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Plagiarists I Have Known

John Kelly here, with one last dispatch in place of the vacationing Marc Fisher.

The news that conservative blogger Ben Domenech has resigned from his short-lived "Red America" blog on washingtonpost.com amid allegations of plagiarism, has me remembering an incident from my own college days. I was a freshman or sophomore and in a creative writing class. The class was filled with the sort of people you would expect, pale and soft English majors such as myself, waifish poetesses. Then there was Franco.

Franco was a big, beefy,handsome jock-type guy. I took an instant dislike to him, especially since he seemed not to take the class seriously. Even before we'd turned in a single assignment, I knew he was going to be my nemesis. But I took solace in the fact that when it came time to actually write, I'd leave him in my dust.

Instead, Franco was like a young Updike. The first few assignments were pretty simple: brief poems, an essay no longer than a paragraph or two. We made mimeographed copies (mmmm, that smell) and distributed them to the rest of the class to critique. Franco's offerings were...lovely. Crystalline. Perfectly-formed. But there was also something odd about them. Not one of them seemed like another. And none of them seemed like Franco.

The assignments got more complicated as the semester continued. We had to compose a longer poem. I can't remember mine. And I can't remember all of Franco's. But I remember one line. I think it was the last line, and it included this phrase: "...where the shadows run from themselves."

Where the shadows run from themselves....Where the shadows run from themselves. That sounded familiar. Where had I heard it? Of course! It was from "White Room," by Cream! Franco had ripped off that line from Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. Nobody seemed to notice but me.

One of the last assignments was to write a short story. Mine was some tortured thing about a girl whom the protagonist meets in a nightclub and how she rebuffs my, I mean his, advances. (Write what you know, they say.) After I read it to the class it met with what I like to think was respectful, contemplative silence. Then Franco read his. Hilarious! A tour de force! It was about a family taking an ill-starred vacation. Oh, the scrapes they got into! An accident in the station wagon. A goofy father and no-account kids. The class roared.

I silently seethed, for I had read that same short story in National Lampoon. It was the story that became the basis for "National Lampoon's Vacation" with Chevy Chase. This was before the movie came out, though. And the story had been in an issue of the magazine from several years earlier. Plus, National Lampoon was not the sort of rag those other creative writers would have encountered. I had to find a copy myself.

I scoured every used book and magazine store around the University of Maryland. I knew the date I needed (I'd looked it up somehow) but couldn't find that issue anywhere. It was almost as if Franco had bought them all up. I'm sure he didn't, but the result was the same: I had no proof. Still, at the end of the semester I went to the teacher, who was some poor overworked graduate student. I told her that Franco had ripped off Cream and National Lampoon. She promised to look into it.

I don't know what ever happened to Franco. I hope he got expelled, or at least banned from any future English classes. Today, it's so much easier to discover plagiarism. I wish we'd had Lexis-Nexis when I was in college.

By John Kelly |  March 24, 2006; 5:19 PM ET
Previous: Accidents Will Happen; Punishments Should | Next: George Mason--Wasn't He President or Something?

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Actually, how do people discover plagiarism? I mean, you can't type somebody's whole article into Google or Lexis-Nexis, right?

I guess this fiasco must have begun w/ somebody recognizing something that Domenech had written from their own reading--perhaps the P.J. O'Rourke piece. I haven't read it, but it seems like lots of people have.

But I'm w/ you, John. It's a bummer when other people cheat and get the goods. When I was in sixth grade (lo, these many years ago), we got prizes of some sort for reading lots of books. I was a big-time reader and had a long list of books that I'd gotten from the public library, which was in a town about 15 miles from the tiny Midwestern town where I went to school. When it was time to crown the winner of the "who read the most books?" contest, one of my classmates had a nearly identical list. I KNEW she hadn't read all those books, because her family didn't go to the public library. They just didn't. And those books weren't available anywhere else. So I said something nasty to her, and the teacher punished me.

Oh, injustice! It never ends.

Fortunately, though, weekends start.

Posted by: JRG | March 24, 2006 8:45 PM

My wife who teaches elementary school ran a poetry contest for a veteran's organization. The winner got a big savings bond and a write-up in the paper. Then my wife got suspicious and signed up for a trial membership for a plagarism service. You put in the work and it pops ups all the items that match the phrases. The poem was a complete copy.

I don't know what happened to the kid, but it sure made my wife bitter.

Posted by: yellojkt | March 24, 2006 9:57 PM


Marc:

I always felt "ripped-off" or at least disappointed everytime I bought a National Lampoon mag, as it was relatively expensive for me as a college student, and never really seemed to live up to my expectations.

Strange, but may be the justice here is that Franco HAD to buy every issue of National Lampoon on campus just to keep his little secret.

Posted by: Richardd Katz | March 25, 2006 6:00 AM

A guy I knew in college once plagarized an ethics essay (yes, really!) without actually bothering to notice that the author of the orginal was the same professor who was teaching the course.

Needless to say, it didn't end well for my acquintance.

Posted by: Uncle Seamus | March 25, 2006 8:10 AM

William and Mary has the nation's oldest collegiate Honor Code. Ben Domenech is an alumnus (or at least attended the school for a long time) and should have known better. he should have his WM credentials stripped.

