The day Dr. David Agus’s plagiarism scandal broke probably would have been a good one if not for the news. After all, March 6, 2023, was one day before the official release of Dr. Agus’s new title, The Book of Animal Secrets: Nature’s Lessons for a Long and Happy Life. And it already had hit #1 on Amazon in the “books on animals” category.
But by mid-morning, all that changed when the LA Times reported that they’d discovered at least 95 instances of plagiarism. Entire passages copied word for word were plagiarized from notable sources such as The New York Times, National Geographic, and Wikipedia. And ripped from smaller, niche sites, such as a blog from a small safari company in South Africa.
Its publisher, Simon & Schuster pulled the book from shelves across the nation.
The LA Times cites several instances of plagiarism in Agus’s book. It’s astounding to think that anyone in this day and age would try to get away with such blatant misuse. Especially when free online resources like “Plagiarism Checker” provided by Grammarly as well as dozens of other apps make it so easy to detect. Which is why I can’t help but wonder…
Was Dr. Agus aware of the plagiarism taking place, or was he simply careless?
This is not to excuse Dr. Agus of responsibility for what occurred, but rather than vilify him, perhaps we can let this be a cautionary tale.
We all know plagiarism is wrong, but if we can take one lesson from Dr. Agus’s experience it should be that, in this day and age, we all need be more vigilant than ever to make certain we do not commit it.
Here are some safeguards.
Understand Plagiarism and Get Legal Advice
Plagiarism is defined as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own… without crediting the source.” Pretty basic, right?
But when it comes to plagiarism in a traditionally published book, the waters become murkier.
This is where the doctrine of fair use comes into play. Fair use “permits limited use of copyrighted material without having to first acquire permission from the copyright holder.” The freedoms in fair use are limited, especially when you’re making money off the material. You should consult an intellectual property attorney for clarification on how to handle any gray areas.
Attribute Source Material to Its Source
Seems obvious, but based on what happened Monday, apparently it’s not, so let us review.
A lot of copyrighted material is usable so long as you attribute the work to its creator and do not simply claim it for yourself. Whether or not your source requires permission, always give credit where credit is due and cite any source whose information you use in creating material of your own.
Normally, if you are working with a publisher, they will provide a proofreader who knows how to do the boring stuff: formatting footnotes/endnotes, etc. But a proofreader is not responsible for adding the citation. That, my friend, is on you, the author. It’s your job. Don’t assume anyone else will do it for you.
No one writes a book alone. The most successful authors have teams of people helping them to research, write, edit, and fact-check their work. Just remember it’s your name on the cover, so it is your responsibility to make sure to surround yourself with a reliable team. That means vet them beforehand to make sure they understand the difference between using sourced material and stealing it. And even if they do know the difference, it’s up to you to ensure that they follow the rules. And to ensure that no plagiarized copy snuck through, even by accident.
In any published book (even self-published ones) it’s not always enough to simply attribute a quote or reference to its original source. Most official sources have specific permission guidelines and rules you must follow in order to cite them.
In my experience, I’ve found that every source has their own set of rules. For instance, The American Psychological Association has an automated system where you can request permission to use an article, and if the system doesn’t do it, you have to reach out to them directly to get it.
It is your responsibility, not the publisher’s, to be sure you request (and receive) permission wherever necessary.
Not sure if permission is needed? Follow this rule: when in doubt, ask.
Do Your Own Check
Plagiarism is serious, and it can cost you a lot more than copyright infringement fines. Dr. Agus is on the hook for all the expenses of pulling the already printed books, fixing the text, and re-printing new books. But the real damage is what it can do to your reputation.
What’s that saying attributed to Warren Buffet?
“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.”
The good news is, it’s never been easier to check your own work. The internet has dozens of tools that you can use to check your own manuscript for overlooked plagiarized passages.
If Dr. Agus had done the simple step of running his own manuscript through an online checker, he might have saved himself tens of thousands of dollars and whatever other consequences may be headed his way in the fallout.
And remember, just because you know what plagiarism is, don’t assume that your team knows too. If you’re working with anyone else who is helping you add content, be sure to check their work for plagiarized passages before you sign off.
Dr. Agus may be the first to be exposed in this new age of rapid digital plagiarism checks, but he certainly won’t be the last.
The Bottom Line is This:
It is your responsibility as the author to make sure you do not commit plagiarism. Run your manuscript through your own check before someone like a reporter for the LA Times does it for you.