One of the perils of making a book, particularly on the production end, is ensuring the book’s accuracy. A book that has a defect no one noticed until it is out selling at the local bookstore is a nightmare for everyone, but the main gatekeepers in this regard are often the folks in production. And sometimes, by the time the work reaches production, stopping the impending train wreck is costly, in terms of time and money, if not impossible. Each person involved looks for errors and hopes–hopes–that the bulk of them have been caught. At the same time, each error caught suggests that more may be lurking, so if hundreds of errors are caught, it’s hard to know whether one has done an excellent job or whether the manuscript is so teeming with mistakes that correcting “hundreds” means tens have been left.
“In the end, publishers are held captive to the author’s own sense of honor.”
If an author ever really wants to give his publisher fits, a great way to do it is to quote without attribution or to quote inaccurately. Unfortunately, both of these occurrences happen often enough that I find it hard not to be a little squeamish when a copyeditor begins noticing such things, especially since there is only so much a copyeditor can do. Not all books can be searched on Google, meaning that not all language can be checked against previously published sources to ensure that the author hasn’t copied another text and failed to put quote marks around it. And searching for quotes that aren’t really quotes in order to fix them can be even more time consuming, since the process usually involves going to the author’s notes, looking up the page number in the work referenced, and then scanning for a quote that sort of looks like the one to which the author is referring (if it even exists). Nor are copyeditors really hired to perform such tasks, as quoting and attributing accurately are really considered to be part of the author’s job. In the end, publishers are held captive to the author’s own sense of honor.
That doesn’t mean that the publisher is off the hook when a book comes under fire for plagiarism or academic dishonesty. After all, the work carries not only the author’s imprimatur but the publisher’s, and the publisher is supposed to have taken the necessary steps to ensure that the work is accurate. Most often, in the early stages for works published by university presses, this means reviews by scholars knowledgeable in the field. It is hoped those scholars will recognize that the author is borrowing generously without crediting his or her sources or that a source is being misquoted. But unless the author does so with an abnormal frequency throughout a manuscript, scholars, looking more often at the general argument of the work, are often unlikely to notice. This means, of course, that such problems remain hidden until the book reaches the copyeditor, if those problems are even caught then.
When a book hits production without flags being waved earlier on in the process, it is much harder to pull the plug on a project if such troubles arise. Often, the book has already begun to be advertised and a publication date has been announced. Furthermore, yearly budgets have been set, and a certain amount of revenue is expected to come from the timely release of the book. Publishers face the quandary as to whether to pull the book, delay it, or ask the copyeditor (as well as the author) to do as much as possible to fix it in the time allotted and hope that those hundreds of errors really are the only hundreds and that all of them are caught.
“When a book hits production without flags being waved earlier on in the process, it is much harder to pull the plug on a project if such troubles arise.”
This, perhaps, explains why situations like the one with Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel, much of which appeared to be drawn from another person’s novel and which was pulled from publication shortly after its debut, can arise. It isn’t that publishers are sloppy; it’s that often the issues in a manuscript did not arise early enough to alert the publisher to the problem or to its extent. After all, Stephen Ambrose published how many books before readers even began to see certain parallels to other works?
Nor is it that an author is dishonest at heart. Some, more often nonscholarly authors, simply don’t understand what plagiarism is. And plagiarism, itself, isn’t always readily identifiable. Increasingly, for example, poets include a list of notes at the back of their books denoting the source of their various allusions. I can’t help but think that some of this stems from a fear of being accused of stealing from someone’s else’s work, even from a work famous enough that it should be familiar to most educated readers.
Jon Davies is assistant director for editorial, design, and production at UGA Press.