completely abandoned your own Feedback thread weeks ago. Intern Jimmy, here comes the on-topic part.

Which brings us to this book. Three four people (at least) in the initial 21 had reviews of Amazingly Broken deleted. They all noted, just like almost literally all the reviews on Goodreads for Amazingly Broken at this point, that Jordin Williams plagiarized from (at least) Tammara Webber’s Easy and Jamie MacGuire’s Beautiful Disaster, and the book was removed from sale because of that. Given my test reviews, and others I’ve written in the past about plagiarized content (Q.R. Markham’s book being one), Goodreads doesn’t have a problem with me noting this “author behavior”, so why did they delete these three reviews? What standard are they using? Why won’t they even talk about this?

Also, who vandalized the Goodreads database to remove Jordin Williams’s name from this book? That’s galling. Her(his?)  name should be on the record, just like that dipshit Jonah Lehrer and all his fabulations. Removing this information, which is highly pertinent information about the book in question, is wrong. This book IS a book. Presumably copies exist, as it was a popular download there until it was unmasked as containing plagiarized content. It’s just a book no one can read at the moment, but before the book came down on Amazon, the information was important to readers considering spending their money. Presumably, some of these reviews were written then.

Maybe now it doesn’t matter because the book is off sale, and resurrecting this little controversy just looks like pettiness on my part. I’m okay with that. I am feeling incredibly petty after being ignored and condescended to by Goodreads. After having to go through the deletion lists of the first 21, there are scads of titles like this one, where the users in question shelved a book for reasons that have fuck all to do with author behavior. I’m going to keep writing my little off-topic reviews about these titles until someone can explain to me what the fuck is going on.

Next set of reviews: is noting a book is pulled-to-publish fan-fiction really about author behavior? You tell me, Goodreads. Your deletions certainly suggest that’s the case.

Personal, Political, Cultural: Parsing the Concept of Author Behavior in Goodreads Policy

Late last week, Goodreads announced a new “policy change”. The announcement opened with a reiteration of policy points regarding reviews which haven’t changed: reviews should be about the book, and members cannot threaten other members. This is what had changed:

[Goodreads will] Delete content focused on author behavior. We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior.

Previously, the policy had been that reviews that spoke negatively about author behavior – I will not read this book because something the author sad or did – were removed from the main book page, but were still visible to friends. For those that don’t use Goodreads, if you look up a book, all your friends’ reviews are listed first, then those by people you follow, then the “community reviews”. This last category was where your review would not show up. This policy of hiding reviews I thought was a fair one: one that maintained the social aspects of the site, as users could signal to one another that they weren’t going to read something, and why, while muffling the effects of these peer-to-peer interactions on the larger community.

But Goodreads didn’t go through and just delete all hidden reviews, nor did they remove all shelves entitled “due-to-author” or similar. In this “policy change”, Goodreads instead removed the shelves and some reviews of 21 specific people. As far as I can tell, everyone else’s hidden reviews are still standing, and Goodreads spokesperson Kara indicated on the feedback thread that it wasn’t just the shelf names, but, like, the general feel of the reviews under that shelf header? Which, frankly, looks seriously personal and isn’t so much a policy change as swatting specific users, especially given the tone of the email they received.

Please refrain from posting content like this going forward. If you continue to act in a way that is contrary to the spirit and intent of Goodreads, your account will come under review.

Admittedly, Goodreads has apologized for not giving users time to edit, because alerting people to major deletions and then acting like people should have magically known the policy would change and were violating it on purpose is bunk.

This is the problem: if the reviews in question were all “this person was a dick to me on Twitter/Goodreads/etc”, then I can see Goodreads justifying their removal under the already existing guideline that you can’t say the author owes you money or whatnot. That could be construed as a personal interaction, and therefore not germane. This is a little complicated by the fact that Goodreads and Twitter are public, and the interactions become a matter of record. (At least until they don’t, as these sorts of interaction tend to get deleted.) But, okay, let’s just call them personal interactions, and say that kind of interaction is off the table, and always has been. No need for a policy change, as it’s just a policy refinement. The personal behavior – in the sense of person to person interactions – of an author amounts to gossip, maybe, fine.

