Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist

Article excerpt

Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist Neal Bowers. New York: Norton, i997. i43 pp. $i7.00

Plagiarism has a long and convoluted history, one in which the unacknowledged appropriation of another's words or ideas is honored, ignored, or punished depending on the reigning Zeitgeist. But in the annals of plagiary, no case has presented such bizarre developments, no account such scrupulously recorded details, and no conclusion such unexpected revelations (even for a reader who is already familiar with the general outline from previous publication). Here is what happened: One day, Neil Bowers, a professor of English at Iowa State University, discovers that someone is republishing his poems with only slight alterations, especially to the title, first line, and line breaks. Unlike more lackadaisical victims, Bowers is hurt and incensed and decides to pursue the plagiarist; Bowers's wife is even more adamant and together they attempt to track down David Sumner, force him to desist, get an explanation, and demand an apology. Words for the Taking is Bowers' sensitive account of what this entails, its human and financial costs, and the intricate and crafty machinations of Sumner, who uses more than one pseudonym and republishes poems by many well-known writers including Mark Strand and Sharon Olds.

Interested laypersons, occasional writers, and professional authors will all empathize with and enjoy the subtle workings of the hunt: the interactions with an attorney (whose $4,i55.37 bill is incomprehensible); the dedicated detective, whose footwork, thousands of miles from Iowa, uncovers truly shocking activity; the many letters from and phone calls with Sumner, who seems contrite and apologetic but who goes right on publishing Bowers's poems; and the final revelation that Sumner is responsible for a new scheme. All of this, articulated in a caring and lively fashion, will hold most readers' rapt attention. …

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