What are your thoughts on the "Opal Mehta" story/scandal?

I haven’t read the book written by the then-17-year-old Kaavya Viswanathan (now a Harvard sophomore) but it’s pretty big news here in Cambridge. Essentially, she is being accused of lifting passages from another book by Megan McCafferty (haven’t read her book either; I think I’m out of the target demo). See here for examples.

The Harvard Crimson has pretty good coverage of the story. Here’s some interesting editorials on it. I missed the Today show interview with Katie Couric, but apparently she let Viswanathan have it.

I have very mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it certainly looks as if Viswanathan copied - perhaps plagiarized McCafferty’s work. She attributes it to an inadvertent mistake and has apologized. On the other hand, Viswanathan benefited greatly from this book - it’s not just a book on the shelf that no-one will read, it’s one that has sold well and has been optioned for a movie. She allegedly received a hefty six-figure contract as well.

It’s further complicated by the fact that Harvard has famously only slapped the wrists of professors accused of plagiarism - Lawrence Tribe and Charles Ogletree - so how is it fair to punish a teenager learning a difficult lesson at an early age. Furthermore, Viswanathan’s parents supposedly paid $20,000 to a college counseling service that ultimately shopped the book via literary agents (wow, I just wrote an essay!). So the whole issue of “spoiled rich kid gets what’s coming to her” is present as well.

As I said, I’m torn. I think it’s unfair that this young lady gained money and fame through illicit means - every Harvardian gets a booklet called Writing With Sources with makes it very clear what plagiarism is - and I suspect she knew what it was before she came to campus. On the other hand, what’s happening now must be hugely embarrassing and she’s left campus - unsure of how long it will be for. I also detect some subtle racism from some of the commentary: seeing an overachieving South Asian kid stumble is giving some folks schadenfreude. And of course, the advantages attained through hiring a $20,000 college counseling service make one ripe for ridicule and derision (though methinks Harvard is full of people who used significant piles of money in some manner in an effort to gain admittance).

Pretty much whenever I read an article about this my mind shifts. Throw the book at her vs. forgive and move on. What do y’all think?

Her timing’s not bad … in the wake of James Frey, her “borrowing” doesn’t look quite so objectionable.

It looks to me like she was a tool of the publishing agents- the literary equivelent of a boy band- all marketing. We’ve had this kind of scandal before and as long as “girl under eighteen” sells out the book signings we will have them again. I’m sure she is a bright girl and has a good future ahead of her if she can get over this. I think she got in over her head and was around too many unscrupulous people that onyl wanted her if she was a phenonmenon,

I am not willing to go so easy. I Have not read any of the books involved, so this is purely IMO based on press. But grind it down. Main charachter generally the same, nothing wrong with that. Plot generally the same, nothing wrong with that. There are so many elements to a literary work it is hard to say, but when most if not all of the elements are so the same it is getting pretty gray. When specific lines are copied, combined with the coincidence of the story line etc. I smell a wampus.


This thread goes in our forum for discussion of the arts. Or plagiarism of the arts, as the case may be.

Moved from IMHO to CS.

Since the plagiarism isn’t related to coursework, why should she be punished by the university?

I think she’s a liar- the phrases just “embedded themselves in her brain?”

Oh please.

Once or twice I can believe. Last year or the year before I phrased an argument right here on the SDMB that was similar on tone and structure, if not quite word-for-word, to something written in a book. It was really totally inadvertent.

But over and over again? In a book that’s otherwise also very similar? That’s a bit too similar.

I think some distinctions need to be made.

First, nonfiction writing should not be compared to fiction writing. Nonfiction depends upon source material. When I write nonfiction I’m scrupulous about either using quotes or paraphrasing, but there sometimes are those difficult in-between cases in which a phrase fits right into the paragraph. Small sections like the “19 word phrase” that Lawrence Tribe is accused of plagiarizing can slip in without being caught out and cited.

In fiction, this is never true. Never. For one “19 word phrase” to show up in two places is an implausibility so large as to be an impossibility. For two dozen or forty or whatever the latest figure is, a googol is not large enough to express it as a coincidence. She plagiarized, and did so deliberately. Changing a few words here and there does not mitigate the circumstances.

