One author asks, Can I get a little credit, please?
Last spring, in the writing class I teach at USC, my students and I discussed Turnitin.com -- a website at which many high school students and college undergraduates are now required to vet their work. In the digital age, copying others’ research is as simple as hitting Ctrl-C. To ensure that students resist temptation, Turnitin .com scans papers for stolen passages, easing the burden on professors.
In universities, the issue is clear. If you try to pawn off someone else’s research as your own, you will be disciplined -- likely expelled if you are a student, or fired if you are a faculty member. USC requires a paragraph from its honor code to this effect to appear in every syllabus. Newspapers too embrace these ethics.
For the record, my students sparkled with originality -- as writers should. Why bother writing if you don’t think you can express your ideas better than someone else? Turnitin .com came up because I’d had a bad experience. As the author of “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll,” I’d been asked to review a recent book that covered similar material, Robin Gerber’s “Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.” There, I found quotations from my research, verbatim and without specific attribution.
I showed the passages to my assigning editor. He had sent me a galley proof, not the finished book, and we both thought it likely that endnotes would appear in the final volume. But then the finished book came in, and though “Forever Barbie” was mentioned in the bibliography, there were no endnotes. I felt violated.
Histories do not grow on trees. The first person to cobble out a definitive narrative has to do a ton of work. You interview hundreds of people and hunt down documents, which can be especially elusive if influential people would prefer that they stay hidden. You separate truth from hearsay. Then -- with endnotes -- you meticulously source all your quotations and odd facts so future scholars will know whence they came.
I did all this for “Forever Barbie,” which came out more than 15 years ago. Many of my sources are now dead. With the help of Kroll Associates, the detective agency that located deposed Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos’ ill-gotten properties in the United States, I unearthed compromising legal papers about a patent infringement suit. And I discovered bizarre facts -- the way that, for example, the doll’s original production schedule had been organized around the rice harvest in Japan. (Barbie’s first clothes were hand-sewn by women workers in the Japanese countryside.)
This is why I felt so violated when Gerber apparently plucked pieces of my hard-won narrative off the history tree. Most galling were the quotes from long-dead sources presented in the text as if they had risen from the grave. There was this from Mattel engineer Jack Ryan: “ ‘I took my little fine Swiss file,’ Ryan said, ‘and very daintily filed the nipples off.’ ”
The nipples in question belonged to a Barbie prototype, and the full quote is in my book. I scribbled in Gerber’s margin: “Were Ryan’s words muffled? The guy has been six feet under since 1991.”
I did not, I should note, interview Ryan myself; I obtained a tape from a college friend, Ella King Torrey, and made her a partner in the project -- crediting her in my endnotes. Although her research took up less than one-tenth of my book, I gave her a quarter of my earnings, to demonstrate the value I place on research.
You can also imagine my shock when I saw that Gerber had written about Mattel efficiency expert Joe Cannizzaro as if he had discussed the workers in the Japanese countryside with her instead of me: “ ‘I never saw any dresses -- even white wedding dresses -- get soiled,’ he said, ‘though they were in the homes and on the tatami floors, because everything was so spotless. . . . They were delivered by bike and pick-up truck. They were handled four, five, six times. Yet they never got dirty.’ ” (The verbatim quote can be found on page 35 of “Forever Barbie.”) Cannizzaro was not on the list of interview subjects in Gerber’s book. Yet the passage appeared to be part of a direct conversation.
Early in “Barbie and Ruth,” Gerber also quoted Frank Nakamura -- like Cannizzaro, absent from her interviewee list -- on the Japanese reaction to Barbie, as if he had pulled up a chair and yakked with her: “They thought she looked kind of mean -- sharp eyebrows and eye shadow.” The original quote appears early in my book. Incidentally, Nakamura had said “sharp eyebrow,” singular, I recalled. I wrote in the margin: “Jeez, lady, at least copy accurately.”
Speaking of copying, Barbie herself was knocked off from a German doll called Lilli, based on a character in a single-panel comic in the Bild-Zeitung, a Hamburg newspaper. To determine Lilli’s personality, I read three years of the comic, which I obtained directly from the newspaper’s archive. It seemed odd that Gerber would use my translation of a particular caption, because the cartoon I referenced in the Bild-Zeitung’s story archive was too damaged to reproduce and my rendering clunked badly. But this may have been a coincidence.
Using the quotes and facts would have been just fine had Gerber acknowledged their source. Legally, there’s some ambiguity about who holds the copyright on a quotation. And scholarship, by definition, is a new structure built on an existing edifice with a bit of fresh material, which Gerber has. This makes her behavior more baffling.
As my friend Ellen Handler Spitz, honors college professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland (UMBC), reminded me, “Scholars cite existing books so readers will know they did their homework.” Nor can Gerber plead ignorance of ethical practices. At one point, she does acknowledge that a person she is quoting spoke to me. In a passage about the relationship between Ken Handler, son of Mattel’s founder (and the person after whom the Ken doll was named), and his sister Barbara, she writes: “ ‘My sister was a conform freak,’ he told the author of ‘Forever Barbie.’ ”
The violation plunged me into a depression. I collected stories from friends who’d had similar experiences. Richard Rhodes, author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” described a happy instance of plagiarism -- during the Clinton administration, one of the president’s speechwriters borrowed his words, and he was pleased to have had an impact at the White House. But when an alleged scholar ripped him off, he was glad to see him disciplined -- though his firing struck Rhodes as harsh. Columnist Katha Pollitt also reported that a journalist who stole her words lost her job.
In one of life’s stranger moments, Pollitt, who is an old friend, and I were on a radio show with Gerber just after her book came out. At one point, I found myself agreeing with Gerber, because, as I pointed out, “I wrote those exact same things 15 years ago.” The radio invitation had been so sudden that it never occurred to me to confront Gerber until after the fact.
Reached for comment by The Times, Gerber wrote in an e-mail: “I do believe that the credit Ms. Lord received was within the norm for a book which provides singular sourcing rather than footnotes. Having said that, if Ms. Lord feels that her book received insufficient credit for quotes from people she interviewed it is a simple matter to correct in the next printing. I have the utmost respect for Ms. Lord’s book and have recommended it to others.”
Maybe the violation was to be expected, I blurted to a friend on Facebook -- given that the doll itself was essentially ripped off. “Don’t blame the victim with your Barbie-as-subject-invited-this theory,” he replied.
Still, I put off raising the issue publicly until a student left me no choice. “How can you expect us to play by the rules,” she asked, “if you let that author get away with breaking them?”
Lord is the author of “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll.”
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