Home/Alan Jacobs/The Plagiarism Chronicles

The Plagiarism Chronicles

A young English poet named Christian Ward won a prize for his poem “The Deer at Exmoor.” The problem: he plagiarized it, copying much of it from a 2010 poem by Helen Mort called “The Deer.”

A commonplace event, but I’m interested in Ward’s explanation:

I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn’t entirely my own work.

I had no intention of deliberately plagiarising her work. That is the truth.

I am sorry this has happened and am making amends. This incident is all my fault and I fully accept the consequences of my actions. I apologise to the Exmoor Society, Helen Mort, the poetry community and to the readers of the WMN.

Well, good for him for making a straightforward apology — but here we go with the “my notes were confused” excuse again. It seems to be the go-to excuse for plagiarists, who want us to believe that as a standard part of their research they write or type out other people’s writings word-for-word and then forget that they didn’t write those words.

So Ruth Shalit “blames her own sloppy computer habits–accidentally splicing together published stories with her own notes–for the previous incidents.” Doris Kearns Goodwin explains, “Though my footnotes repeatedly cited Ms. McTaggart’s work, I failed to provide quotation marks for phrases that I had taken verbatim, having assumed that these phrases, drawn from my notes, were my words, not hers.” And Fareed Zakaria: “The mistake, he said, occurred when he confused the notes he had taken about Ms. Lepore’s article — he said he often writes his research in longhand.”

Every time I read an explanation like this, I think: That’s impossible. How could you not be able to tell your writing from someone else’s, even if your notes were sloppy? And then, after a moment, I think, That could never happen to me — could it? I feel sure it couldn’t. But then maybe some day I’ll discover that I’m wrong about that.

Still: accidental plagiarism of a poem? That one I’ll never be able to swallow.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

leave a comment

Latest Articles