Plagiarism and Online Bookselling

You were warned about it at all levels of your education, and students are expelled from colleges and universities for doing it. You have read about it in the style manuals you used in your education or workplace. In recent years, you have probably heard about historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose, who were shamed by accusations of plagiarism and proofs of their guilt. And there are many other cases of less famous academics, novelists, and other authors who have plagiarized and been caught, damaging their reputations irreparably.

Plagiarism is the representation of someone else’s words as one’s own. In the context of online bookselling, it is the copying of part or all of a book’s description from another bookseller or other source without attribution—thus representing it falsely as one’s own work. “Lying” and “stealing” are blunter ways of putting it.

One of the most disturbing aspects about discussions on plagiarism is the number of booksellers who do not see the problem. So let us make clear from the start that it is wrong. It is unethical, sloppy, lazy, a professional “no-no,” and sometimes illegal. And if you are an offender and none of that bothers you, it is also against the rules of all major bookselling sites and can lead to your entire catalogue being suspended or withdrawn permanently.

The exact wording varies from site to site, but this excerpt from the ABE Code of Conduct will suffice to demonstrate the nature of plagiarism: “Stealing bookseller information (such as descriptions, pictures, and images from other booksellers’ listings).” As ABE makes clear, such violations will lead to suspension and, if the violations are not resolved, a permanent ban. Sites with high ethical standards will be reluctant to readmit such an offender and even large listing sites take a strong stand on plagiarism, once it has been pointed out.

Augustine Funnell of Fredericton, Canada has been plowing a lonely furrow against plagiarism for some time and is delighted to see IOBA looking into this matter. Gus suffers more than most—his descriptions are very good, the result of painstaking research and an encyclopedic knowledge, and are therefore more liable to be copied than other less erudite entries. Understandably, he gets—to use his own words—“pissed off!”

Then comes the next strange thing—when the offending booksellers are notified, instead of saying “Oops, sorry, I’ll put it right,” many retort rudely or belligerently. Only when forced to comply by the threat of, or actual, suspension do they finally do something about it.

Some booksellers, of course, plagiarize from ignorance (though there really is little excuse for not having read the Code of Conduct when joining a site, or being unaware of the general concept of plagiarism), but most seem to do it out of sheer selfishness or laziness—a lamentable disregard for their bookselling colleagues, not to mention their own reputations as booksellers.

Most examples of plagiarism are found by accident when checking one’s own entries. Once a bookseller has found an example, it can be instructive to check on the offending dealer. Sometimes a serial plagiarist will be found, worth reporting to IOBA! One way to check for plagiarized listings is to examine some of the offender’s listings and pick one of the lengthy descriptions. Copy a section of that description and paste it into the keyword panel of a suitable general bookselling site such as BookFinder, AddAll or ABE. If the description is stolen, it will soon show up in another bookseller’s listing.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to examine and learn from the descriptions of other booksellers as part of basic research on a book, but that should be the absolute limit. Once having crossed that line by copying and then pasting into one’s own entry, the offender is stealing and deserves any sanctions that come his way.

There are some gray areas:

How much copied text constitutes plagiarism? Must it be the entire description? A paragraph? What about a single sentence? A clever turn of phrase? A single, well-chosen word?

What about factual bibliographic information about the book being described, such as the list of contributors in an anthology, the list of titles in a set of books being offered, or a long title or subtitle?

What about copying a citation to a reference source if you haven’t seen it yourself?

What about ideas, such as X being one of the most important scholars in a given field?

How much paraphrasing is needed to “fix” plagiarism?

What about copying text from a dust jacket blurb, with or without attribution?

Is ignorance an acceptable excuse for plagiarism?

Common sense answers most of these questions but none of these issues will arise if a bookseller does not do any kind of “borrowing” from another bookseller’s listing or other source, without proper attribution. There are any number of reasons why one bookseller might copy part or all of another’s description, but there isn’t a single good one among them. Not even flattery or as a tribute to the original writer. Plagiarism is simply the brazen theft of the fruits of someone else’s labour, and no different from one person scrimping and saving enough money to buy a car, only to have a stranger drive it away.

If a bookseller believes that plagiarism is inconsequential, then he must also believe that he himself has no right to anything he has worked for, or to which he has committed time and effort. And if a bookseller cares so little about the ethics of this profession, he is better off out of it, and the profession is most certainly better off without him. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “A thief is a thief is a thief.”

Stuart Manley operates Barter Books in Alnwick Station, Northumberland, England and can be contacted at

Steve Harter operates Sweet Beagle Books out of Bloomington, IN and can be contacted at

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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