But I’m a little more worried about what I see as creep in the policy towards silencing  political responses or cultural responses based on the author’s actions or words. Self-avowedlyMike’s review of Mein Kampf is a troll, because of course it’s stupid to say that you can’t mention that  Adolf freaking Hitler was a genocidal maniac. That’s a matter of the historical record, and unassailable. And in fact, when you deny Hitler’s actions, you can go to jail for it in some countries. Manny took the troll a step further in his review of The Destruction of Dresden by David Irving, who was convicted of Holocaust denial in Austria. (The Austrians have, historically understandably, harsher rules about this sort of speech there than in the US.) To quote from Wikipedia, because, shut up, Internet:

In the first edition, Irving’s estimates for deaths in Dresden were between 100,000 and 250,000 — notably higher than most previously published figures. These figures became authoritative and widely accepted in many standard reference works. In later editions of the book over the next three decades, he gradually adjusted the figure downwards to 50,000-100,000. According to the evidence introduced by Richard J. Evans at the libel trial of Deborah Lipstadt in 2000, Irving based his estimates of the dead of Dresden on the word of one individual who provided no supporting documentation, used forged documents, and described one witness who was a urologist as Dresden’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer. The doctor has since complained about being misidentified by Irving, and further, was only reporting rumours about the death toll. Today, casualties at Dresden are estimated as 22,700-25,000 dead.

Irving’s behavior isn’t gossip or personal; it’s a matter of political record. Knowing that he is a Holocaust denier in a history book about the Holocaust is absolutely germane to that content.

Kemper’s review of Josey Wales: Two Westerns is also about the author’s political actions. Asa Earl Carter (who wrote under several pen-names) was a longtime member of the KKK and one of two men credited with the “segregation now, segregation forever” speech by George Wallace. The choice not to read the works of vociferous racists in your precious leisure time isn’t some kind of readerly tantrum, and if it were, what’s it to you? Trigger warning: Asa Earl Carter was insanely racist. That has serious import on his work.

Arguably, GR could take the tack (tact? I’m a little unclear on this idiom) that these are historical actions, and it’s not like the authors are going to be flagging these reviews from the grave (or prison). But let’s take Orson Scott Card. (Take Orson Scott Card! Please!) Paul’s review notes Card’s very active and visible status as an anti-gay crusader. Mr Card has called for the overthrow of the American government, and worked visibly to pass Prop 8 in California. There are boycott movements all over the place for the upcoming film. Noting this isn’t “Card owes me money” or “Card was mean to me on Twitter” but a contextualizing of his work within a political and cultural framework. Orson Scott Card impacts me politically. This isn’t gossip. This is cultural engagement. Of course you don’t have to agree. Of course you can compartmentalize Card’s political beliefs from his work. But the refusal to read Card as a political act is valid too, and it’s a political act that cannot occur without knowledge of the larger context, context provided by reviews such as Paul’s.

I have also taken several swipes at serial plagiarist Jonah Lehrer, in defiance of the new “policy”. The first review was of How We Decide, one of two of his books that were recalled by the publisher for fabrication and/or plagiarism. Drat, I thought, that the book was recalled for its content is actually about the content. So I posted on on his only unrecalled book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. But this is still about context. Lehrer has just an appalling track record of unprofessional behavior – behavior that has gotten him fired from multiple science writing gigs – and this behavior calls into question any science writing this man has done. He wasn’t mean to me on Twitter, he fudged data, which in a science writer in inexcusable. I guess I could append the namby-pamby “to me”, like science writing is about opinions, but I’m not going to. He violated the basic tenets of the subject he was writing about.

But let’s take this a step down, away from the political or professional. One of the reviews deleted under the new policy was Steph Sinclair’s for The Secret of Castle Cant: Being an Account of the Remarkable Adventures of Lucy Wickwright, Maidservant and Spy. The author, KP Bath, was convicted of possession of child pornography and sentenced to six years in prison, which is also a matter of record. It is germane to a review of his children’s book that he is a convicted pedophile. To quote U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton:

“It is shocking that a children’s author would contribute to the trauma these kids endure — both physical and emotional trauma from the sexual abuse itself, and psychological trauma from knowing that images of that abuse are circulating on the Internet.”

This is not gossip. Multiple reviews still left on Goodreads note this fact and literally nothing else about the book. I reviewed Jerry Sandusky’s book and noted his conviction on 45 counts of child abuse, and I’m not the only one. They are all still standing, because it is patently ridiculous to say that Sandusky’s conviction doesn’t have a bearing on the content of his self-elegy about how great he was to kids, or that Bath’s pedophilia doesn’t factor into his children’s book. That there are many, many reviews still standing that note these facts makes me wonder what the sandwich is going on with this new policy.

