As yesterday was deemed Fake Writer Day by Gawker, it seemed appropriate for the Denton-ites to start the day off with a blurb involving a Harvard student whose literary dreams were coming true, only to be squashed by her school paper’s revelation that she might actually be a plagiarist. Metafilter and The New York Times, as well as a number of British, Australian and Indian publications, quickly picked up the Crimson story. Kaavya Viswanathan’s teen college admissions drama very recently made The New York Times bestseller list and has also been optioned by DreamWorks. All of that came to a standstill over the weekend when The Harvard Crimson determined that language and certain passages in Viswanathan’s book had been directly lifted from another book.

The Harvard Crimson broke the news on its website on Sunday and by now, there are more than 400 hits on Google search alone. The New York Times carried two stories about the news yesterday alone: the first being the Crimson story and the second being the apology/explanation Viswanathan issued through her publishing house later in the evening. After Viswanathan apologized, the news circuits (if there were such a thing) began lighting up again. By 8 p.m. ET yesterday, a number of major publications, including The New York Times and Washington Post had published the story.
The Crimson story not only included examples of passages shared by the two books, but also an interesting quote by Werner Sollors, the Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies, who said that, “it looks as though some strong version of anxiety of influence could clearly be detected in [the book]….in the hope of making the result less easily googleable.”

Interesting, especially since in this modern age, it pretty much only takes less than two days for your reputation, career, credibility and future to be ruined by the Internet. From a public relations angle, Viswanathan’s issued apology is weak and does not address how more than 20 passages that borrowed key characteristics of the source’s sentence structure and actual wording could have been “internalized” to such an extent that it was “unintentionally” picked up, edited ever so slightly (using the number 169 instead of 170) and recopied into the book.Several interesting parts to this case:

1. A college paper broke the news and major publications, in tandem with major consumer generated news sites, picked up the news very quickly. (It’s no secret that journalists and editors are keeping an eye on the web now to look for breaking news. They can throw out that old police radio now, I suppose.)

2. A nineteen year old is directed to issue a statement (by her publishing house’s PR people) that does not sound like an acceptable explanation. Bloggers and commenters refuse to believe it (and Viswanathan’s former TA insulted her former student’s academic ability on Metafilter, making news of her own) and make themselves known. Will Viswanathan have to deal with the backlash from her weakly woven explanation?

3. A Harvard professor surmises that the passages that were plagiarized were edited to make them less “googleable.” Those kids/editors today sure are search engine savvy.

4. It seems that awareness, exercise of and detection of plagiarism has gone up quite a lot, possibly due to the rise in discussion of intellectual property or possibly due to more mainstreamed use of the Internet, which can track these things.

5. How did the source become aware of the plagiarism, having never read Viswanathan’s book? A fan who had read Viswanathan’s book emailed the source author,citing several passages from the source author’s two books and comparing them with passages in Viswanathan’s new bestseller. This is particularly interesting because more publishing houses are encouraging authors to start blogs and directly interact with fans and consumers. The author emailed her publisher who went to publishing house’s legal counsel. Of course, Viswanathan’s publisher was probably alerted to the matter before Random House even had to call Little, Brown & Co.

6. As the Viswanathan story unfolds further, we learn that the young author may not have been a writing prodigy at all, but, rather, strategically positioned to generate publicity. Her college counselor put her in touch with an agent at William Morris after seeing her short stories, who referred her to a book packaging company that helped Viswanathan “flesh out” and “conceptualize” an idea for a book and also “plot” it out. After receiving a few chapters and a synopsis of the rest of the book, Viswanathan was sent to a book packaging firm that specializes in marketing to teens. Her publishing company then awarded the young author with a $500,000 contract, presumably to generate publicity for Viswanathan.


Here’s a link to an NPR story on the matter:

Katie Couric interviews Viswanathan: