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How Opal Mehta got plagiarized...

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Uh-Oh. It appears Kaavya Viswanathan's Opal Mehta book copies word for word parts of Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts and paraphrases other passages.

Plagiarism is so uncool...  :smoke
#1 - April 23, 2006, 03:45 AM
« Last Edit: April 23, 2006, 04:08 AM by jadedmetaphor »


I noticed the article was dated last fall. I wonder if anything else has come from this.

It's hard to tell. There are so many similarities in this one though. If she did, she was clever enough to change things enough to make it harder to catch.

I have seen articles suggesting you jot down phrases you see in other books to use later in your own work. This is something I very much disagree with.

#2 - April 23, 2006, 06:31 AM


I live in fear of inadvertantly lifting someone else's prose.  I'm a mimic to begin with (just a half hour of listening to the BBC and I've got an accent). Great phrases and concepts stick in my head and then worm their way into my being and I'm very concerned that someday something I think is mine will turn out to be from something I've read.  If it can happen to Doris Kearns Goodwin, I think it can happen to anyone.
#3 - April 23, 2006, 06:46 AM


Ouch, I have found myself lifting a phrase by accident from a book I've read a million times--when it hits my work, I usually think Wait, that sounds familiar . . . where did I get that?  It's always something like three or four words in a row, not a sentence.  One ended up being from Sarah, Plain and Tall . . .   I'd read it so many times that this turn of phrase was in my head.  When I do this, I always look up the suspicious phrase, find it, turn red and delete, delete, delete!  It's humiliating to realize those words that you thought were so great ARE so great because they're SOMEONE ELSE'S!  It has only happened to me when I've read a book so much I've internalized it.

From reading the examples given in the article, I'd say Viswanathan must have read that McCafferty book about a million plus one and then completely forgotten it and thought the clever phrasing was hers.  Though it's really hard to look at it and not think she had the other book sitting right in front of her.  Which would be very, very dumb for a Harvard kid, huh?

I always think of that story that Hellen Keller told--I think it was in The Story of My Life.  She once won a contest after writing what she believed was a completely original (children's fairy?) story.  She was terrifically pleased until she later found out that she'd been told that story in her childhood by Anne Sullivan.  All those years, it had stayed inside her only to come out for the contest.  She was very embarrassed to have claimed it as her own creation.

I only see today's date on the news article?
#4 - April 23, 2006, 07:00 AM


Okay well this article was enough to make me de-lurk!

Pickles, I'm not sure where you see it was printed in the fall, my browser shows the article was printed april 23,2006.

After reading through the various passages, I don't see how it is possible to think this is not plagiarism. It's not like the thoughts were similar, it was entire passages word-for-word. The passages that were re-worded, read like they were craftily re-worded.

In my wip I have a similar 'idea' in regards to girls maturing and moving on to boys, and when I first read the passage, I was a little concerned.
I went directly to my chapter and re-read what I had wrote. Not one word was the  same even though it gets the same point across.

I would like to give this author the benefit of the doubt  because it makes me a little sick thinking if it is proven to be true, we (the fabulous, but as yet unpublished ::) will suffer for it.

It seems to me that 'Opal..' was being created around the time that Mcafferty's work would have hit the book stores - hmmm.

I will be watching this story eagerly over the coming weeks

** just wanted to add that I hadn't realized that the paper carrying the story is the Harvard Crimson.
#5 - April 23, 2006, 07:46 AM
« Last Edit: August 12, 2006, 07:19 AM by steph »


okay, it shows April 23 now, but when I first saw it is said November 2005. I'm sure. I don't think I'm delusional.

That's strange. And I didn't flip back to another article. Hmmmm.
#6 - April 23, 2006, 08:01 AM


I had another long post..but I deleted.

Just in brief, a friend and I were both plagiarized by different people in different college lit mags in the same year. It was all within the same university system. The person who plagiarized him was a Masters degree Candidate in Education. There were other cases besides us that year, and it nearly shut down at least one magazine. I had to threaten legal action to have mine taken care of because the administration didn't understand why someone like me who wrote such beautiful sensitive poetry would want to tarnish reputations. Excuse me?

Anyway, let's just say that attitudes toward the seriousness of plagiarism vary big time. Her response of "I don't know what you're talking about," is telling enough as it is.

