Harvard Writer Not First to Strike a Similar Pose

April 26, 2006 — -- Harvard University student Kaavya Viswanathan is only 19, but her first novel "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life" netted her a reported six-figure two-book deal, not to mention movie rights acquired by Dreamworks.

Leave it to her lesser-compensated classmates to root out the book's striking similarities to another book by another author, Megan McCafferty. A few sentences are almost identical. Now, the publishing world is up in arms -- especially coming so soon after James Frey's so-called million little lies about his exaggerated memoir, "A Million Little Pieces."

That scandal led to a riveting if also painful-to-watch confrontation on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

"It is difficult to talk to you," Winfrey said on the show. "I feel duped." "

"You betrayed millions of readers," she said, noting that she had chosen his book as one of her Oprah's Book Club titles.

Viswanathan says her apparent borrowing was an accident. A fan of McCafferty's work, she says she may have "internalized " it.

Now let's not be too harsh about this young woman's lucrative pilfering or, rather, "internalization." She's in good academic company.

A study by the highly respected Chronicle of Higher Education finds that plagiarism on college campuses is far more prevalent than you may think -- by professors.

"European Crisis Management in the 1980s," by Neil Winn, was taken from a 1992 paper in the International Studies Quarterly by Stephen Livingston.

Livingston, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, saw more than 1,000 words he'd written "internalized" in a book by Winn, a professor at the University of Leeds, in England. Winn was disciplined for his "borrowing."

"I got rather depressed because I knew at the end of the day there's not a heck of a lot you can do," Livingston said.

"While colleges tend to respond very harshly to student plagiarism, when it comes to professors they often look the other way," according to Chronicle reporter Thomas Bartlett.

They did for best-selling historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has a new book out about Abraham Lincoln, even though she's never come clean about the passages she internalized from other authors most notably Lynne McTaggart. McTaggart wrote "Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times," which Goodwin "internalized" for her book "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys."

Is it a coincidence that Goodwin is a former Harvard history professor and a member of its Board of Overseers?

Come to think of it, others accused of internalizing for their books have included famous Harvard law professors, including Lawrence Tribe, whose "God Save This Honorable Court" internalized parts of Henry J. Abraham's "Justices, Presidents and Senators," and Charles Ogletree, whose "All Deliberate Speed" internalized passages from Jack Balkin's "What Brown v. Board of Education Should Have Said."

So let's not be too hard on Viswanathan. In her crimson ivory tower, internalizing isn't exactly original.