It’s looking to me that Goodreads is swatting very specific users, and backing it up with confusing, badly considered “policy changes” that aren’t so much changes as after-the-fact justifications. Out of a site of millions of users, that Goodreads went after 21 people looks underhanded and sneaky. The reason they cannot with clarity articulate what exactly the policy is – it’s not shelf names, or maybe it is; of course you can talk about the author, unless you can’t – is an indicator that it’s not a policy change but the ass-covering actions of an institution acting on some kind of personal whim. Which is absolutely no way to write policy.

But then, it’s not really a whim, more of a signal to users that Goodreads is changing its focus from community development to marketing to authors. Amazon acquired Goodreads last year, and I think this is the signal that things are going to change to a more business friendly site. There have always been important differences in Amazon and Goodreads reviews: Goodreads allows profanity, for example, because it’s not a store, but social network. (The terms of service, like most social networking sites, specifically disallows users under the age of 13, so you don’t have to think of the children.) There has never been a downvoting system on Goodreads either, because it really doesn’t matter if the review is “helpful” to every user; it has not been about sales. While I’ve been reluctant to engage in paranoid tin-foil-hattery about how Amazon was going to ruin everything, it is not mouth-frothing to note that Amazon has to make their money somehow, and I can tell you it’s not necessarily going to be through book sales, but the marketing dollars of authors.

In this interview by Community Manager Patrick Brown about Goodreads uploaded in August, he focuses largely on the utility of Goodreads to authors. explaining their recommendation algorithm and discussing how the social networking aspects fuel the discovery process. (Discovery being  the buzzword these days about how writers go about getting a book into the hands of readers, as the traditional publishing model splinters and bursts into flames.) Reviews that focus on author behavior – and of course we are not children, so we know this means negative reviews that focus on author behavior – are disruptive to the discovery process from the point of view of the author: you are hearing about my book all wrong!

So, so many of the writings I see out there discussing this policy change note the recent allegations of a young woman who claimed to have been bullied on Goodreads. Salon asks: Did a writer get bullied on Goodreads? They repeat her initial claims that her book was tagged with shelves titled “author should be sodomized” and “should be raped in prison”. The link to her Tweets, which was the only evidence of this claim, goes to a deleted page, and there was never a link to any Goodreads shelves, because they never existed. (Here we get into the issue of why a self-referenced post on Twitter isn’t a credible source, for those paying attention,  journalists.)

If you actually bother to read to the end of the article, there’s a lame ETA noting that that she eventually issued an “LOL, my bad”, admitting she misunderstood pretty much everything about Goodreads reviewing culture, the shelving system, and that the rape and death threats had never occurred. If you want an extremely thorough accounting of the timeline of events, check this post on ThreeRs, which documents copiously what exactly happened.

The damage had been done at this point, unfortunately, because in this brave new journalistic world that drives blog-arms of media outlets to half-ass their sources in order to get pages up fast while the controversy is breaking – page views! (I’m assuming things here about Goodreads’s motivation, but I can’t really figure why they’d kick this hornet’s nest so hard if they weren’t attempting to appear “tough on bullying” or something. Especially factoring in the recent rape threat meltdown on Twitter.) In this sloppy, bloggy new journalism, you get articles like this one on CNN, which credulously reiterates the fiction that an author had been bullied on Goodreads ZOMG, citing the Salon article, ignoring the retraction, and anemically noting that:

It’s hard to corroborate Howard’s story when she’s deleted her Tumblr (it’s not available in Google’s cache) and many of the Goodreads reviews and shelves allegedly devoted to bullying her have also been deleted. In addition, Howard backtracked on some of her statements.

Spoiler alert: you can’t corroborate the story because it didn’t happen that way at all.

But let’s just backtrack. Let’s say Howard’s books had been shelved in ways that said she should be raped and murdered. This would be horrible and wrong, and it would be right of Goodreads to delete these shelves and ban the users who said such things. I have seen threats on Goodreads – usually users against users and not involving authors at all – and Goodreads has always been good about deleting them once the comments have been flagged. (And sometimes going so far as to ban users.) The policy in place was already equipped to deal with personal threats.

Extending the Goodreads Terms of Service to this vague, mushy, overly broad policy about “author behavior” doesn’t solve Goodreads’s PR problem out there due to bad journalism, irresponsible blog posts, and the fact that people on Internet can suck. Maybe what they mean is “Twitter isn’t a credible source” (actually, no it isn’t) or “no more personal interaction stories, even secondhand ones” (ok, that’s a shift, but a slighter one than this encompassing “behavior” nonsense.)

