Friday, February 15, 2013

Disappearing Texts

An interesting question has arisen in connection with a plagiarism case in the ChickLit scene in Germany. But first a little ChickLit Plagiarism history (and a tip-of-the-hat to for the chronology):

In the United States in 2006 it was determined that the book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life by Kaavya Viswanathan (a student at Harvard), was a plagiarism of Megan McCafferty's books Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, among others. The publisher, Little, Brown and Company, recalled all the copies.

In Germany in 2010 the book Axolotl Roadkill by Helene Hegemann was published by Ullstein.  It was determined to be plagiarism of Strobo by a blogger called Airen. Ullstein purchased the rights to use the texts from Strobo and issued a second edition.

The British author Sophie Kinsella is a prolific writer of ChickLit. Her books have been translated into German and are very successful in Germany.

A new writer on the ChickLit scene, Martina Gercke, self-published a book Holunderküsschen (Elderberry Kisses) in November 2011 with the Kindle Direct Publishing Programm at Amazon. It was so successful (best-selling eBook for the first half year of 2012) that a publisher "edited" the book and printed it. However, reviews began popping up pointing out uncanny similarities with Kinsella's books.

In October 2012 Gercke's second book, Champagnerküsschen (Champagne Kisses) was published at Amazon as a Kindle. In November 2012 a commentator at Amazon gave some concrete details about a plagiarized passage in this second book that were taken from Ildiko von Kürthy's Höhenrausch (Flying High). A massive fight ensued between defenders of Gercke and people accusing her of plagiarism.  Gercke apologized in her blog for the "similarities" and promised to "fix" the passages and upload a new version of the book. Self-publishers can apparently change what they upload as often as they like, which makes it hard to discuss a particular version.

Kinsella's publisher, Random House, gets wind of the story as the site buchreport (book report) publishes a synopsis of many similarities between Kinsella's books and Gercke's first book. Gercke publishes an apology on her web site along with a video and notes that she has reached a settlement with Random House, and the book will no longer be sold. Unfortunately, both the apology and the video have been removed from her site. In the apology she noted that she was using portions from one of Kinsella's books as "placeholders", something that does not really make sense.  

Or rather, it doesn't make sense until the more copies from other Kinsella books are documentedbuchreport interviews Random House' legal counsel, who is livid about the additional plagiarisms.

Being interested in how much more of the books might be plagiarized, I tried to obtain copies in order to run them through some experimental software. The book Holunderküsschen was still on the shelves in the ChickLit asile of the MegaBookStore down the road. But Champagnerküsschen poses a problem: It only exists (apparently also in a number of different versions) on Kindles. Amazon won't sell me a copy. I wrote to a number of people at Amazon, most didn't answer (seems they are all busy fending off a TV report on how badly the company treats their seasonal workers for the Christmas rush). One did answer and suggested I contact the author. I don't suppose she will be happy to help me. 

I've been able to contact a few people who do have copies, but they are not permitted to lend or sell their copies. They are digitally locked with a DRM scheme to their own Kindle. They cannot be legally extracted. There are no copies on deposit in libraries.

This leads to my musings about disappearing texts: How is one supposed to do research on digital artefacts that are not obtainable? I am quite concerned about people removing things from the Internet, pretending they never published something. The Internet Archive is good, but it does not archive everything. Libraries are struggling with eBooks, trying to sort out how to organize lending. Amazon does not really sell copies of eBooks, but just lends them to you for a good price. They are only for you, and if you do something brash like terminate your account because of how they treat their seasonal workers, then all of your eBooks are gone.

Let's take this a step further to scientific works. When a researcher leaves an institution, will their homepage with their digital preprints be preserved? When a researcher dies, will there be a digital curator for their published works? Can researchers who are accused of cooking data or plagiarism just remove their works from online and pretend that they mistakenly put up a preliminary version or that it never was published at all? How are we going to deal with this?

Paper does have something going for it. You can still find it and read it 100 years later.


  1. There's an interesting article at the Atlantic: How to make a book disappear about the Jonah Lehrer book plagiarism scandal.

  2. You've got a point there. Actually, you can read a printed book on paper more than 500 years later (I tried it myself). Two of my digital papers did disappear during a reorganisation of a research unit; that's why I prefer to publish in print. Quite an new meaning of 'publish or (and?) perish'.


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