Fuse #8

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Tricky Situation

Every day I post a review on my blog and every day I copy that same review onto its Amazon.com page. Before I ever started writing reviews for School Library Journal and the like I broke in my baby teeth on Amazon. Over the years my writing has improved a little and I like to look at the occasional Amazon page to see how many people have (or have not) found my thoughts useful. The danger in doing this sort of thing is that any kid that has to do a book report can lift my words and use them in a homework assignment. I like to believe that a teacher would spot this kind of thing, but that may be wishful thinking on my part.

What should I do, then, when I find my words not on a 4th grader's encapsulation of the newest Newbery winner, but instead in an Alabama newspaper?

A sharp-eyed spotter (who may remain nameless if she likes, or come out and attest to her catch-the-plagiarism skills) brought my attention to a children's librarian. She is the person responsible for writing this article not too long ago. In the piece she summarizes three children's books coming out this holiday season. One of them is Once Upon a Banana. Here's what she says about the book:

“Once Upon a Banana” is slapstick comedy for kids which borders on the insane. The details by illustrator David Small, coupled with the plain, good storytelling (and amazing absence of true bodily injury) make this book a kind of contemporary silent film that will have no difficulty entertaining our pint-sized Buster Keatons.

The story begins with a man and his monkey making a living on the street. The monkey suddenly takes off like a shot to sample a delicious-looking banana sitting at a grocer's stall. Eating the banana and tossing the peel causes a burly motorcyclist to crash into a ladder. That ladder, in turn, has a painter on it who falls into a shopping cart full of vegetables. The ensuing wacky chain of events leads to messy city streets and an indescribable twist of fate for the man and his monkey. Fun...fun...fun!

Now it is entirely possible that two people might read this book and both would come up with phrases like "pint-sized Buster Keatons", "borders on the insane", and "amazing absence of true bodily injury". However, here is my review of the book, done not too long ago. This version is not word-for-word at all times, but I'm more than a little puzzled by her editing of my work. Read the first two paragraphs of my review and then read hers. Honestly, I don't mind it if people use what I've reviewed, but I like to get a little credit for it now and then.

39 Comments:

At 12:31 AM , Anonymous Jen Robinson said...

That is unbelievable! I mean, I know that it's easy to see a particular word or two in someone else's review, and have them stick in your head, and have to fight not to use them in you own review. But to take someone else's review and just edit it a little bit, and claim it as your own... Who does that? Lanelle S. Cova, I guess.

 
At 1:00 AM , Blogger Gregory K. said...

Huh. Good to see Kaavya Viswanathan find work....

 
At 7:09 AM , Anonymous Gwenda said...

Surely, they'll hear about it now, but I hope the Anniston Star finds out about this. I'm sure they'll be horrified. Unbelievable!htt

 
At 7:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

She obviously reads your blog and is going to freak when she reads this. Busted.

 
At 9:46 AM , Anonymous Paul Acampora said...

Really, that's just unacceptable. Here is the contact info for the folks at the newspaper:

http://www.annistonstar.com/www/as/contact.htm

Fuse#8 readers might consider sending a link to this post to the editor and managing editor there.

 
At 10:37 AM , Blogger Camille said...

Like you I copy my reviews to Amazon. Sometimes I see that another reviewer had the same 'take' on the book that I have. I always try to revise my review so I will not use the same metaphor or allusion or tired cliché. It is usually a signal to me that my review needs a reboot.

I tell students constantly, when we talk about research papers that in the age of the internet you can't hide. Politicians, writers, students ...and reviewers ...beware!

 
At 11:21 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness. I can't believe that she plagurized you so blatantly. You really ought to contact the newspaper. - LW

 
At 11:25 AM , Blogger Liz B said...

Wow. Just -- wow. I have to say, I've always wondered if this could happen; and this may be what motivates me to put up some type of copyright notice.

 
At 11:37 AM , Anonymous Susan said...

Oh, ick, Fuse. That's bad. Write the editor of the Anniston Star; it's a newspaper with a good reputation.

