What is Plagiarism?

You know that we’re not about bashing other authors here. But the developing scandal over one novelist’s work and her extensive “borrowing” of large amounts of others’ texts does make one take notice.

In a nutshell: historical romance author Cassie Edwards has been accused of plagiarism.  She hasn’t plagiarized another novelist’s plot, prose, or dialogue.  She’s accused of lifting, verbatim, from non-fiction references and research. 

[Form your own opinion by viewing the evidence on the Smart Bitches site–Part 1 HERE, Part 2 HERE, Part 3 HERE, Part 4 HERE, and Part 5 HERE.]

As a blog about the craft and business of genre fiction, we can’t ignore this issue. And we definitely had to say something once Signet, Edwards’ publisher, came through with a response. This, from the Smart Bitches site:

Signet takes plagiarism seriously, and would act swiftly were there justification for such allegations against one of its authors. But in this case Ms. Edwards has done nothing wrong. 

The copyright fair-use doctrine permits reasonable borrowing and paraphrasing of another author’s words, especially for the purpose of creating something new and original. Also, anyone may use facts, ideas and theories developed by another author, as well as any material in the public domain. Ms. Edwards’s researched historical novels are precisely the kinds of original, creative works that this copyright policy promotes.

Although it may be common in academic circles to meticulously footnote every source and provide citations or bibliographies, even though not required by copyright law, such a practice is virtually unheard of for a popular novel aimed at the consumer market.

Fair use? Let’s refresh ourselves. What exactly is plagiarism? This from Dictionary.com:

pla·gia·rism /ˈpleɪdʒəˌrɪzəm, -dʒiəˌrɪz-/ Pronunciation Key – Show Spelled Pronunciation[pley-juh-riz-uhm, -jee-uh-riz-]
1. the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.
2. something used and represented in this manner. 

These are important things for all of us to consider. What are publishers saying to writers if they allow such large chunks of others’ works to be used, word for word, sentence for sentence, without credit? Isn’t Signet, in essence, attempting to change the very definition of plagiarism?

Jane at Dear Author wrote a compelling letter to both the CEO and President of Penguin-Putnam and has encouraged us to do the same. If after reading through the sources, you feel strongly about sending a letter as well, here are the email addresses you’ll need. These, taken from Gerard Jones’s comprehensive Anyone Who’s Anyone site:

David Shanks, CEO, Penguin-Putnam, Inc.

Susan Peterson Kennedy, President, Penguin-Putnam, Inc.

Oh, and look: the AP is aware of this now and offers a statement from the author in their article. Read it HERE.

Thoughts? Chime in.

-posted by WU Mamas, Therese and Kathleen



Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between aspiring novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in January, 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~40 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter, or join our thriving Facebook community.


  1. says

    It seems that for this author, it is the best of times, and it is the worst of times. She must suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and (The horror! The horror!) say that providence has punished her.

    She probably thought she could get away with it, but what once was lost is now found, and those that were blind now see.

    I mean, she probably says to her friends, “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.”

    As for the publishers, they’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

    Perhaps she has excuses for her actions. Perhaps, in her opinion, what’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? All I have to say to her is, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

    (The content of this post is my own original work, so back off, plagiarizers!)

  2. says

    With so many books out there, she must have thought nobody would notice if she borrowed a few (lot of) words. Thankfully, someone had been paying attention.

    I think that plagiarism is the biggest sin anyone can commit in the writing industry. It’s a complete lack of respect for fellow authors. It’s okay to “get ideas” from other people’s work… but “copying” is another thing entirely.
    I would feel outraged if I ever found out someone had been copying something I wrote and claiming it as theirs. Not just outraged, but also deeply hurt. Each word and each line came from my mind, my heart and my soul. Even if I wrote a whole book, I’d still treasure every single line I wrote in it, because they’re precious.

    Maybe you all disagree with me. I don’t know. :)

  3. Cath says

    This is pretty simple to me. She copied passages, VERBATIM. That’s plagiarism. Even so, she may have gone a long way in redeeeming herself had she made an attribution at the end of the novel (plenty of folks do).

    She got sloppy; and worse, she underestimated her readers. Shame on you, missy. And shame on you, Signet, for taking a defensive position instead of a “mea culpa.”

  4. says

    This incident, I think, reveals more about the state of editing today than it does about anything else. Not that I think editors need to fact check every bit of info in a historical. But a good editor will say, hm, ya know, maybe an Afterward citing your sources might be in order.

    Many authors do this already because they are uncomfortable with using someone else’s intellectual property without giving them proper credit.

  5. theamcginnis says

    i haven’t read the offending stuff so i am not sure what to think. but i would give a fellow author the benefit of the doubt, at least until i’ve walked a mile in her mocassins….

    did receive an alert from RWA National saying that Edwards hasn’t been a member for at least 4 years although she is a member of their honor roll. but they will wait until the facts are firm before taking any action.

