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Roger Clarke's 'Creative Plagiarism'

Plagiarism in Creative Literature:
The Case of the Unsquared Circle

Roger Clarke **

Version of 8 February 2005

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On 3 February 2005, The Australian published a feature article by Janelle Evans entitled 'Mystery Writer', with a page-one pointer article entitled 'Murder, she rewrote', by Louise Evans. The articles accused Jessica Adams, the author of a 3,000-word short story called 'The Circle', of having plagiarised a 4,500-word short story by Agatha Christie that was published in 1928 and called 'The Idol House of Asarte'. More specifically, the accusations appeared to be that Adams closely paraphrased the plot (although shifting it from Dartmoor to Tasmania, and changing the murder-weapon from an ancient dagger to an aboriginal flint), and closely paraphrased the text (re-writing it in a different style, but, in a few places, sentence-by-sentence).

The articles resulted in some amount of discussion, including a riposte entitled 'A plague upon these misguided allegations of literary cribbing' by James Valentine in The Sydney Morning Herald on 5 February 2005. The same issue of the Herald included a page-one article by Malcolm Knox entitled 'Taking a leaf from another book', which claimed that Murray Bail's novel 'Eucalypt' contained several passages taken verbatim from a text-book on the subject. Seldom does plagiarism get such prominent treatment.

These Notes utilise the Adams case as a basis for considering some aspects of the theory and practice of plagiarism. In doing so, it draws on a recent draft paper on plagiarism by academics. This paper commences by discussing the meaning of plagiarism. It then draws attention to ways in which genre affects the nature and seriousness of plagiarism, and the appropriate forms of attribution. Alternative approaches to the specific case are outlined, and the risk of defamation of the author discussed.

What Plagiarism Means

Broadly, plagiarism is unattributed incorporation of the work of others. The term is used very loosely, however, which creates difficulties when genuine disputes arise. A practical definition that is applied in academic contexts is that provided by the Australian Vice-Chancellor's Committee (AVCC): plagiarism is presentation of the documented words or ideas of another as a person's own, without attribution appropriate for the medium of presentation.

Plagiarism of words may be as word-for-word copying, or by paraphrase. In either case, the degree of seriousness increases from phrase, through clause, to sentence, paragraph and segment to the complete work. Plagiarism of ideas may involve character, plot or structure. A variety of forms of attribution are available, including the use of quotation marks, bracketed citations within the text, less formal mention of the source within the text, footnoting, and listing separate from the text. There are many circumstances in which presentation of the words and ideas of others is acceptable provided that the source is appropriately attributed. Additional material on the meaning of plagiarism is in section 2 of the companion paper.

There are also various circumstances in which presentation of the work of others may be unacceptable for reasons other than plagiarism, such as insufficient 'value-add' in student assignments. Breach of copyright is a particular type of unacceptability. In almost all cases, these other concerns are entirely independent of plagiarism, in the sense that whether or not a particular case involves such breaches has no bearing on whether the case involves plagiarism. These Notes give no further consideration to the question as to whether 'The Circle' breaches copyright.

The Critical Role of 'Genre'

The term 'genre' is used in these Notes to refer to a category of publication, which is related to what the AVCC definition appears to intend by 'the medium of presentation'. In order to bring some order to a complex realm, it is suggested that the following categories be distinguished:

One example of differences among these categories is in the area of attribution. Formal publications impose fairly precise rules. Instrumentalist publications adopt a more relaxed approach. Creative publications, in contrast, depend a great deal more upon allusion than on precise citation. For the purposes of the present analysis, allusion is a form of 'citation for the cognescenti' - if you 'get it', then attribution is present; and if you don't, then it isn't.

Further examples of differences among the categories are in the degree of seriousness, and the possibility of retribution. In the case of formal publications, serious breach (in AVCC's words, 'intentional or reckless' breach) is a grave sin, and represents grounds for dismissal. Factors affecting the degree seriousness of academic plagiarism are examined in section 8.2 of the companion paper. In the case of instrumentalist publications, despite grand statements that appear from time to time, attitudes are very relaxed and retribution of any consequence is rare.

The nature of creative literature is very different from formal and instrumental publications. It weaves fantasy, and encourages the reader's (if not the critic's) suspension of disbelief. Most forms are intrinsically allusive and derivative, inviting readers to recognise familiarity but then move beyond it. A genre is largely a set of conventions apparent in successively derivative works. Christie, after all, was preceded by the likes of Poe and Conan Doyle.

Distinguishing between creative allusion and the merely derivative is inevitably 'more art than science', and perhaps more fashion than art; and the boundaries between the two ebb and flow. It's therefore paradoxical that an accusation against a creative writer of 'being derivative' is a mortal insult.

Meanwhile, the digital era may have shifted the ground. Not least among its impacts is that it has converted appropriation from a vice to a virtue. For many people, the proposition of 'the death of the author' is too extreme; but in both the instrumentalist and creative genres, there is a real possibility that allusion may become more dominant, and the more direct forms of attribution may become less common. In formal publications, on the other hand, attribution is functionally critical, and direct forms of attribution are becoming much easier; hence allusion appears unlikely to make inroads, and instead a heightened expectation of citation precision may come about.

The Adams Case

The accusations against Adams raise interesting questions in relation to attribution. In the event, the author has denied having read the story that she is accused of having plagiarised. But if she had admitted to reading it, what alternatives did she have? The following options are apparent:

Applying the AVCC yardstick of 'attribution appropriate for the medium of presentation', attention needs to be paid to the nature of creativity, and the tension between the interests of literature and entertainment. In these circumstances, the first option can be readily argued to represent appropriate attribution. The second option might also satisfy the requirements and render an accusation of plagiarism unjustified.


The case provides fuel in relation to a further aspect of plagiarism: can accusations of plagiarism be freely made, or is care advisable?

Defamation is a complex area of law, but broadly speaking it developed as a means of protecting the reputations of persons of high standing from verbal and written attacks that tend to diminish their reputation. In some jurisdictions, reasonable belief in the truth of a statement may be a defence; but in others it is not. Material on defamation is available in summary form, and in more, and more authoritative, detail on the site of Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA).

A commentator was quoted in the article in The Australian as acknowledging that "Plagiarism is a terribly serious charge". But the same commentator also said that "to appropriate material without attributing it is cut-and-dried plagiarism", and that "there is a pattern in the names of characters and sets of characters and a consistency of patterning in their relationship". More risky still, the commentator admitted that she had not read the whole story, and had based her comments on extracts that she had been provided (presumably by Evans).

The commentator was identified as a novelist, but also as a university lecturer in writing. She was therefore in a position in which she should have been aware of the enormous ambiguity of the concept of plagiarism and the absence of authoritative guidelines, as well as the seriousness of the accusation. Hence many of the elements of a successful suit in defamation appear to be satisfied.

It would seem to be advisable for commentators to feel free to raise questions about the propriety of their fellow-authors' behaviour, but to be careful in their use of the term 'plagiarism'.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Baker & McKenzie Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., a Visiting Professor in the E-Commerce Programme at the University of Hong Kong, and a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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