I can’t understand why the newspaper accounts aren’t making this crucial distinction.

Second, we don’t have any idea of what the packager really did. 17th Street Productions has issued a statement essentially saying that every word was the author’s. I have no clue whether that’s true or not. If someone from their staff did insert these passages, I would think she would be screaming and suing. She isn’t. She keeps saying that she wrote those words. I guess I have to believe that.

OK, she was young and needed a crutch. She obviously had enough talent to write the rest of the book. So what is the appropriate punishment? The book has been withdrawn. I’ll bet the movie never gets made. I don’t know if her next book will be punished. That’s all pretty heavy for a college student. She’s not Jayson Blair. She’s not Stephen Glass. I’ll let her get on with the rest of her life after college and see what she can make of it.

As for the racism insinuations… Sigh. This is America. Everything comes with a side order of racism. Maybe some reverse envy is involved. Similar problems were encountered when Jewish writers started making good in the 50s, and black writers in the 60s, and female writers in the 70s, and gay writers in the 80s. It’s East Asians’ turn in the glare of the spotlight. A red herring. Ignore it.

Besides, I think the schadenfreude arises from “Wealthy Young Good-looking Ivy Leaguer with a Half Million Dollar Book/Movie Contract Gets Nailed for Plagiarism,” not from her ethnicity.

I had also thought “Why would the university punish her for something unrelated to coursework?” But I bet Harvard would have suspended her if she had stuck up a gas station.

Obviously, robbing a gas station is a criminal act. I’m not sure this woman’s plagiarism is criminal (definitely it’s an unethical and dishonorable act). Perhaps the code of conduct at Harvard treats students differently for committing crimes.

This might be a hijack or it might be relevant, but here’s another situation where a student committed an act outside the university that was not criminal but was unethical and dishonorable, for which he was not punished by the university.

(Briefly, David Cash was an undergraduate studying nuclear engineering at Berkeley when he visited Las Vegas with a friend named Jeremy Strohmeyer. Cash witnessed Strohmeyer molesting and murdering a seven-year-old girl in the men’s room of a casino but didn’t attempt to stop him or report the crime. (Failure to report a crime was not illegal in Nevada at the time.) The University of California didn’t punish Cash, although students held demonstrations against him (this is Berkeley, after all) and he was shunned.)

Those two Duke lacrosse students were suspended after being charged with rape. With honor policies and things, I’m sure many universities are willing to suspend students who hurt the school’s image.

Chick lit is so freaking lacking in originality that I’m finding it hard to get worked up about it.

But thinking a little deeper, I say let the courts work it out without cutting her any particular slack.

Sorry for the double post. In the Duke case, it is Duke’s policy to suspend students when they are charged with a felony. Not sure that is parallel to the Opal Mehta allegations at this point.

I feel somewhat sorry for Viswanathan. It sounds like she’s been packaged and pressured within an inch of her life, and while I think what she did is reprehensible, I’m not convinced that she fully understood the gravity of it. (As a freshman comp instructor, I can testify that most college freshmen don’t really understand what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it, even when they think they do – it’s rarely taught well in high school, and overworked teachers will often let students get away with changing a word here and there and calling it a paraphrase. Also, let’s face it, the vast majority of creative writing by teenagers is derivative, sometimes to the point of being a blatant ripoff – and under normal circumstances, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s how people find their voice as writers and learn what does and doesn’t work for them. Of course, under normal circumstances that writing stays in fading notebooks tucked away in desk drawers and doesn’t receive $500,000 advances.)

Basically, what I’m seeing here is a kid who screwed up in a fairly ordinary and unexceptional way, but because she was pushed to be extraordinary and exceptional, she ended up having to pay extraordinary and exceptional consequences. When average college freshmen pull this sort of stunt, they receive an F for the course in which they plagiarized and a semester of academic probation, and they have to face the disapproval of the handful of people who actually know about the case – but it doesn’t take long to live down that sort of thing. This girl gets her name splashed across national headlines and a reputation that will follow her for quite some time.

