Thursday, 20 June 2013

Plagiarism - what can we do about it?

The high-profile plagiarism scandals of recent months can't have gone unnoticed by the editors of top literary journals or the organisers of poetry competitions. With two serial plagiarists unmasked recently, many editors must be asking themselves if this is just the tip of the iceberg. What if those brilliant, original, prize-winning poems aren't original after all? What if someone just happens to have nicked them from somebody else's website, or from a forgotten poetry collection published 30 or 40 years ago?

There must be more than a suspicion that the plagiarism scandal calls into question the whole existence of poetry competitions. When a brilliant, unknown poet appears from nowhere to walk off with several hundred pounds' worth of prize money, some are bound to look askance on the winner and wonder just how original they really are. Are they just passing off the work of forgotten writers from a generation earlier? There are certainly rumblings that some competition organisers are going to start looking with new suspicion on ‘unrecognised’ names who achieve competition success.

To me, this is a dangerous mindset. After all, the whole point of poetry competitions is to give the brilliant unknowns a chance to make their mark, on a level playing field when up against established names. That's why poetry competitions are judged anonymously – so there's no chance of a judge being influenced by an entrant's reputation, or lack of one.

There are already competitions which churn out the same ‘type’ of winner, year after year with tedious predictability – often a winner who turns out to be a well established name on the poetry scene, frequently someone with several collections to their name. It's almost as if the judges only want work from a particular school of thought or writing. It would be depressing indeed if those competitions which still champion the independent voice are put in a position where they can no longer do so. Small competitions don't have the funds to defend lawsuits, and can't afford the reputational damage that might ensue if their champion work turns out to have been a plagiarised product. Will these competitions close altogether, rather than run the risk?

I'm a competition judge myself. I certainly don't want to be in the embarrassing position of mistaking a plagiarised poem for a brand new piece of original writing. But it could happen, even to the best of us. The sad fact is that many poets of the last hundred years have published their collections and then vanished without trace – and there's nothing to stop an opportunist taking advantage of the words they left behind them. Not even the best read judge is going to be able to recognise every plagiarised work for what it really is.

However, there's just the possibility that the recent scandals are signs that the situation is getting better, not worse. Serial plagiarisers are being found out. And we have the internet to thank for that.

Many poets are nervous about their work appearing on the internet. We're almost preconditioned to believe that someone is out there waiting to steal what we put out to public view. But in fact, the internet makes it harder for plagiarists, not easier. A poem placed in public view can always be matched with its real owner. A simple Google check (other search engines are available) is a standard tool in the competition judge's repertoire. It will pick up, not just plagiarised work, but also any other work that runs the risk of creating a copyright lawsuit by having been previously published somewhere else. Every competition I've judged has seen at least one entry disqualified from the shortlist as a result.

The Google check isn't perfect. There are any number of poems from the pre-internet generation which are not online, and which won't show up on a Google search. But a winner's name may well show up, once announced. Their past publication history may show up. And thanks to the dedication of poetry detectives like Ira Lightman (pictured), who brought the recent scandals to light, the plagiarists will soon run out of places to hide.

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