Posted by: WM alumnus | March 25, 2006 8:55 AM

The lyrics to "White Room" were written by Pete Brown, the music was written by Jack Bruce.

Posted by: Henry | March 25, 2006 10:06 AM

What is so funny with students is that they think you can't recognize plagiarism even without knowing the source ... you spend a semester grading essay tests that are grammatically incorrect with poor sentence structure and an incoherent argument, and then they turn in a paper that has none of those things. And then they wonder how you knew.

Posted by: AJ | March 25, 2006 10:33 AM

Hi John, it is your duty to have a conversation with Mr. Brady.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/25/business/25post.html?_r=3&oref=slogin&oref=slogin&oref=slogin
"We've been catching a lot of grief on the blogs for not catching this ourselves, but obviously plagiarism is hard to spot," Mr. Brady said.

Posted by: Pat | March 25, 2006 11:05 AM

We can sit here and swap plagiarism anecdotes till the sun rises tomorrow. It’s despicable, on that I’m sure we can all agree.

But what interests me is the mind of the plagiarist. Mr. Kelly’s faux eloquent jock classmate probably never thought about a career as a writer or journalist. I find his transgressions more forgivable. He was trying to get through a class and was no-doubt horrified at the thought of being shown-up by the pencil necks with allergies and no jump-shot. Yes, despicable, but not likely to alter the history of western literature.

Mr. Domenech is apparently a plagiarist of a much higher order. He purloined other people’s language for career advancement (and the resulting financial gain). It’s just hard to imagine the tortured logic he had to employ to live with himself.

I don’t care for his politics, but I care far less for his character. And even though I’m a liberal, I’m not going to suggest that one had anything whatsoever to do with the other. At least Mr. Domenech has good taste—P.J. O’Rourke is superb.

My advice for the Post, I’ll plagiarize a line from that Geico commercial where the company is making nice with the cavemen they’ve offended. “Do a little research next time.”

Today on EWM, it’s completely made-up, but not stolen. The real story behind the Abu Ghraib scandal: “The Canine Conspiracy.”

http://www.eyewitnessmuse.com/musings.php?p=197

Posted by: The Eyewitness Muse | March 25, 2006 12:45 PM

On the flip side:

I was once accused of plagiarism in a high-school journalism competition. The accusation came at the 11th hour. We loudly demanded evidence. The judge in question offered nothing but, "You were seen."

Habeas corpus held the hour, though, and we were not disqualified. In fact, we finished up fourth in a field of over twenty area schools. Not bad. But when we got the results, it turned out three judges had given us first. And one had ranked us last.

So we did not get the prize we sought. But perhaps we got something more valuable: A real life lesson in the importance of credible sources and facts -- as opposed to hunches and innuendo.

How different would the world be if Dan Rather, Judy Miller, and most of all, dear leader George Bush, had learned as much?

Posted by: aninnocentman | March 25, 2006 12:55 PM

Why pretend to be a writer? Go and do something else for a living! The pay is better and the hassle less.

Posted by: Daniel | March 25, 2006 1:27 PM

Ben only has to look at the history of some very succesful conservatives to know that criminal activity, drug use, plagarism are only one step in a successful career. Watergate was organized by a very sucessful conservative who went on to a career extolling the virtues of family values and the Great Republican Way. Iran Contra another conservative. Rush Limbaugh a very well known drug addict also has a sucessful career as a radio host. Sexual predator Bill Orielly has his own tv show. So Ben don't despair just keep repeating those damm liberals at the Post set me up. Your opinions will be saturating the airwaves in no time.

Posted by: V. W. Allen | March 25, 2006 3:08 PM

Ben Domenech did not graduate from William and Mary, according to the Flat Hat, W&M's student newspaper.

http://flathat.wm.edu/story.php?issue=2006-03-24&type=1&aid=1

Posted by: W & M alum | March 25, 2006 3:32 PM

Marc,
You seem to be implying that a college kid armed with Lexis-Nexis (or google?) could have done a better job performing due diligence on Domenech's hire than WP's Jim Brady. It certainly makes the Post look bad. How egregious is a mishap like this? Is Brady's explanation good enough?

Posted by: Dave | March 25, 2006 6:51 PM

I think plagiarism is bad, and writers should try their very best to be original, but why become Harriet the spy to catch another student. What will that do for you and your grade? Nothing.

Posted by: John | March 27, 2006 10:22 AM

Not especially relevant to this discussion (along from which everyone has long since moved anyway), but:

When I was in third grade (1969-70, in a military school in Japan) I was accused of copying a social studies report from some unnamed source. When the teacher then intercepted a note from me to a buddy that opined that she was a "dumb fat ...", parents were called for meetings and extra work was assigned.

She DEFINITELY didn't like the report that I turned in for the punishment assignment (even at that age I knew a little about Twain and Swift and the use satire), my parents allowed as how they understood why I might be upset at being branded a cheat and a liar, and I was transferred to a different class in pretty short order.

Posted by: Bob S. | March 31, 2006 10:00 PM

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