It’s hard to come up with anything original to say about plagiarism. It’s been on my mind because some magazines have now shut down their submissions because they were being flooded with AI-generated stories, most of which, it turned out, were at least partially plagiarized, because artificial intelligence isn’t very creative, and also had clunky, often meaningless syntax because artificial intelligence still isn’t very intelligent, although it’s only a matter of time before it becomes indistinguishable from the real thing.
It hits me because I have friends who are writers, some of whom had submissions in process at places that are shutting down and might now have to find some way to prove their humanity, or had stories they were working on but will now have to find other venues. As for the people who submitted the AI-generated stories—because they were real people even if they were submitting work they hadn’t actually written—some of them say, “I needed the money.” I find this really hard to believe. There are some publications that pay, and it is possible for a new writer to get lucky, but there are easier ways to make money, and if you were submitting a story for money, even if it wasn’t one you’d written, wouldn’t you at least read it first?
This also hits me because in high school I entered a city-wide writing contest. I didn’t win, or even place, but I assumed my story just wasn’t good enough. It was science fiction and it might not have even made it past my teacher who was one of the first-round judges and very vocal about how much she hated science fiction. When the winners were announced there was a lot of fanfare about how the first-place story was more than double the word limit but the judges all thought it was so good they let it pass. Of course they thought it was good. When I read it I was stunned that it was “Sled” by Thomas E. Adams, first published in 1961. It had been in my seventh grade English textbook. But by then it was too late to do anything.
In school I understand the pressure to plagiarize. I never did it, mostly because I took too much pride in trying to prove myself, but also, even pre-internet, I never thought I could get away with it. Even after the writing contest I didn’t think I, personally, could get away with it, and I wasn’t interested in trying.
In college I had a professor, Dr. Will, who taught philosophy and at the end of the term gave us two options: we could take the final exam or turn in a paper, but it would have to be a really good paper. He’d also grill anyone who turned in a paper to make sure they’d written it and understood the subject. Years earlier he had a student who’d failed every part of the class and who turned in a paper that started with the line, “Immanuel Kant transformed the hylomorphic distinction from an ontological to a noetic order.” Dr. Will offered the student a deal: if he could explain what that one sentence meant he’d get an A for the semester. The student flunked philosophy.
Being a very serious and dedicated student myself, one who’d done pretty well in the class, I, of course, opted for the final exam.
At the same time I was in that philosophy class I first read the short story “Who’s Cribbing?” by Jack Lewis. I won’t spoil the ending but it’s a series of letters between Lewis and various editors. His stories get rejected because, at first, they’re too similar to stories by another writer who died years earlier and whom Lewis has never heard of. Things get even weirder when what he thinks are his own original stories turn out to be word-for-word copies of ones the previous writer wrote.
It made me laugh even though at the time it seemed like a nightmare, especially for someone who makes a living as a writer, to be able to write anything original. Now, though, decades later, it makes me think about how “original” is a shifty term. The stories we tell each other are relatable because they’re built around common experience, and told in a shared language. Most stories are adapted from other stories, passed down and remixed or updated, but we still value the lived experience behind the stories. It’s because so much is shared, so much overlaps in our own storytelling, and the potential of losing what makes stories alive that makes AI so threatening. It’s also why it’s hard to say anything original about plagiarism.
I wrote a paper for an Intro to Film class comparing a WWI Chaplin film, Shoulder Arms, to a WWII Chaplin film, The Great Dictator. I got it back with a C, and no notes as to why. This was a huge class of about 150 students. I went to the prof for an explanation, and he looked at the paper, and at me, and said, “Oh, this is your paper. Yeah, I’ll change this. I thought whoever had turned it in had bought it from someone, but I know you could have written this.” I got an A.
I was equally flattered that he thought it was good enough to purchase, and appalled that if he thought I was cheating, he didn’t fail me outright. Very weird. He ended up running off with a student the next semester, and that was that for him.
That is extremely weird. And even weirder that he didn’t check the name on the paper. I realize that with that many students he was under some real pressure to get grades out quickly but, wow.
As a former high school teacher, I’ve had to deal with my share of plagiarized essays. The punishment used to be a zero and other consequences but that changed to allowing the student to redo the assignment–in the presence of the teacher. Always interesting to see the difference between the first and second efforts. As the editor of a literary magazine, I haven’t had any AI submissions yet (as far as I know anyway) and I hope our guidelines are demanding enough to ensure that AIs can’t get through! Speaking of which, when are you going to submit another story? You know I love your writing!
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It’s funny you should remind me about Darkwinter Lit because I have a draft of a story I think would be perfect and that I’ve been wanting to submit but I’ve been so busy. I want to make it as good as I possibly can before I submit it which, for me, means several rewrites. Maybe I should throw in some mistakes, though, so you know it’s not plagiarized or written by AI.
Only you could have written this, Chris, because it’s Wonderful in that Waldrop Way.
And you, Ann, have wonderfully mixed words in a way that’s definitely not plagiarized.