College Looking Into Plagiarism

In ‘Today Show’ appearance, Viswanathan says she is ‘taking a few days off’

The College is looking into allegations of plagiarism against novelist Kaavya Viswanathan ’08, but it has not commenced an “investigation” as the news service Bloomberg reported yesterday, a spokesman for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) said yesterday.

“We would need to gather much more information on this situation before we could make any kind of judgment,” FAS director of communications Robert Mitchell said. “Bloomberg decided to call ‘gathering information’ an ‘investigation.’ This is not a term that we have used.”

Yesterday Viswanathan also gave her first public interviews­—to NBC’s Today Show and The New York Times—since The Crimson reported Sunday morning that striking similarities existed between her recently released novel, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,” and two books by Megan F. McCafferty.

Viswanathan told Today Show host Katie Couric that she is currently “taking a few days off” from Harvard. She did not indicate whether she would return to campus this semseter.

When Couric asked if she thought Harvard will take punitive action against her, the sophomore novelist responded: “I don’t see why they would. It’s a genuine, genuine mistake.”

In a statement Monday, Viswanthan admitted to borrowing language from McCafferty’s ”Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings,” though she said any similarities “were completely unintentional and unconscious.”

Viswanathan told The New York Times yesterday that some of the copying may have occurred because she has a photographic memory and has read McCafferty’s novels three or four times each.

Michael Pietsch ’78, the senior vice president and publisher of Little, Brown—which released “Opal Mehta”—told the Times yesterday that the publishing house would not sue Viswanathan for breach of contract. Most book deals include clauses that the writing must be original, according to Justin Hughes, the director of the intellectual property law program at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law.

But Viswanathan may still face legal action from Random House, which published McCafferty’s novels.

On Tuesday the publishing giant characterized Viswanathan’s explanation for the similarities as “deeply troubling and disingenuous.” And Random House assistant general counsel Min Jung Lee told Little, Brown that his firm is “certain that some literal copying actually occurred,” according to an April 22 letter from Lee obtained by The Crimson.

Pietsch also told the Times that Viswanathan’s advance for her two book deal was less than the previously publicized amount of $500,000—though he did not specify how much the young author received. He also said that the advance was split between Viswanathan and Alloy Entertainment, a book packaging firm that shares the book’s copyright and that helped her “conceptualize and plot the book,” according to Alloy President Leslie Morgenstein.

HERE AT HOME

Assistant Dean of Freshmen James N. Mancall, who is the acting secretary of the Administrative Board while John L. Ellison—an assistant dean of the College—is away this week, declined to comment on whether the Ad Board is looking into the situation. The Ad Board handles College disciplinary matters.

“I cannot confirm anything about a particular student,” said Mancall, adding that “obviously the College takes accusations of plagiarism seriously, and we pay attention to them.”

But the plagiarism policy at the College only applies to material submitted for course credit, Mancall said. “This kind of situation, I don’t believe it’s related to course work.”

[Ellison, in an e-mail early this morning, also wrote that he "cannot comment on a case, potential or otherwise, that might be before the Ad Board."

"Students have a right to privacy on matters involving their educational record and experience," Ellison added.]

‘TODAY’

Viswanathan appeared on NBC’s Today Show yesterday morning with Couric.

“When I was writing, I genuinely believed each word was my own,” the sophomore said on the show.

“I never ever intended to deliberately take any of [McCafferty’s] words,” she said.

“Did you refer to the book at all in the process of writing, did you refer to either of her books in the process of writing yours, or have you not opened the cover since you were 14 years old?” Couric asked.

“I mean I read them throughout high school, I’m thinking the last time I read them was my senior year maybe,” Viswanathan said on the show. “But I didn’t bring them to college. I never looked at them while I was writing ‘Opal.’ They’re on my bookshelf at home.”

Later on the show, Viswanathan told Couric: “I’m just really grateful to have this chance to explain what really happened from my perspective, and—”

Couric interrupted, “Some people might say you didn’t really explain it, though.”

“Well, I’ve tried my best, and all I can tell is the truth,” Viswanathan responded.

PAST PLAGIARISM

Controversy over alleged plagiarism is not new at Harvard. In April 2001, Irina Serbanescu ’03 of Quincy House was forced off the staffs of both The Crimson and the Harvard Independent after a reader discovered that Serbanescu included an unattributed 147-word passage lifted from Forbes magazine in a piece for the Independent. The Crimson retracted at least four Arts articles written by Serbanescu in 2000 and 2001. Serbanescu also resigned from her positions at the Harvard International Review and the Harvard Book Review.

The College did not take disciplinary action against Serbanescu, who graduated in 2003. She is currently living in Ontario, Canada, according to a Harvard alumni website.

Three prominent law professors have also faced allegations that they copied from other authors—and received little if any disciplinary action from the University.

In September 2004, Loeb University Professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62 admitted that he did not properly credit another professor’s work in his 1985 book “God Save This Honorable Court.” Allegations of plagiarism were leveled by The Weekly Standard, which wrote that one 19-word passage in Tribe’s book is found verbatim in the 1974 “Justices and Presidents” by Henry J. Abraham. In a statement at the time, Tribe said, “I have immediately written an apology to Professor Abraham, whom I—like so many others—hold in the highest regard.”

Three weeks earlier, Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree publicly apologized after six paragraphs in his book “All Deliberate Speed” were found to almost mirror passages found in a different work.

In September 2003, a DePaul University professor accused Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz of “wholesale lifting of source material” from another author’s book. Dershowitz defended his book, “The Case for Israel,” and called the allegations “funny.”

—Anton S. Troianovski contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer David Zhou can be reached at dzhou@fas.harvard.edu.