This will be interesting.

#7 - April 23, 2006, 08:06 AM

Her response of "I don't know what you're talking about," is telling enough as it is.

I agree.
#8 - April 23, 2006, 08:11 AM
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If it isn't true, it sure makes me afraid to read anything in the genre I'm writing for.

As far as writing down passages from other books goes. That could be a very dangerous thing. But then again, doesn't everyone write down quotes they like. Hmmm, very sketchy. I certainly wouldn't want to be her right now. :-\
#9 - April 23, 2006, 08:29 AM
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Wow, it sure doesn't look good. I wonder if the publisher regrets making a book deal with a high schooler. I imagine the older you get, the more aware of these issues you would become...... I'm not saying she should be excused for naivety, but it may have been a factor in the problem....
#10 - April 23, 2006, 08:46 AM


A friend of mine gave a conference paper once on plagiarism in the age of postmodernism.  She argued that with so much sampling, pastiche, and allusion in popular culture it is increasingly difficult for students to understand exactly what plagiarism is.  She wasn't offering this as an excuse -- simply a statement of how blurry the line might be for some writers/students.

If this was a deliberate act, it is possible that it was not perceived of as a serious offense.  Again -- not an excuse, just context. 

Whatever the result, I hope Megan McCafferty sees increased sales.
#11 - April 23, 2006, 10:26 AM
« Last Edit: April 23, 2006, 02:58 PM by lurban »

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I think it happened too many times to be a coincidence -- and the passages are too similar.  It's one thing to find a similar concept/phrasing once -- but that many times?  I don't think so.  Plus, as I mentioned in my livejournal, I just attended a writing conference, and one of the classes was on voice -- the author did an excellent job of showing us how our voice is so unique -- and these passages were expressed far too similarly for that.  she may not have meant to plagiarize -- maybe she thought she could 'borrow' McAfferty's technique or something without it being plagiarism....
#12 - April 23, 2006, 10:37 AM
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I don't know if I'd call it plagiarism. To me it sounded like their voices were a lot alike. Yeah, there were similarities between the paragraphs but I've read adult stories with similar concepts. The 170 store part could be a strange coincidence. I was once part of a writing class, with over a hundred entries, and three of them came up with plots about an ogre, troll taking on the position of a toothfairy. Two of them changed their plots when they realized. No one had intentionally copied. It was just a strange twist.

#13 - April 23, 2006, 11:05 AM


The wording is much too similar for my comfort. I could understand a quick snappy line, or maybe two, somehow seeping into her brain (goodness knows I live in fear of that happening to me!), but there are frequent full paragraphs where it seems she's paraphrased (and not too well) MM's work. It seems doubtful that someone could transfer some exact words in paragraphs and add in parts of their own story for others so frequently. It seems like something a person directly paraphrasing/copying would do.  Plus, the article said the opening sequence was pretty much exactly like MM's, too...

I know she seems like a talented writer, but my husband pointed out- If she was willing to copy parts of MM's book, who knows who else's work/ideas she copied.

I think we're quick not to condemn because we fear this could happen to us. We know how easy it is to let something small creep in, even if we're vigilant (and I'm glad it seems we all are taking steps to safeguard). But, more than a teeny bit creeped into her work.

Voice, to me, is an overall feeling and tone- NOT exact words copied here and there.

I look forward to hearing responses from her and MM.
#14 - April 23, 2006, 12:09 PM
« Last Edit: April 23, 2006, 12:11 PM by jadedmetaphor »

It can be easy to let other people's words slip into your own writing without realizing it. I've had to change a few lines in things because people have pointed out they sound similar to things by authors I've never even read, though. Have I just heard the lines before? Or is it coincidence? I don't know but I was quick to change those words so there would be no misunderstandings.

In this case, there were way too many similarities in too many places for it to be a coincidence. She clearly knew what she was doing. I'll be curious to see what happens with that second book deal.
#15 - April 23, 2006, 12:29 PM


Here's a link to an interesting review from April 21, 2006.

#16 - April 23, 2006, 12:36 PM
« Last Edit: April 23, 2006, 01:35 PM by steph »


I think there are too many similarities for it to be a coincidence. They all seem very, very close except for the last one.