  6. says

    I don’t think this sort of problem is solved with an Afterward. Citing one’s sources isn’t necessary in fiction since the purpose is entertainment and mostly we’re making it up anyway. I sometimes put in an Author’s Note and may mention interesting references in case readers are interested. But to list every book I use on the Napoleonic Wars, period clothing, 19th century medicine, etc…? Nah.

    The thing is that most authors glean facts from references and then weave those things into their stories using THEIR OWN WORDS.

    In this case anyone who is interested should visit the Smart Bitches site and read the text comparisons. Entire passages are almost verbatim.

    Listing references at the end doesn’t fix it, IMHO, as there’s no way to identify which passages are original or not. Footnotes in dialogue? A bit distracting, I’d say.

    Copying source material isn’t just unethical, it’s also poor writing because borrowed portion can’t help but be different in style. In this case that’s what tipped off the person who discovered the similarities between CE’s work and the other works.

  7. says

    Good post, Elena. This seems like an author who was in a rush to meet her deadlines. It’s great that she consulted heaps of reference books to make her setting more authentic; what she did with that material is less good. Novels with rich cultural settings can be enhanced by a reading list at the end, as readers often want to explore the setting further. I did this for my Pictish books, with a historical note at the back that directed readers to a book list on my website, including details of which ones I’d found most helpful. Plenty of other (non-academic, non-literary) authors do something similar.

    With this author, neither a book list nor footnotes would work because she has ‘borrowed’ other authors’ work and simply changed sentences around a little. The result is almost, but not quite, verbatim quoting. The pity of it is that the ethnographic material she’s used is full of potential for effective storytelling. Edwards should read Ray’s recent post on WU about using setting to enhance character.

    As a soon-to-be Penguin author (with Roc, not Signet) I’m very uncomfortable with the publisher’s response to the Edwards debacle. However, I do have complete faith in my editor at Roc and everyone else there whom I have dealt with.

    Don’t forget that Ms Edwards is a fellow writer of ours. She must be feeling pretty bad right now. She should not be publicly pilloried, just given some good advice by her editor, so she’ll adopt a different approach in her next book. She evidently has a keen readership, and I’m sure she can continue to entertain them without falling into the same habit again.

  8. says

    I very much doubt she cares as long as people buy her next book and the same for the publishers. They run a business and as long as they make money from their products, they won’t care what the hell she does. Plaigarism isn’t murder, after all.

    I disagree, she SHOULD be pilloried. She stole someone elses’ work and passed it off as her own. And she doesn’t seem to care about the fact she’s been caught. Think about how you’d feel if you found out she’d been swiping YOUR hard won words?

    It isn’t hard to update your site with a list of sources and it doesn’t take long either.

  9. says

    All she needed was some notes at the back of the book “Info on X came from Y”.

    No. If you copy passages of another work with minimal changes and make it look like your own work, crediting your source at the end just identifies the source you plagiarized.

    I think the confusion here comes with the split between fiction and non-fiction.

    If you are writing non-fiction and want to use an excerpt from another work, you put quotes around it, identify the author and list the source in your bibliography. That’s fair use.

    If in a novel you use a short quote at the beginning of a chapter to establish the theme, you identify the author and source. That’s OK, too.
    In one story I had a character quoting a bit of a poem by Wordsworth. In the text it was clear that he was quoting Wordsworth. That’s OK, too.

    But if I copied segments of Pride & Prejudice into my romance novel, it would emphatically NOT be OK to just credit Jane Austen at the end.

    This case is really the same thing, only with a non-fiction source. Copying is not research. They teach that in elementary school.

    I do have some sympathy for Cassie Edwards’s plight. What she did was probably a shortcut to meet deadlines and I can imagine she’s suffering now. However, what she did was wrong and there should be reasonable consequences. Otherwise a bad precedent is set.

  10. says

    Elena said: I do have some sympathy for Cassie Edwards’s plight. What she did was probably a shortcut to meet deadlines and I can imagine she’s suffering now. However, what she did was wrong and there should be reasonable consequences. Otherwise a bad precedent is set.

    Precedent. That’s it, exactly. I don’t think Edwards should be strung up or anything, don’t get me wrong, but I think Signet has to:
    1) agree that what happened was wrong
    2) suggest some way to help ensure it doesn’t happen again, through education of their authors perhaps, if they claim ignorance on this matter
    3) ask Edwards to apologize to her readership and to those authors whose works she pillaged without so much as a nod

  11. says

    I agree with all of the above, Therese.

    If any of her sources are still under copyright (and apparently more are being uncovered now) then appropriate settlements should also occur.

    If I were in her situation, I would also consider a donation to some appropriate charity (perhaps something Native American) as a gesture toward offsetting what she took from public domain sources.

