Google Books, the New Plagiarism Police
So I'm on Google here that screen, Rachel.
STEWART: And you know, okay, (unintelligible) Web…
MARTIN: (Unintelligible). Mm-hmm.
STEWART: …images, maps, news, shopping, Gmail and you know what all those are. If you go to the More tab and you click on it…
STEWART: I never go to that.
MARTIN: I love to do blogs.
STEWART: I didn't know, and there's Google Books. A lot of people don't know about the joy that it is Google Books.
MARTIN: There it is.
STEWART: It may seem like a dream to literature lovers, searching for something to read, but it could turn out to be a nightmare for authors who likes someone else's works so much. They borrowed it without consent. It's been around since about 2004. Google Books works with the libraries of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Oxford, as well as the New York Public Library to digitally scan books from their collections and that users worldwide can search them in Google.
Now, if you type that last sentence, maybe under Google Books, you'll find out I listed it word for word from the press release. See? Got the idea? Recently, a blog devoted to romance novelist called Smart - word that rhymes with witches - who love trashy books, posted an entry about how the Google book function found a lot of similarities between the works of Cassie Edwards who has written more than 100 native American-themed romance novels and a variety of non-attributed sources.
The sources include an article about black-footed ferrets from the Defenders of Wildlife magazine in the 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Her main publisher Cygnet originally denied it, but later issued another statement saying original denials may have been premature and they plan to examine all of Edwards' books that they published and they will handle the matter accordingly. Google books, good for some, not so good for others.
Paul Collins wrote about Google books as a way to uncover plagiarists in Slate magazine in '06, and he joins us this morning.
Mr. PAUL COLLINS (Writer): Hi.
STEWART: So what was actually the original purpose of Google books and then why did it morph into this literary crime-fighting tool?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, I mean, the original purpose behind it was really, it's sort of a logical extension of Google itself and of the idea of having this enormous searchable database. In this case, there was just that you were taking the contents of libraries and putting them into a searchable form.
And, I think, I don't know that it really occurred to too many people initially that this might also turn out to be a very useful for catching plagiarism. But that's exactly what happened when you can actually look up these things and some books that's, you know, otherwise might completely escape someone's notice because it was published. As in the Edwards case, you know, 80 years ago, you can find that just as easily as something that was published last year.
STEWART: Something we should point out, though, some of the biggest takers of that, which was not theirs, were some of the great authors out there. Tell us who appears to have had some - taken some liberties.
Mr. COLLINS: Well, there are some people that we kind of know already historically that had sticky fingers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLLINS: Probably, the most famous case is Herman Melville. In "Moby Dick," there are entire sections of the book, entire paragraphs. And it's usually the sort of a technical literature about whaling that he lifted whole, from authors like Henry Cheever. With his maritime authors that - actually, in Cheever's case, he was a guy that used to review Melville's books.
Mr. COLLINS: So not really a smart guy to be stealing from…
STEWART: Right. It's interesting that you said that Melville took things that were explanatory or technical because that's kind of what did Cassie Edwards and if she in fact did this. Apparently, one of the blog writers suggested that her friend, who is interested in romance novels, check out Cassie Edwards and his friend was a classicist.
And she noticed in the writing that passages of Cassie Edwards' novels seemed to veer from that breathless, romantic style to a very didactic explanation-based paragraphs, just huge chunks of them. So my question is, do most plagiarists just get busted by people who are out there actually looking for this? Or do or is it just a fluke like this case with Cassie Edwards?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, I think traditionally, you know, for most teachers, for example, that's normally how you find these things and that was certain true in the pre-Google era when you're reading a student's paper and you're getting a lot of like, you know, kind of…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLLINS: …kind of writing. And then all of a sudden they sound like they're - they sound like they're college professor.
Mr. COLLINS: He start to wonder what's going on and then in the old days, you know, you might actually recognize the piece of writing or you might just suspect that something was up. And in that case, you would simply ask the student. So what were you thinking when you wrote this particular paragraph? And if they started to stammer and didn't have anything to say, you knew probably something was up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLLINS: Now you have a way of actually confirming that suspicion, and that's exactly what happened on this case. It's just - it didn't match the rest of the writings.
STEWART: We're speaking with Paul Collins. He wrote about Google books as a way to uncover plagiarists in Slate magazine back in '06. And in your article, you wrote, Paul, I bet in the next decade at least one major literary work gets busted. Such thefts don't necessarily end a literary reputation. Do you think that latter part is true for modern authors if they're found to be plagiarist? Is that - isn't that a real problem in terms of their sales?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, yes and no. I mean, it can be a problem. See here's the funny thing about the Edwards case. They were finding a lot of the stuff coming from, you know, articles that were newsletters or from fairly old books in some cases and that, I think, can be embarrassing for a publisher. But a publisher, frankly, isn't going to worry that much about it if there's no one around to sue them. And - but what happened in this case - it was actually just over the weekend. They found that there are some passages that appeared to have been taken from a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1930.
Mr. COLLINS: And it's still under copyright. So I mean, it seems to me unlikely that there would be a lawsuit coming from something like this. But nonetheless, that's the kind of thing that's going to worry a publisher a bit more, particularly since if it's an academic work, not a romance novel. But…
STEWART: In your research, did you uncover any reason why a modern writer in the world of the Internet would take the risk of copying someone else's work?
Mr. COLLINS: You know, I can only assume it's time pressure…
Mr. COLLINS: …a lot of the time. That…
Mr. COLLINS: …you know, in this particular case, Edwards is someone who has, I think, published something like - literally like 100 novels…
Mr. COLLINS: …in the last 25 years. So that's someone that must be under a fair amount of time pressure from their publisher. And I think - as with so many things - when someone is under a deadline and is trying to get things done quickly, the temptation to cut corners becomes much greater. And I think, in the past, people probably would have just hoped that no one would notice.
Mr. COLLINS: But it's become much - not only much easier to notice, but much easier to follow through on that suspicion. In the old days, someone might have noticed this and wondered, I wonder…
Mr. COLLINS: …that where this came from. But you would never really know.
STEWART: How common do you think it is today - just your opinion, just a guess? I mean, do you think it is that plagiarism is happening right now - that some book that's in the Barnes & Noble or the library that's a modern published title might have parts that belong to somebody else?
Mr. COLLINS: Oh, you know, it happens.
Mr. COLLINS: I don't think it's a terribly common practice, in part, because all those - students are very prone to doing it.
Mr. COLLINS: Someone who's working professionally as a writer is probably at a point where they're not going to feel the need. I think that they're not going to feel the need to do that, or even if they do, they're aware enough -particularly from the example of cases like this - of the distinct possibility of getting busted. But it seems like every year, you know, that some sort of prominent case comes up where someone gets caught for doing something like this.
Just recently, I was researching… I have a piece in New Scientist magazine this week. And when I was researching that, I was reading one of my sources and - sort of having the sense of deja vu…
Mr. COLLINS: …and plugged it into Google. And sure enough, there was another book that have been written 10 years earlier and they had lifted entire paragraphs out of it.
Mr. COLLINS: And I (unintelligible) for. So it does, you know, it does happen.
STEWART: Writer Paul Collins is the founder of the Collins Library, an imprint of McSweeney Books. This week, can be heard on NPR's WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY as their literary detective.
Hey, Paul, thanks for taking the time today.
Mr. COLLINS: Oh, it's good to be here.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.