The food critic at my hometown newspaper recently "left" after YEARS of writing columns; she'd copied her whole piece from a Southern Living site.

 
At 11:54 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Aw. Y'all are sweet. We'll see how this all falls out. I'll level with you here. I'm disinclined to get a fellow children's librarian in trouble. I've obviously no problem with writing a blog posting about her, but I dunno. Write the editor? It seems harsh.

 
At 11:56 AM , Anonymous elizabeth fama said...

She tweaked your language in such a way that she made it worse.

 
At 12:53 PM , Anonymous Rebecca said...

Betsy:

Her behavior is inexcusable. It demeans your hard work and your noble profession (not to mention --what kind of example is this for the kids??).

You must contact the editors.

RS

 
At 1:17 PM , Anonymous Pooja said...

Darn it, gregory k.! You took my line.

I too urge you to write to the newspaper, Fuse. Good luck and keep us posted.

 
At 2:41 PM , Blogger Alkelda the Gleeful said...

What do you think about trying to contact Lanelle first? If she's a good librarian who made unconscious errors, she'll be mortified and work to make amends. If you find that she plagarized deliberately (probably acting super-defensive about it), then I'd take the next step to contact the newspaper.

 
At 2:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops! Here's one monkey in the literary jungle who "Slipped on a banana peel and went for a ride!"

 
At 3:41 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Hm. I like Ms. Alkelda's take. Seems like that would be the best way to go about it. I'm fairly certain the error wasn't unconscious, but I would like to avoid having to continually check up on this woman in the future. Okay. I'll do that. You have to understand that I am essentially a coward who shies away from conflict. In this particular case, however, I'll see what Ms. Cova's defense is.

 
At 3:53 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you say librarian? Oh, dear. Somewhere I once read something a little tiny bit like this...
"Children's literature is not for the weak. It's a ruthless, cuttroat business with lots of gnashes of the teeth. Children's librarianship, in contrast is a sweet sweet ride."
Therefore, she's innocent.

 
At 4:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I meant to say at 3:53 is she broke the rule of conduct.
[Dang I hate not being able to edit my comments.]

 
At 4:21 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Yeah, the not being able to edit is a hassle. Blogger would do well to change it somehow.

If I read you correctly, you're saying that I should tear her to tiny shreds since this is a dangerous business we're in and she's crossed a line. Well, if you Google her name you can actually see some pictures of her online. And she just looks so sweet reading to those kids that I just can't make myself rat her out. So I'm trying to get her e-mail out of her library system at the moment. Hopefully the whole New York Public Library tag will hold some sway in the process.

 
At 4:26 PM , Blogger Jennifer Armstrong said...

I confess to feeling somewhat conflicted about this, myself. As the author of Once Upon a Banana, (and the whistle blower -- I obsessively scour the web every morning for new reviews), I feel as though I am slapping someone who has done me a service. This is a tough business, and getting reviewed during the holiday shopping frenzy is a GOOD THING. However, as an author whose livelihood depends on copyright protection, I felt compelled to alert Betsy to the review. If Ms. Cova tearfully claims that "I've never done this before" and swears to adhere to the straight and narrow henceforth, perhaps getting busted privately is the best course. If, on the other hand, she seems to be a confirmed and habitual plagiarizer, then the editors at the Anniston paper really ought to know about it.

 
At 4:30 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm confused, blogger. You're disinclined to point this out to the editor in chief of the newspaper--where this could presumably be handled in an objective and impartial way by staff members who have surely dealt with problems of this kind before--but you're willing to name the librarian in question and trash her on your blog? And That seems a bit disingenuous to me.

 
At 5:19 PM , Anonymous elizabeth fama said...

Thanks, Jennifer, for explaining how you came to notice the review.

 
At 5:48 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Gotta love those anonymous comments.

