Scott: Stealing someone else’s words and pretending they are your own is nothing new. People have been doing it since they started writing. And as one young writer learned, plagiarism is just not worth it.
“His step had an unusual silence to it. It was late morning in October.” That is a good way to start this story about the guy you are looking at, but they aren’t our words, they are his.
Quentin Rowan wrote them to open his very first novel, Assassins of Secrets, a spy thriller published under a pseudonym last year. Problem was, the first few words were about the only ones he says he didn’t steal.
Pick a page, almost any page, and you will find it is a carbon copy of someone else’s work. A mash-up of as many as twenty different books, many of them James Bond novels, all rolled into one.
Quentin Rowan: “The first move was to lose himself in the swelling throng.” The first move was to lose himself in the swelling throng.
It felt sort of like making a collage.
Scott: This was never what Quentin intended to do. He started writing poetry as a teenager. And he was good. His work was even chosen for an anthology, Best American Poetry, in 1996. Back then, his words were his. But he started to doubt his own writing. He began replacing his words with smarter ones he found in SAT prep books. And then he went from swapping words to swapping a lot more.
Quentin: It was a slow progression. At a certain point, I started thinking I wanted to write stories, to write fiction. And that’s really when I started stealing sentences and paragraphs and stuff.
Scott: He did that for fifteen years without getting caught. He even fooled the highly respected Paris Review, which published not one, but two of his stories, both with portions he had lifted from other authors. He kept doing it even though he knew it was wrong.
Quentin: Even when I was just taking words from poems, I already felt like I was a criminal, you know?
Scott: He was finally outed on the internet by a James Bond fan.
Quentin is not the first guy to plagiarize, to steal someone else’s work and pass it off as his own. Famous writers have been accused of plagiarism for centuries. Shakespeare was accused of it. So was Oscar Wilde.
George Harrison: My sweet lord.
Scott: The Beatles’ George Harrison was successfully sued for lifting the melody of My Sweet Lord from the Chiffon’s song, He’s So Fine.
Fareed Zakaria: I’m Fareed Zakaria. We have a great show for you today.
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria confessed to stealing paragraphs from the New Yorker for a column he wrote for Time magazine. It is not just celebs getting caught, even school leaders. A New Jersey superintendent was called out for copying a letter from another superintendent and passing it off as her own. She later apologized and said she should have attributed the source.
Scott: Ed Wasserman says the internet makes it both easier to plagiarize and easier to get caught.
Ed Wasserman: There appears to be more of this. Of course, nobody knows whether there’s more of this or whether it’s simply turning up more often.
David Presti: Whatever you write, write it in your own words.
Scott: Professor David Presti teaches neurobiology and cognitive science at UC Berkley.
Professor Presti: And that means no cutting and pasting material from other places. That’s the definition of plagiarism.
Scott: Copying and pasting is an easy shortcut but it is also an easy F.
Professor Presti: Certainly failing assignments, minimally, failing classes possibly.
Scott: And catching word thieves is now easier than ever. Teachers can use companies like Turnitin, a computer program that matches student work against hundreds of millions of web pages, books and even other student papers. If the text looks suspicious, like this one, the section is not only highlighted, but the program identifies the original source, and does all that in under a minute. It is a technology that most certainly would have caught Quentin Rowan’s mash-up. After his book was called out as a fake, Quentin thought about taking his own life. Being known as a fraud was almost too much to bear.
Quentin: I was on the top floor of the building I was living in. I just went to the window and thought, ‘Could I do this, you know? Could I actually jump?
Scott: But he couldn’t. And coming clean actually set him free.
Quentin: There was a sense of knowing I was going to have to tell the truth and say, ‘Yeah, it’s all stolen,’ was liberating.
Scott: He is writing again. He completed a memoir and is in the process of finishing a screenplay. He says they are all his own words. But will he ever be believed again? He knows the odds aren’t so good because of his past.
Quentin: How on earth did I ever think that was a good idea?
Scott: Scott Evans, Channel One News.
- What did Quentin Rowan steal?
- What made Quentin decide to start plagiarizing?
- How can you find out if something you are reading contains plagiarism?