Does Addiction to Books Lead to Accidental Plagiarism?

By Rose Scott

When talking about plagiarism in academia, the cases that require citation seem to be quite obvious: Whenever you refer to someone else’s idea or statement, give proper credit to the author. But do these attribution rules remain the same for you as a writer? This is where doubts creep in for many.

One of the reasons for these doubts is that writers do tend to read a lot. The deeper they dive into researching some issues, the more engaging their writings become. Without this, we simply wouldn’t have so much pleasure exploring witty parallelisms, profound metaphors, or striking allusions. As William Faulkner once said once said, “Any experience the writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he’s read, but the music he’s heard, the pictures he’s seen.”

Basically, the influence described by Faulkner is what may lead to subconscious duplication of something learned, the source for which was eventually forgotten. The problem is that you can unintentionally succumb to this repetition, which is called cryptomnesia. What’s special about it and what should you be aware of?

Cryptomnesia Deceives the Mind

Cryptomnesia is a very subtle thing. It is a kind of a brain trick making you think that the plot, characters or jokes you decided to flavor your novel with were produced solely by you.

The cryptomnesia phenomenon was first researched in 1989 by Alan S. Brown, a University of Georgia Psychologist and PhD who carried out a number of interesting experiments proving the fact that it happens to human minds quite frequently and cannot easily be controlled. Whenever participants of the experiment were asked to focus on generating new words, they accidentally borrowed from the contributions of others without realizing they were doing it.

It occurs because of the peculiarities of our thinking process. With our attention being totally concentrated on extracting new ideas from our memory, we often fail to analyze their original source. Does it mean that everything has already been written and said or that our writings are just recycled thoughts expressed by somebody in the past? Well, here’s how Mark Twain commented commented on this: “The kernel, the soul, let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances is plagiarism.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that originality is nothing but a myth of our own making. You really cannot live in total isolation (unless you are stranded on a remote island like Robinson Crusoe) and avoid discovering ideas or achievements of others, which is a good thing because it enriches your knowledge and helps you not to spend hours reinventing the wheel.

A Thin Line Between Cryptomnesia and Plagiarism

When digging deeper into the topic of cryptomnesia, you are likely to notice that it is often mentioned together with “plagiarism,” which makes sense. The cases of cryptomnesia in literature are rather numerous and most of them cannot provide enough evidence to prove whether it was intentional plagiarism or simply another trick of cryptomnesia.

One of many examples is Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. The author never admitted its interconnection with a short story created by a German writer long before Nabokov’s Lolita was published, and yet the two works do have much in common. Even the names of the main characters of these two stories were the same! Having thoroughly examined both writings, Michael Maar still didn’t dare come out with accusations of plagiarism. Instead, he insisted that it was a case of cryptomnesia. But this resemblance stirred up much agitation. Later, it was Jeremy Noel-Tod who speculated on the matter in his Telegraph article and gave more food for thought to a wide readership. Some even said that these similarities were made on purpose and could even be treated as purposeful allusion.

Should we blame him for that? Before making any judgments, take a closer look at a great number of masterpieces recognized worldwide. You will definitely come across thousands of similar examples. Is it an excuse? No, not at all. The greatness of each work should be evaluated on the basis of the author’s personal contribution. The bigger the contribution, the more value it brings. That’s why all these reflections on the originality of Lolita didn’t change Nabokov’s fans’ minds; he’s still considered a distinguished genius.

Things to Be Done to Reduce the Cryptomnesia Effect

The problem with cryptomnesia is that you can inadvertently plagiarize while fully believing the words and ideas are your own. This may result a lot of speculation regarding your authorship and put your reputation at risk. Is that the only negative consequence? Unfortunately, no. Our brain capacities aren’t limitless. Therefore, we aren’t able to store much information in our heads for a long time like recording devices.

Cryptomnesia may also evoke false memories or lead to autoplagiarism. The former often turns into unintentional duplication while the latter can be considered as nonprofessional behavior.

Needless to say, it’s hard to avoid doing subconscious things. Still, you can take precautions to increase your brainpower by involving multiple senses in order to remember facts and data, practice doing your everyday routine tasks differently (e.g., use your non-dominant hand to write something) and choose

tasks differently (e.g., use your non-dominant hand to write something) and choose other activities on a regular basis.

Does Reading Lead to Plagiarism?

The answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, the more your read, the less you are able to single out borrowed statements from the ones you created. So yes, you may fall victim to accidental plagiarism. But on the other hand, to refuse to read means to shut the door on broadening your horizons and depriving yourself of developing into a more proficient writer. When engaging your writing responsibly by paying close attention to proofreading ready-to-be-published texts and attributing sources, you will be on the safe side. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!

Rose Scott is a literature teacher and writer from Omaha. A lifelong dreamer, she finds her inspiration in pep-talks with meaningful people whose enthusiasm is contagious. Outside of her teaching pursuits, she cannot imagine her life without writing. It is something more than just a hobby. Writing is her passion. Not so long ago, she became a regular contributor to College Raptor and run her own blog where she is eager to create a small online world for educators and literature lovers.