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John Jenkins Feb 12


The February 2012 column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


Don't mix up plagiarism with research

by John Jenkins

Everybody knows that old joke which asserts that if you steal from one writer it’s plagiarism and if you steal from 14 it’s research. But joking aside, it is essential that writers know the difference and abide strictly by the law. Not only the letter of the law but also the spirit.

Competition judges constantly face this problem and fortunately they are seldom caught out. Popular try-ons are classic short stories written up to date in a different setting. Maupassant is a favourite. I was fortunate to have a panel of judges whose combined reading background was the best insurance I could have when running a competition.

In twelve years we missed two plagiarists. There may have been more but I can only report what we discovered.

One was a story – a beautiful story – lightly re-written from the original which appeared in a Canadian magazine and the other was from a South African writer whose work had already been published and won two prizes. This was strictly against the rules. Readers recognised them both.

Graduates who have been used to writing a thesis or dissertation are well used to citing sources, usually with the Harvard system, but they are not writing for publication. Even so, examiners now have at their disposal computer programs, which can sniff out work which has been copied wholesale from the internet.

The world of academia now spells out to students that copying from other students, downloading material from the internet or copying work from journals or books without acknowledging the source is strictly off limits.

If you look at the various definitions of plagiarism you will be left in no doubt. Here are three culled from various dictionaries:

  1. The practice of taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own.
  2. Infringing copyright.
  3. The appropriation of someone’s artistic, musical or literary work for personal gain.

Because much of what is on the internet is freely available does not mean it is free to copy. Sometimes you can get permission to copy a passage for educational purposes and it is better to ask first.

Photocopying is another dangerous area. This is governed by the Copyrighting and Licensing Agency. You cannot copy wholesale from a book, or an article from a magazine. The law of copyright covers websites, computer programs, books, plays, music, drawings, photographs, films, videos, recordings and in some cases layouts.

It’s also worth remembering that copyright in an author’s work usually exists for 70 years after the author’s death.

Sometimes it is possible to infringe copyright accidentally. I once wrote up a preview of a Dylan Thomas festival and to give the piece a little extra flavour beyond the banal press handout I quoted a few lines from Under Milk Wood. Within a couple of weeks of publication I had a letter from the literary executors pointing out that I had breached copyright.

Fortunately they understood that my motives were entirely honourable and they accepted a nominal fee whereas permission would have been granted free of charge had I asked in advance and given the appropriate attribution.

I remember discussing the whole business of plagiarism at the annual lunch of the Romantic Novelists’ Association at the Savoy some years ago. It concerned Ian McEwan and author Lucilla Andrews. Because of a final illness she missed the chance of being honoured in person with a lifetime achievement award by the Association, and also of the opportunity of using the platform to comment on what appeared by many people to be a case of plagiarism by Ian McEwan in his novel Atonement. A matter he claimed was justifiable research.

Lucilla, one of the most successful writers of romantic hospital fiction. had written her biography. The similarities between her book and Atonement were brought to light by a student at St Hilda's College, Oxford: whose graduates are known to all as Hildabeasties

Inside the back cover of Atonement, McEwan's tiny acknowledgement of the debt he owed to Lucilla - beneath that to staff of the Imperial War Museum and two other authors - is easily missed, although McEwan insisted he had confirmed the influential role of Lucilla's book in interviews and on public platforms.

But Lucilla had no idea that she had provided the backcloth for a lengthy section of McEwan's book.

The parallels are, many thought, beyond coincidence. Like the young Lucilla Andrews, Ian McEwan's central character Briony wants to become a writer. In Atonement, there are echoes of Miss Andrews' tension in waiting to hear from publishers as well as many similar details about the nursing experience.

Both books describe the atmosphere in hospital before the retreat from Dunkirk, when staff sense the build-up to some military event. McEwan uses several of Lucilla Andrews' perceptions to describe the feelings of the nurses, for example, his character Briony's first sight of the injured patients.

Yet, as McEwan clearly realised, Lucilla's writing was compelling because she was writing from experience and from the heart: subject matter drawn from life, rather than research.

Lucilla had been accepted for training at St Thomas' Hospital but always wanted to write and kept detailed notes of her experiences. She duly wrote her first novel shortly before she married a doctor, James Crichton, in 1947, but burnt the manuscript on the night before her wedding because it was 'dull, pompous rubbish'.

On her honeymoon, however, she realised her new husband, who suffered from TB, was addicted to morphine. She would have to become the family breadwinner.

Lucilla sold her engagement ring and did night work to support her family, while writing in her spare time. She began, like many novelists by selling short stories and was able to leave her job to concentrate on writing.

Such was her success that she published 35 books between 1954 and 1996. In 1977 she published No Time For Romance, detailing her own struggle as a nurse in wartime.

Natasha Alden, the St Hilda’s student who brought the situation into public light described part three of Atonement as 'closely based' on Lucilla’s No Time For Romance, but did not suggest McEwan has plagiarised Lucilla Andrews, because he has credited her book in his acknowledgement. However, he had never written or spoken to Lucilla.

The relationship between Atonement and No Time For Romance came to wider attention after Lucilla's obituary and her memoir is now described on the internet as 'recommended companion reading' for Atonement.

Lucilla's younger brother Dr John Andrews said that his sister had told him that she planned to write Ian McEwan a 'polite thank-you note' although he did not know whether this ironical letter was ever written.

McEwan said: "I've always openly acknowledged the importance of Lucilla Andrews' memoir in my research, in interviews, on public platforms, in a tribute on Radio 4 and in an author's note at the end of my novel.

"In writing a historical novel, authors always draw on contemporary accounts. No Time For Romance is in essence reportage, a history, albeit a personal one, and I gratefully drew on it. It is not plausible to invent patient traumas, medical procedures, hospital routines, or details of training, especially when they are more than 60 years old."

Excerpt from Atonement, by Ian McEwan...

"In the way of medical treatments, she had already dabbed gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on a cut, and painted lead lotion on a bruise. But mostly she was a maid."

Excerpt from No Time For Romance by Lucilla Andrews...

"Our 'nursing' seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains."

It would have been interesting to have seen McEwan’s explanation tested under cross examination in court. But that never happened.

Strangely enough there is no copyright on titles and if you care to check you will find three books which have sold well under the title of The Outsider. As for magazine titles this is more complicated and involves registration under the copyright act, the patents office, passing off and other quasi-legal phrases.

Many authors are frightened that their work may be plagiarised or stolen if they send it off to a publisher or agent. Most unlikely.

But if you want belt and braces protection send a copy of your manuscript timed and dated via recorded delivery to your lawyer and ask him to log it in on the due date and time.

A word of warning regarding publishers of song lyrics. This is an absolute minefield. If you are thinking of quoting at length from verses in a popular song, forget it. By the time you get permission – if you ever do – the deadline for your work will have passed and you yourself may have passed on, particularly where American rights are concerned, which with pop songs they usually are.


If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

John's January column was entitled Writing a synopsis is easy.

Michael Legat's Factsheet on Plagiarism


The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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