When I read manuscripts I see a lot of similar topics and plots, also. But not identical wording, not anything this close.

I do agree that it's either hard for students to understand what does and does not constitute plagiarism, or that they aren't taught how serious it is.
#17 - April 23, 2006, 02:14 PM

This is an overwhelming number of coincidences, but at the same time, I cannot think that anyone would be so stupid as to plagiarize some of those sentences deliberately.  For starters, it would take a great deal of effort to search through another book and find sentences that fit into yours, and secondly, even if you did that, why wouldn't you change at least SOME of the details?  I mean, why keep it "170 stores" instead of changing it to "146" or something like that.  Unless you were the dumbest plagiarist in the history of the world, that one would be a no brainer. 

I think it's obvious that the author read SLOPPY FIRSTS, and I think it's likely that she has a really incredible memory.  Given this, I think it's at least POSSIBLE that she didn't realize what she was doing.  At the same time, though, I'm tempted to think that when this author got her book deal, she decided she needed to study up on the genre (I think I read something somewhere that originally, she'd proposed another, more literary book, and they talked her into doing chick lit).  So maybe she went out and bought two or three exemplary teen chick lit books, and read them a few times to get an idea of how she should write a teen chick lit.  And after she read this book (or a few books), some of the sentences stuck with her.

It's scary to think that something like this could be unintentional, but at the same time, if you read really broadly in your genre, the chances of this happening to this degree are slim to none, because you'll have read SO MANY books and internalized SO MANY sentences that you're unlikely to produce a bunch of sentences identical to one author or one book.  If Kaavya had read ninety or a hundred chick lit books, even if she had the best memory of the world, I doubt her subconscious would have regenerated so many of Mccafferty's sentences, because she would have had a much larger number of influences.  My guess is that this young author studied up on her genre in a very specific way, but didn't have the kind of broad exposure to it that most writers have, and as a result, her "studying" came back to bite her in the butt.
#18 - April 23, 2006, 02:29 PM


I agree with Jen--I really would like to think it was unintentional--if it wasn't you'd think she would have tried harder to make the passages her own-Sloppy Firsts is a popular book--why copy something that so many people have read and would likely see the similarities?  Still--the passages are so close--I mentioned on someone's blog that perhaps she has a photographic memory or close to it and didn't realize what she was doing.  I'm very interested to see how the author of the article came by the information, too.
#19 - April 23, 2006, 02:58 PM


I think I agree with you Jen. I remember an editor at a conference saying that if you read enough you didn't have to worry about accidentally incorporating things.  That makes sense.

As for the 170, I often find place names or names of people in my work shortly after I've read something.  Also, after being told by an editor to read a certain book because it was similar to mind, I found I had incorporated more than I thought.

I think your theory is about right, and that someone with a grudge did the sleuthing to bring this to light. Funny, that it hit the Haarvard paper first.

#20 - April 23, 2006, 03:00 PM

I've seen so many kids change a word or a phrase and think they're not plagiarizing.  I wouldn't be surprised if that's what happened here.  Students do this all the time. 

I've sent a copy of the article with the examples to a friend who teaches English, so she can share them with her class. 
#21 - April 23, 2006, 03:10 PM

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It would be nice to think that it was unintentional and I guess it could be.

However, there's an epidemic of plagiarism on college campuses right now--there has always been cheating but the rise of the Internet has made cut-and-paste "writing" phenomenally easy--and for some, the norm.  And according to some studies I've read, a lot of students don't even think of it as cheating.  Just google "college plagiarism" and you'll come up with scads of interesting articles/studies/columns/what-have-you.  Here's a start:

I'm not saying this writer did this.  For now, I'm saying only that a lot of people do and don't think twice about it being wrong.

In fact, I remember the same article Pickles mentioned above.  In it, the writer advocated pulling nice phrases from books you liked (noting them with post-its while you read, then going back and writing them into a notebook) that you could later use to spruce up your own work.  I was appalled. :(

#22 - April 23, 2006, 03:21 PM
« Last Edit: April 25, 2006, 12:15 PM by Anne Marie »
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I can't believe the timing of this.

This afternoon my son (12) brought me his project to proofread for typos so he could hand it in later in the week. After less than a minute of reading I had to ask him for the book where he got all the information. When I put his project side by side with the book, it was ALMOST word for word. He had changed a few words here and there and he added a bit of extra info every once in awhile but it was basically the same.