I have named her, yep. Felt I might as well seeing as how I wasn't extended the same courtesy. This brings up a good point, though. Is what I'm doing now worse than having the editors take her to task? That could be. I guess what I'm hoping is that someone who knows her will see this and she'll send me an e-mail so that we can chat. She's reviewed for that particular newspaper for several years, and if this is a mistake then I don't want to put her job with them on the line. But now I wonder if you're right. Is this worse? My blog is not exactly gigantic but it is read. More people would have read her piece than my response.

Am I trashing her here? Should I not have mentioned her name and just sent you all the link? Or would the best possible situation have been for me to keep completely silent about everything and just alert the editors? Cause after all, the nice thing about any blog posting is one's ability to delete any given piece.

 
At 9:02 PM , Anonymous eisha said...

I'd say, depends on the outcome. She published your work under her name... and you responded by defending your work as your own. If it does turn out to be a mistake or she's really contrite, then you can take the posting down (or at least delete her name and stuff). But if this was a conscious deliberate act of plagiarism, then being caught and outed is the risk she ran, and that's what happened. "The Opal Mehta Incident" was only the most recent example of what can happen when you plagiarize, and everyone should be aware of that risk by now.

 
At 10:32 PM , Blogger Mitali Perkins said...

You said: "I am essentially a coward who shies away from conflict."

I think your growing desire for a private confrontation is coming from your Mennonite roots rather than from any intrinsic cowardice. Peace be with you as you model the way to handle this for the rest of us. (Now how's that for pressure?)

And fellow bloggers, I just licensed my posts as intellectual (or lack thereof) property at Creative Commons. You may want to do the same - especially you, my prolific fuse.

 
At 10:48 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Quaker, actually. Go, Earlham College! Fight fight inner light, kill, Quakers, kill! Fight 'em fight 'em, beat 'em senseless, do it till we reach consensus!

How does Creative Commons work? This is new to me.

 
At 11:36 PM , Blogger Mitali Perkins said...

Oh for those irreverent yet creative halcyon college years. "Pushing the envelope" these days means slogging through bunches of boring bills in my snail mail in-box.

Creative Commons is free! It was created by Harvard and Stanford Law School Grads as a public service. You post a subdued but professional looking icon on your blog via easily generated html code (check out my sidebar), and you get this:

"Creative Commons license are based on copyright. So it applies to all works that are protected by copyright law. The kinds of works that are protected by copyright law are books, websites, blogs, photographs, films, videos, songs and other audio & visual recordings, for example. Software programs are also protected by copyright but, as explained below, we do not recommend that you apply a Creative Commons license to software code or documentation.


Creative Commons licenses give you the ability to dictate how others may exercise your copyright rights—such as the right of others to copy your work, make derivative works or adaptations of your work, to distribute your work and/or make money from your work."

 
At 12:40 PM , Blogger Daniel said...

Think of the children ... Won't somebody please think of the children?!

 
At 1:21 PM , Blogger Jeremiah McNichols said...

I hope this doesn't seem to be overstepping my bounds, but this is not just an affront to you as a writer - it is also damaging both to the newspaper who employs the writer and the newspaper's entire readership. As a former journalist and features editor at a newspaper, I have personal experience dealing with writers who plagiarize, and believe me, in the current climate this sort of thing is taken very seriously and no editor will tolerate this if they want to keep their own job. What's worse, if it does go on and they don't get on top of the problem, it can impact the jobs of many others besides the freelancer. From that perspective, it doesn't really matter if it's carelessness, malice, ignorance or desperation that causes the ethical violation. It's irresponsible behavior.

I contacted the Editor in Chief at the Annapolis Star. He responded within an hour and told me they had put a reporter on the issue. Please understand that where it goes from here - and it will probably end in the freelancer's termination - has little to do with any "punishment" that would or would not address your personal grievance against the author. She has violated the principles of the paper for which she writes. I have known, and fired, people for the same myself.

 
At 2:03 PM , Blogger Jeremiah McNichols said...

