Editorials

New Publishing Mantra:
Plagiarize or Perish

Plagiarism is good business these days. When novelist and Harvard University sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan was exposed as having copied passages from another writer’s work, sales of her book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, rose sharply. And the day her publisher, Little, Brown, announced it was pulling all unsold copies from stores, the book’s sales rank on Amazon.com jumped from 64th to 10th. Not that those folks were planning to actually read the book. More likely, they just wanted a trophy from the latest literary scandal to wash ashore.

One striking feature of the recent wave of plagiarism is that its practitioners are not struggling strivers who were forced to their misdeeds by a lack of other opportunities and advantages. Not only is Ms. Viswanathan a student at one of the country’s finest universities, she also had the attentions of a prominent literary agent and a respectable publishing house. Likewise, another apparent plagiarist, William Swanson, could hardly be said to be hurting: He is the chief executive officer of Raytheon, the high-tech military-hardware company. Mr. Swanson is known in the business world for a compendium of aphorisms, Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management. Jack Welch and Warren Buffett are fans of his shrewd sayings. But last month a reader discovered that several passages in Mr. Swanson’s booklet bore a resemblance to a 1944 book, The Unwritten Laws of Engineering by W.J. King, a professor at UCLA. For example, Mr. Swanson’s Rule No. 21 is: “Don’t get excited in engineering emergencies: Keep your feet on the ground.” Mr. King, in 1944, wrote: “Do not get excited in engineering emergencies—keep your feet on the ground.”

But let’s keep our feet on the ground: Lest we forget, eminent historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late Stephen Ambrose had their own brushes with plagiarism. Mr. Ambrose’s book of World War II history, The Wild Blue, was called into question for resemblances to Wings of Morning by University of Pennsylvania professor of history Thomas Childers. Just like poor Professor King at UCLA, Professor Childers found his work borrowed by a man—in this case, a best-selling historian with 25 books to his name—whose resources and fame far outshone the professor’s own quiet status as an academic.

Another historian with a best-seller pedigree, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Ms. Goodwin, admitted that in writing her book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, she had “accidentally” borrowed as many as 50 phrases from Lynne McTaggart’s book, Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times. Simon & Schuster quietly forked over some cash to Ms. McTaggart by way of an apology. In the case of both Mr. Ambrose and Ms. Goodwin, it seems they believed their fame inoculated them against playing by the rules—and if they happened to rip off another scholar’s work, well, they had a TV appearance to get to and didn’t have time to worry about matters of accuracy or originality. Meanwhile, Simon & Schuster just shrugged, fed the unsold copies into the mulcher and drew up an even fatter contract for the next book.

And so Kaavya Viswanathan should not be discouraged: She joins a distinguished line of literary looters. Like all plagiarists, her excuses are the stuff of comedy. She claims that the similarities between her book and two previous novels by Megan McCafferty are an accident, an unfortunate byproduct of her own “photographic memory.” And what a memory it is: New, additional similarities have turned up, this time between her book and the novel Can You Keep a Secret by Sophie Kinsella.

Of course, plagiarism for profit never occurs in a vacuum. It’s clear that Mr. Ambrose and Ms. Goodwin’s editors were too cowed by the authors’ fame to bring up any doubts they might have had. But Ms. Viswanathan’s editors don’t have that excuse. With a 19-year-old author on their hands, prudence would dictate an excess of caution. Instead, they ordered up a print run of 100,000 copies, no questions asked.

Ms. Viswanathan will come through all of this intact. She’s young, smart—such a memory!—and can be forgiven the impetuous errors of youth. But will the publishing industry learn anything from its recent indignities? Not likely. Not only did sales jump for Ms. Viswanathan’s book when its purloined origins were revealed—Barnes & Noble reports that sales for Ms. McCafferty’s books have surged by 20 percent.

No Class for Cell Phones

There’s no denying the importance of cell phones. There’s also no denying that these modern lifelines cause all kinds of problems, from drivers who insist on yapping while barreling down a highway to chat addicts oblivious to their loud conversations in public places.

For the city’s middle-school and high-school students, a cell phone is as ubiquitous as a backpack. With students often traveling sizable distances on the subway to get to school, parents embrace any device that can offer them instant contact with their kids. That said, there’s no reason for students to have cell phones in school. They’ve been banned for years, but now that policy has come under attack from parents, students and the teachers’ union. Parents feel like they’re losing a lifeline. Students complain that they’re losing a favorite toy.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg stands by the ban, and rightly so. The issue has come up because the Mayor and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein ordered more intense scanning of students for weapons. In the course of the scans, police officers confiscated cell phones. In the ensuing uproar, Chancellor Klein noted that phones are being abused in schools, that kids are taking pictures in locker rooms and using them to cheat on exams.

It’s not hard to imagine how the phones can be used for something other than an emergency call to a parent. High-school students in particular seem to believe that they are entitled to converse with anyone at any time. (Stockbrokers on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North exude the same sense of entitlement.) There’s no question that cell phones help parents to keep track of their kids. There’s also little doubt that the Mayor and the Schools Chancellor are right in believing that the devices are a distraction. Let the kids check their cell phones at the door and retrieve them after class.

Leonard Stern’s Homes for the Homeless

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Homes for the Homeless, the nation’s largest provider for homeless families. The tragedy of homelessness so often proves intractable despite the best intentions of local and federal governments. Thousands of children, whose average age may be no more than six years old, still sleep in New York City homeless shelters on any given night. Homes for the Homeless has proven that there is a way out of the cycle with its innovative residential, educational and training services.

Since this magnificent pioneering program was started in 1986 by Leonard Stern, chairman of the Hartz Group, more than 18,000 homeless families and 30,000 homeless children have received emergency transitional housing under its auspices. In addition to housing, Homes for the Homeless offers services necessary to building an independent life: adult education and literacy, job training, accelerated after-school programs, psychological counseling and child care. Its Institute for Children and Poverty conducts the latest research on how trends like welfare reform and gentrification impact homeless families. Not only is the vision vast, the results are solid.

Leonard Stern will be honored this week for his humble and dignified stewardship of this remarkable organization, which he alone created more than 20 years ago. He has shown that one man, with courage and compassion, can change the lives of thousands who might otherwise give up hope.

Editorials