I couldn't believe it! I told him he had plagiarized and he flat out denied it. He said he had changed enough words that it wasn't the same anymore. So... I read him the article about Opal Mehta and all of the examples of the two stories and their similarities to make my point. He actually sat there and said it was different. He thought that since it was fiction, it was wrong to copy  because those are someones ideas and words "from scratch" but non-fiction was different. "How can you state a fact in your own words? It changes the fact."

Strange logic but he was convinced that because he was copying facts, it didn't matter. Guess where he is now? He's rewriting his whole project.
#23 - April 23, 2006, 03:31 PM


I have to say, it's very odd that anyone would do this intentionally and think they would get away with it, so I'm a bit puzzled. I remember working with some students that truly didn't understand what plagiarism was, but these were mostly adult learners or community college students. We're talking about someone who is a student at Harvard. I took advanced English classes all through middle school and high school, and I was well aware of what plagiarism was by the time I was a freshman in high school - and I went to a state university.

I think it's likely (like a previous poster said), she didn't read widely in this genre and maybe intended to borrow the style of the book, but ended up borrowing more (plagiarizing) either intentionally or unintentionally. I'll be interested to see what happens.
#24 - April 23, 2006, 03:46 PM

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We're talking about someone who is a student at Harvard. I took advanced English classes all through middle school and high school, and I was well aware of what plagiarism was by the time I was a freshman in high school - and I went to a state university.

That makes logical sense, but some of the research says that the combination of pressure to achieve and an entitlement mentality makes super-high-achievers more likely to cheat.

#25 - April 23, 2006, 03:52 PM
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Yes, that's what I meant. She knows what plagiarizing is, no doubt. Some of the posts here seemed to be saying she may not have.
#26 - April 23, 2006, 03:54 PM


I find this whole thing fascinating--the article and the ensuing conversation.

It reminds me of a graduate fiction workshop I once took. A co-worker happened to be in the same class. There was one wonderful story that was very well received, and my co-worker (not a gifted fiction writer) showed me what she had done with it in the weeks after class. She had parsed this other writer's story and taken small sections and tried rewriting them as her own. I remember very clearly that the original described a home as being the color of butter, and my colleague changed it to something like a house as brownish gold as honey. She had gone through the whole piece and changed little bits, trying to glean the magic from the original, but turn it into her own.

I wonder if the author didn't have some phrases she lifted, meaning to get back to change them to her own language. It's hard to believe that this is wholly coincidental.
#27 - April 23, 2006, 03:56 PM

Linda - I can remember as a kid, having a hard time figuring out how to say what the facts from the encyclopedia were, in my own words. There was a time(around second grade I believe) where that is what I thought I was supposed to do. Look it up, change a few words around, write it down. It seemed so authoritative at the time that I didn't have much more to say. It's a good learning experience for him. It's too bad we don't all get it pointed out to us. Lucky boy has a writer for a mom.
As for adults, I can see unintentional or subconscious, but purposefully, there really is no excuse.
#28 - April 23, 2006, 03:58 PM

i hope it was unintentional but i have a feeling it wasn't.  jen brought up a good point about changing things more (such as saying 146 stores instead of 170 stores just like the original) but i'm almost wondering if she left it the same on purpose so if she got caught she could claim it was unintentional because no one would be so stupid as to leave 170 stores as 170 stores.
#29 - April 23, 2006, 04:39 PM

LOL, Ayris! I said the same thing to my son, that he's lucky to have a writer-mom who can teach him all this great stuff. His reaction was, well, less than enthusiastic.

I've always felt that plagiarism was the kind of thing that decreases with age. For example, children in grade 3 doing their first research project will likely copy a lot of the information they read but as long as they are learning how to put a project together, are learning about their subject and they understand what they are writing, it's okay. By grade 4, there should be a stronger attempt to find a way to use their own words and they should at least use quotations if they take it from a book directly.

By grade 6-7, they should definitely know what plagairism is and try to avoid it at all costs but with the occasional accidental 'oops, I took too much from that book.'

By high school, there is no room for misunderstanding and mistakes. And university? Please.

In my eyes anyway.
#30 - April 23, 2006, 04:56 PM


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