Why Do Plagiarists Do It?

Posted on April 28, 2006

Now that How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life by Kaavya Viswanathan has been yanked from the bookshelves because of the author's blatant plagiarism of Megan McCafferty's work, Jack Shafer of Slate examines the question of why people plagiarize.

The standard rundown of plagiarism excuses includes accidental copying, occupational or personal stress, and even mental illness, as in the case of former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair. I reject those excuses, too, and counter with a more plausible set of explanations that rely on neither psychobabble nor the DSM-IV.

Ambition Often Exceeds Talent: I know of very few examples in which an exceptional writer got caught plagiarizing. Sometimes writers accept jobs or assignments beyond their talents. When the deadline whistle blows, they find themselves facing this cost-benefit quandary: Shall I tell the truth and bail, damaging my career for sure, or shall I steal copy and only risk damaging my career?

Writing Is Hard Work: A corollary to ambition exceeding talent. Even prolific writers, who can toss off a thousand words an hour, complain about the difficulty of writing. Writing well is a difficult enterprise. So is writing poorly. With so many examples of good writing out there to "borrow," why suffer only to write poorly?

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Force of Habit: If nobody catches you running stop lights in college or tickets you for doing the same at your first newspaper job, you eventually stop paying attention. One day, red, yellow, and green all mean "go."

Contempt for the Business: Show me the writer who calls himself and everybody he works with a "hack," and I'll show you a potential plagiarist.

How about this one: because your parents dropped $10,000 on a service to help you fill out your application to get into Harvard, and spent money on a book packager to help you write a book, you think the normal rules of working hard to be a success don't apply to you. Just a thought.


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