November 28, 2006

Write, Right?

For two weeks in a row now, there have been two major articles about the topic of authors plagiarizing another's work. Ian McEwan is a big-deal British writer, and he's getting accused of lifting some medical terms from another, now-dead, novelist.

The stupid thing here, for me at least, is that he readily cited her work in his book, he has acknowledged his research very much included her, and the terms he is accused of poaching are medical ones. It's hard to take poetic license with medical terms - they are what they are.

Plagiarizing has become a massive problem due to the Internet. Every idiot on the block can sound like a Pulitzer Prize winner if they Google the right combination of words. High schools and universities alike employ sophisticated computer programs to catch the lazy little trolls who can't be bothered to write their own stuff - they can actually feed a whole essay into the program and see where it was lifted from, in whole or in part. Gotcha, Shakespeare.

But what I do hesitate over is the fact that if you read a great deal, you end up with many, many words and ideas lodged in your cranium. It's inevitable that one person's thoughts are going to flip a switch in a writer's brain, and from that can flow a continuing stream of ideas. What if it isn't as seamless as you suppose?

This article in Slate is great. It explains how Google is finding that plagiarism goes all the way back to, well, probably the first word. A linguist has been funnelling phrases through the search engine and finding out that those noble authors from hundreds of years ago were no better than my son doing his homework on the Internet last night.

But read further down. The writer lends a little math to the show, and reveals just what the odds actually turn out to be. Though I would sometimes imagine it's already all been written, I would be wrong. You still have to pretty much go out of your way to steal, and feeble excuses are going to need a good headwind to fly.

Guess we haven't seen everything. Yet.


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