I should point out, to Mitali Perkins and anyone else who may not see a distinction, that plagiarism and copyright infringement are entirely different animals. Yes, the author infringed upon Elizabeth's natural copyright over her own written material. But plagiarism is a public harm that results from fraud, while copyright infringement can and occasionally is entirely fraud-free. (Almost sounds good for you... 100% Fraud Free!) Not only the original author is harmed in cases of plagiarism; those who are defrauded (readers, editors, etc.) are also harmed.

 
At 9:17 PM , Blogger Mitali Perkins said...

JM, I get the distinction, but I've been wanting to tell Fuse about Copyright Commons for a while so I seized the day. Fuse, I'm curious to know how you're feeling about the developments JM describes above. I have experienced the children's librarian community firsthand and the fellowship is sweet. Professional violations aside, I'm sure you'll get the chance to reconcile over the "personal grievance."

 
At 10:14 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

The issue has been resolved, though not as I would have liked it to have been. You're right, Mitali, in understanding the children's librarian community. All you need to know is that I have been in contact with the librarian in question and she was very nice. Anyone with questions may e-mail me personally.

 
At 10:29 PM , Blogger What Maternal Instinct? said...

JM did exactly the right thing. He beat me to it, in fact.

I was just looking at your Amazon profile today thinking "wow, she's done so many reviews! Who can keep up with her?" I guess fame has its price!

I'm very sorry this happened to you, but JM is absolutely, 110% right. There's more than just you involved. Think of the copy editor who was too stupid to check the review against Amazon! This is standard procedure at the LA Times, where they have to slog through a lot more reviews each week than the Aniston paper, I bet. I never take it personally, and I abide by their embargo to never read other reviews before starting mine.

Let events take their course. If this woman tries to contact you, don't respond. Forward the emails to her editor. Be polite to the reporter who calls or emails (as if you wouldn't) and just state the facts. Don't take the questioning personally and don't get flustered: if the reporter is any good, it should be an easygoing conversation, not a cross-examination.

Good luck to you. I look forward to reading what happens next.

 
At 10:30 PM , Blogger What Maternal Instinct? said...

Whoops! I posted my comment before seeing that you'd already resolved it. Sorry.

 
At 6:21 AM , Blogger Jeremiah McNichols said...

My comment seems to have not made it up, so I am going to try to defend my position one more time.

There are ways to handle such a situation privately, Elizabeth, but they are... private.

If you had wanted to handle this privately, you should not have aired it publicly. In doing so, you forced the hand of others (not necessarily me) to take certain actions.

 
At 8:09 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Ah, voice of my conscience. How right you are. Obviously there were better ways to handle the situation. Needless to say, should this happen in the future the steps I take will vary considerably from the ones already taken.

Never a dull moment here at Fuse #8. Sweet sweet dull moments.

 
At 11:33 AM , Anonymous elizabeth fama said...

Here's the tragic aspect of this: the librarian in question, though she has worked for more than 30 years, seems not to be a seasoned reviewer. This is the only review in the Anniston or neighboring papers that I was able to find, other than one other essay-like take on The Giving Tree.

I'm not excusing her, mind you. At my kids' school the librarians are the ones tasked with teaching the middle-school and high-school students what constitutes plagiarism. It's something every librarian should know in his or her core.

But this reviewer would have learned from her mistake, I'm guessing, if she had been slapped on the wrist. And since Betsy has loads of camaraderie with and esteem for her fellow children's librarians, that might have been the best outcome.

 
At 1:03 PM , Blogger Mitali Perkins said...

You go, Fuse. I like how you revised your original post and title, and I'm so glad that you contacted the other librarian directly. Truth and love, baby, truth and love. Nothing wrong with making changes, and blogging is a process of which you, the author, are in charge. You're such a role model for a wee young thing!

 
At 12:04 PM , Blogger Krystal said...

Lanelle is my aunt. She's a good person and she genuinely cares about her library, and about the children. I'm glad you talked to her personally. I'm glad the issue was resolved. Just throwing my two cents.

 

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home