That said, I don’t think she should profit from this book in any way, and since the book seems to have been a factor in her admission to Harvard, Harvard is quite within its rights to suspend or expel her.

Harvard has an honor code - not bandied about like those at UVa and the service academies, but essentially it says that any action that underlines dishonesty or moral turpitude can be grounds for discipline. There were two famous cases recently resulting in Harvard rescinding admission to two students: one, the student who sued her school when they attempted to name another student co-valedictorian (Blair Horstein or something like that), but then was found to have plagiarized articles she published in a local paper. The other was a student who had murdered her mother (!) a few years before applying. Having served as a volunteer in admissions many years ago at Harvard, I’m fairly certain Viswanathan stood out because of her burgeoning publishing career, and perhaps had an edge because of this. (I’ll wager that she didn’t disclose the process of hiring a college counselor/lit agent in that process, either.) So she may not be out of the woods re: continuing her career at Harvard.

I disagree, Ike. I’ve worked at and attended two fairly competitive institutions (Emory and Harvard), and it’s a pretty pervasive stereotype about the “overachieving Asian student.” A lot of Asian students joke about this as well, about the pressure from overindulgent parents and the ruthlessness of their peers in garnering awards, etc. Which isn’t terribly different than any subset of any ethnic group at these schools - but the children of those who immigrated to the US after the Immigration Act of 1965 (many of whom are South Asian professional class people) are at college age and arriving on many campuses in significant numbers. I don’t think it’s the preeminent feeling but I think it’s certainly there for many folks.

The other disturbing fact is that when asked about her influences, Viswanathan talked extensively about folks like Austen but never mentioned McCafferty. If you read an author in the same genre as yours, and read the book three or four times, why would you not mention it? I would say if you did mention it, it would seem less like you were trying to hide that fact and more inadvertent. I know that if I ever put pen to paper, I would undoubtedly model my writing after Bill Bryson and Sue Townsend - I read them all the time. I don’t know if she was embarrassed by the fact she ripped off a chick lit author and thought it would sound more scholarly if she was inspired by Austen, but that sort of seems like a plausible explanation.

If you’re writing a book, you know you’re not in the same category as people doing creative writing classes. I can accept that she got wrapped up in the marketing schemes and what have you, and I’m not saying it’s impossible that she deserves pity. But she did something seriously unethical here. This is way too serious to be dubbed an “I don’t understand plagiarism” mistake; there’s too much evidence of dishonesty on her part.

The options are both bad, as far as I see it. Either she plagiarized the other books herself, or she really left much of the writing (and theft) of her book to somebody else, in which case she was dishonest to present herself as the author.

May I also add that only an idiot would plagiarize a best-selling book?

Can I add that only an idiot would plagiarize?

Sorry if I offend, I just can’t stand dishonesty and cheating. I don’t give a rat’s ass where she’s from.

The really weird thing is that apparently the protagonist in the book is a super-packaged, high-achieving student who is too “perfect” for Harvard, so she embarks on a scripted get-a-life program. Viswanathan has repeatedly said that the character is not autobiographical… but isn’t this book itself an example of creativity that was packaged, rather than organic?

This stuff makes me very happy that I am a first generation college student. My parents never pressured me to go to a certain school, I had fun in high school, worked hard, hung out, partied, did extracurriculars, pretty much behaved normally. I was quite happy to attend a good state school, and I made the decision as a twenty-something adult to apply to a “name” school. I think it’s insane that parents would be disappointed or would apply pressure to a child because they got into, say Brown, instead of Harvard. Wouldn’t you be happy your kid did well, isn’t a criminal, or just bright enough to go to college, period, and do well in life? Perspective, people.

I understand for a lot of parents, an admissions offer from a fancy-pants school is more about their social standing than their child’s well-being. I counseled a lot of freshmen at Emory who started the year in a depression because they “only got into Emory” and a handful of “safety schools.” Two years later, they’re happy with the choice they made.

Apparently Viswanathan utilized the services of IvyWise in her application process. They’re happy to help your tyke gain admission to the selective nursery school of their choice, incendentally…