  12. says

    Penguin have now put out a new statement about the issue – you can find it on the Smart Bitches site. Basically it says ‘Oops, perhaps we looked at too few examples when we put out that hasty defence of our author, so we will revisit this.’

    When there’s a mess of this magnitude, one can at least hope that the parties concerned (author, editor, publisher) will learn something from it.

  13. says

    The pity of it is that the ethnographic material she’s used is full of potential for effective storytelling.

    Yes, that’s a frustrating aspect. She did her research, but she misused the source materials.

    If you are writing non-fiction and want to use an excerpt from another work, you put quotes around it, identify the author and list the source in your bibliography. That’s fair use.

    … In one story I had a character quoting a bit of a poem by Wordsworth. In the text it was clear that he was quoting Wordsworth. That’s OK, too.

    But if I copied segments of Pride & Prejudice into my romance novel, it would emphatically NOT be OK to just credit Jane Austen at the end.

    Agreed, for the most part. But there are instances in historical fiction when using someone else’s words verbatim is accepted. E.g. using an historical soldier’s journal for a fictional journal entry, or using a real newspaper headline from the period in question. If the use is acknowledged, it’s lauded as realistic detail. It doesn’t even need quotes or a footnote right at the point of use to get a pass–just acknowledgment of the source.

    All that said… if I wrote historical fiction, I would cover myself by acknowledging everything I possibly could.

  14. Deborah Smith says

    As an author myself (contemporary women’s fiction for big pubs and now a small press publisher of my own work) I despise sloppy writing and would never defend plagiarism. However, it bothers me to read so many ignorant assessments and accusations — including vicious name-calling on some blogs and even wishes for physical violence — regarding the Edwards’ case. First off, I know many authors of her generation (she’s 71 and apparently, according to her Internet bio, started writing as a semi-retirement hobby) and I also know many authors trying to earn a living by cranking out quickie historicals and short series romance. They aren’t paid well (I suspect Edwards hasn’t made nearly as much moolah as people assume, and she is, compared to many standards, only a small player in the bestseller category.) These authors are under brutal deadlines. Their “editors” aren’t too concerned with much more than a basic copyediting process. Get the book through the system, get it out, move on. This isn’t just a function of the romance genre, but of a certain strata of pop fiction in general.

    I’ll give Edwards the benefit of the doubt. My best guess is that Edwards really *didn’t* think she was doing anything wrong — I know lots of authors in this particular area of romance novels who write super-fast, use a lot of obscure research sources, and who are ignorant of copyright law (as are many writers, as evidenced by the ignorant bloviating I’ve seen all over the Internet in the past week.)

    While I don’t condone unprofessional, sloppy writing, I also don’t condone launching serious (and legally damaging) charges against an author when the charges appear to be, at least in part, inaccurate.

    Throw the authors’ books in the trash. Judge her use of research sources as crappy writing of the highest degree. Fine. But labeling it “plagiarism” as a condemning legal judgement is WRONG if indeed most or all of the authors’ sources are public domain works or fall under Fair Use definitions. If you copy from works in the public domain you can do anything you want with them (I don’t sanction that, but it’s not illegal.)

    I was appalled to see what the Smart Bitches bloggers did to Edwards without regard for due process or context re: accurate descriptions of copyright infringement, and also appalled to see Nora Roberts issue an unproven legal opinion that was IMHO an abuse of her influence as a bigtime author. On the bestseller food chain, Roberts is a great white shark. Edwards is a minnow.

    All I’m saying is: don’t assume Edwards is some greedy villain.

    The bloggers who launched this attack on her were already known for skewering Edwards’ novels. They had a well-known dislike for her work. I hear they have a book of their own coming out, so I wonder at the timing of this attack for possible publicity purposes.

    Also, just for the record, quite a few prominent romance authors and also reviewers are quietly troubled by the way in which these bloggers and Nora Roberts went public with their accusations before a serious and thorough study of Edwards’ books was conducted by copyright experts. No author wants to be tried and convicted without a fair hearing.

  15. says

    Ignorance may be a defense for authors who use others’ works and call them their own, but I will not accept this excuse from a publisher.

    As for staying quiet about this, I think it’s the wrong thing to do. Just yesterday, The Writer’s Almanac published a blurb about Anne Bronte, and in that blurb sat the following quote, which I immediately linked to this issue. Here’s the quote:

    “Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.”

    Silence over wrongdoing creates a breeding ground for more of the same. I believe in voice.

  16. says

    I agree with Therese’s response.

    You state that copying from public domain sources isn’t illegal. However it is still in violation of publishing contract.

    All that aside, some of Edwards’s sources are indeed under copyright, including the novel LAUGHING BOY and the article from Defenders of Wildlife magazine.

    As a romance author, I disagree with your implication that because it’s just genre fiction it doesn’t matter so much. Also, most romance novelists are professional enough to read their contracts and take them seriously.