Goodreads has been reticent to discuss specific user’s deletions, which I guess makes sense in terms of not gossiping in public about users, but in terms of parsing what exactly they are looking for, make it very difficult indeed. Goodreads employee Kara notes:

Anyone else with reviews or shelves created prior to September 21, 2013 that will be deleted under the revised policy will be sent a notification first and given time to decide what to do.  [emphasis hers]

I take this to mean that reviews not adhering to this vague policy written after the announcement will be deleted without notification. Given that I can’t even tell what’s actionable anymore,  I find this incredibly chilling. Way to turn a PR problem into a firestorm, Goodreads.

The implementation of this policy change has been breathtakingly badly managed, and the thinking behind their shift muzzy and indistinct, when it doesn’t look calculated towards aims that have nothing to do with the reviews in question.  Goodreads has moved from muffling users to silencing them because they are shifting their focus from peer-to-peer interactions – a social network – to the marketing potentials in a website of 20 million readers. It’s been said before, but the user is the product on any social networking site. They can’t sell you if you won’t behave.

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The Five Stages of Plagiarism: In Which I Rattle a Little about Word-Theft

It’s probably just the clustering illusion or some other freak cognitive thing, but two relatively high profile cases of plagiarism just came to my attention today. (I’m not saying they broke today, just that I noticed them today.) First, Lianne “Spiderbaby” MacDougall, Quentin Tarantino’s girlfriend and horror critic, was caught cobbling her articles together from pretty much everywhere. From the comparative links, it looks as though she started out snagging sentences here and there, weaving them together into a coherent article, but by the time she was caught, had moved into full-on fuck it mode, and was copy-pasting other articles in their entirety. But no matter the manner of the plagiarism, it appears to be systemic to her writing output for a very, very long time. Second, turbo-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer has, for completely inscrutable reasons given that two out of three of his previous books have been recalled and pulped due to plagiarism (at presumably considerable expense), been given a new book deal. What is the punchline to this book deal? Allegations of plagiarism have surfaced for the proposal of the book he has yet to write. I strongly recommend checking out Tom Scocca’s hatecast on the matter, as his ire is beautifully articulated.

It was a fun rabbit hole to fall into this afternoon, charting the ways the scandals break and various reactions to the plagiarism. There’s a plagiarism playbook out there, which runs something like the Kubler-Ross model of grieving:

1. Denial. “I’ve never even read the book I supposedly plagiarized from.”

e.g. Alex Haley, after getting busted for plagiarizing from The African when he wrote Roots.) I didn’t know large swaths of Roots were plagiarized, even though the suit happened in 1987 and the trial, despite the out-of-court conclusion, is pretty definitive. I liked the deposition by an old classmate that he’d actually given Haley his copy of The African years before he published Roots. How bad do you have to piss off your classmates for them to do that?

2. “Mistakes were made” style apologies.

Lehrer, after getting busted the first time for self-plagiarism and manufacturing Bob Dylan quotes, describes how he barfed “into a recycling bin” (Reduce, reuse, recycle!) He then goes on to describe his systemic plagiarism as a “lie, a desperate attempt to conceal my mistakes.” Uh, no. there was nothing desperate about the ongoing theft. That wasn’t a mistake, or an unfortunate case of cryptomnesia. When copy-paste is involved, it’s not an echo or a memory unwittingly recalled. 

3. Acting like the plagiarist is somehow more sinned against than sinning.

From an email from Spiderbaby to a blogger who was one of the first to detail the thefts: 

Hi – my name is Lianne. 

I’m asking that you please stop writing about me online and let me address the issue. I’m writing an apology for my blog now that I will make available for everyone. I’m undergoing some issues right now and I’m receiving emailed death threats (and have been for the last month) which is why I haven’t commented at all on any of this.

The email goes on to reiterate the above statements three times, like she couldn’t figure out how to say what she was going to say and then say it. You can get out of practice with writing, apparently. I am aware that it’s a pretty big nightmare to be a woman in certain fan communities, and that rape and death threats are par for the course when women, well, when women do anything. I don’t think that is an appropriate response to plagiarism. But let’s decouple the actions of fan culture shitheads from the problems of being a plagiarist. No, she shouldn’t get death threats for being a plagiarist – and it’s notable that the fuckwit Lehrer keeps getting book deals when she gets told to die, in your fucked-up gendered response category – but sweeping her actions under the rug won’t make the shitheads go away, and it doesn’t dispute the facts at hand.

4. It’s not theft, it’s post-modern “mixing”! You old people don’t understand.

Teen phenom Helene Hegemann gets busted for lifting copiously from another writer’s novel, claims that “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” Which, allow me to make a jerk-off motion with my hand. I mean, heavy hitters such as Lethem have published avowedly lifted works such as The Ecstasy of Influence: a plagiarism in Harper’s, which cobbled together an essay on appropriations and authenticity in art by stealing every single line. This smells faintly of vinegar and water – or as we would say in French, douche – but at least it’s upfront, and more importantly, the theft is an important meta-factual part of the argument of the the essay. Lethem’s not stealing because millennials don’t understand personal property the same way, lol, but because theft and originality are like a steak dinner and the dog under the table – they are always going to be in the same room. One’s going to end up inside the other eventually. 

5. Ca$hing in like a boss! 

I’ve already mentioned Lehrer, who seems entirely unrepentant, and will continue shaking his stolen tailfeathers as long as idiots in publishing are willing to keep handing him money. I honestly don’t even understand the thought process of these editors, who say a bunch of mealy-mouthed stuff about “second chances”. We’re on at least the fourth chance with Lehrer, after two books have been recalled and he got hugely fired from the New Yorker. It seems like a bad bet to keep letting him “write”, and seems like a questionable thing to do when Big Six publishers are besieged by Amazon and shifting business models and whatever. (Not that Amazon is dealing with plagiarism any better. Welcome to the Way It Is.)

But then there’s Q.R. Markham, nom de plume of the Brooklyn bookseller Quentin Rowan, whose debut spy novel, Assassin of Secrets, was recalled within weeks of its release by Little, Brown, due to the fact that it was a quilt of dozens of other fictions patched together. Rowan ended up the subject of a painfully lame New Yorker profile. Sample lines:

 “As writers from T. S. Eliot to Harold Bloom have pointed out, ideas are doomed to be rehashed. This wasn’t always regarded as a problem. Roman writers subscribed to the idea of imitatio: they viewed their role as emulating and reworking earlier masterpieces.”

I mean, come on. That is such unbelievable bullshit. Sure, it’s totally true that a literature, in the sense of works understood by its writers and readers to be in the same stylistic ballpark, are going to riff ideas and images off of one another – genre as a scaffold of shared experience – but this isn’t anywhere near copy-and-pasting someone’s work without any fucking attribution. Maybe I’ve been unduly influenced by the thousands of FBI warnings I’ve been subjected to when watching movies, but the right to copy is a real thing. It’s called copyright, motherfuckers.

Maybe I’m being insincere in my outrage though, because I want to put on the boxing gloves when people dismiss 50 Shades of Grey as plagiarism, because while that book is totally shit, and it started life as fan fiction, it’s mostly shitty in its own special shitty way, and, as far as I can tell, James wasn’t copy-pasting huge swaths of Twilight. She was just taking a bad idea (one that did not originate with Meyer, I’ll note) and made it worse. Good job. Maybe I’m being too narrow in my definition of plagiarism, which I’ve mostly built using hazy understandings of copyright law and fair use, but I seriously cannot credit any criticism of 50 Shades based on Twilight being super original in its stalker-hero and average-yet-special protagonist. I can credit criticism for tons of other reasons, just not that one.

Anyway, the New Yorker article ends with Markham/Rowan chatting excitedly about how some fool publisher had decided to publish his next, presumably-not-stolen novel. Cha-ching! Let’s win from our fail, brothers and sisters! I’m cheered to see that book in question, Never Say Goodbye, has one one-star rating on Goodreads, no one has written a review, and only eight people have shelved it. (Although I would like to know wtf with the publication date of September 11, because there are lot of reasons why that might be problematic. Whatever.) One can only hope Lehrer’s new clusterfail of a book will sink without as little comment, but I suspect that will not be the case.

So. I meant to write a post about my own experience with Internet plagiarists, specifically the adorable Texas educator who trolled a bunch of reviews on Goodreads, including one of mine, which resulted in the discovery of dozens of his plagiarized reviews – stolen from such out-of-the-way reviewers as Roger Ebert – and the resultant crowd-sourcing of the links necessary to take his stolen shit down. It’s a long story, and one full of lolcats, and maybe I’ll tell it tomorrow. That experience very much made me think about the psychology of plagiarism, which is such an odd thing, and something I barely touch on in my link-fest here. (I’ll just say that writing about plagiarism makes me twitchy about linking to anything that might even remotely be source material, because, Lord, do I not want to get caught not citing sources in a post about not citing sources.) Goodnight, friends, maybe we’ll talk about this some more later.