A Rude Awakening: Unintended Plagiarism

Writing has been a big part of my life since I was in middle school, when I helped put the school annual together, and wrote in it that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I started college right after high school in the 70s, and wrote political articles for The Patriot, our school newspaper. A few years later, when I was working as a chef at a mountain resort, I started writing a regular column for their monthly newspaper. My first magazine article was published in a regional magazine, Spirit of the Smokies, over 20 years ago. I’ve written numerous articles published in nearly every massage publication, and over 300 blogs.

In 2003, when I was working at the massage school I attended, I wrote my first book. Students were complaining about the prep guides that were out at the time to help study for the National Certification Exam from the NCBTMB, which was the licensing exam at the time in most regulated states. I cheekily thought I could do a better job, so I wrote a guide. I had copies of it wire-o bound and printed at a local print shop, and the owner of the school sold it in the bookstore. It never occurred to me to sell it to anyone except the students at the school. I still have one copy of that original in my possession, and it’s pitiful…it wasn’t professionally edited, it had no pictures, no index, and all around, it was just awful.

In spite of that, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins published the book. The owner of the massage school had received a letter from them asking if she would be interested in reviewing books from them, and she tossed it to me and said “Why don’t you do this, you’ll be good at it!” So I filled out an application, which involved listing anything you had published. I listed my book. A few weeks later, they contacted me and asked me to send them a copy…and the rest is history. They published the first edition in 2005, and went on to publish three editions of the book, as well as four other books I authored. They also threw me plenty of work as a reviewer, and writing curriculum for massage schools and ancillaries for other textbooks.  A few years ago, they decided to get out of the massage part of the healthcare publishing business, and returned my copyrights to me. I have since self-published my books. I haven’t even shopped them to other publishers. I have enjoyed being responsible for them from start to finish.

One of the high points of my career was Nina McIntosh, the author of The Educated Heart, personally asking me to author the future editions of her ethics book. She had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and she didn’t want the book to die when she did. She had Lippincott sign a contract to that effect. When Lippincott dropped the massage line, and gave the copyright to Nina’s heirs, her heirs signed that over to me. I have authored the 4th and 5th editions and have been proud to carry on her work. I also took over writing her regular column, Heart of Bodywork, in ABMP’s magazine, Massage & Bodywork. It has been a great privilege, and I was flattered to be asked.

I was asked to revise Clay & Pounds Basic Clinical Massage Therapy: Integrating Anatomy & Treatment, after the original author died. It was one of LWW’s best-selling books, and during the revision, I found (and corrected) 75 anatomy mistakes in it. I’ve always wondered how many students learned the wrong thing from the original. David Pounds, the illustrator on the book, is brilliant, and won an award for the book.

Another high point of my career was winning a case study contest from the Massage Therapy Foundation, which resulted in being published in the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, a peer-reviewed publication. My study is indexed on PubMed. I had to cut the word count of the study in half for publication, and it was picked apart by their editors and by my own advisors before being published…in fact, I asked them to pick it apart before I ever submitted it. That was my first, and only, foray into writing for a peer-reviewed journal. I usually stick to writing about ethics and business.

I’ve written other self-published books on various topics, and edited and ghost-written books for other people who had a good story to tell, but weren’t writers. It’s been a rewarding part of my life. I haven’t gotten rich from it, but I’ve had a lot of personal satisfaction of being able to do what I enjoy doing. I usually have one or two people waiting in the wings for my services on that front.

Last weekend, that came crashing down around my head.  I submitted an article to a science-based magazine that I have written a couple of articles for in the past, and a couple of days later, received an email from the owner telling me they would not publish my article or any future work of mine because I was guilty of plagiarism. I almost choked. This magazine expects references on all articles, linked within the article, and I had done that. I responded to him that I had never intentionally plagiarized anything in my life, and that I thought I had provided the source links throughout the article.  He acknowledged that I had provided the links to the original work (all were research studies), but told me I had too many words copied verbatim that should have been in my own words. Strangely, a plagiarism checker, which I have never used before, but have since investigated, will computer-generate those alternative words for you, when it catches something that is plagiarized. I have never used a plagiarism checker, but it’s apparent that I need to start. It does seem kind of ironic that something that should be changed into your own words doesn’t actually have to be in your own words; the computer will change them for you.

This whole episode made me feel physically ill. I truly cannot describe how I felt. I was filled with embarrassment and shame. I cried in front of my husband, and threw up after I got the message, and have had a serious flareup of my IBS in the few days since.

I thought of the many times I have contacted other teachers to ask if I could use something they’ve written, or gotten quotes from to include in something I was writing. I’ve asked massage therapists to contribute to things I was writing, and asked some of the most well-known and illustrious teachers in massage if I could use something they’ve written, or a picture they’ve taken, and I have never been refused. They have all been very gracious about it. One teacher, who didn’t know me at all, when I contacted to ask if I could include something he had written in a class I was teaching, laughed and said, “Thanks for asking, most people just steal it!”

I thought of a time when people on FB kept sending me links to material from one of my own books that was being shared without any credits, saying “Isn’t this from your book?”. The illustrations from the Clay & Pounds book that I revised (pictures by David Pounds, accompanying text for them was mine) were being shared by a physical therapy company in Brazil with the statement “For more lessons like this, visit our website.” By the time Lippincott’s lawyers got that stopped, it had been shared more than 600,000 times on FB alone.

I thought of a time when I shared an article written by a well-known  friend and colleague on my social media, and a reader went ballistic and claimed it was someone else’s work. The author of it shared proof that she had written it in the 90s, long before the person that the reader was claiming whose work it was ever did a massage, and long before she was on social media holding herself out as an expert on the topic.

For the record, anyone is free to use anything I have written, whether that’s in a class or a publication. Please leave my name and/or the link to the book, article, or my website on it.

I am sharing this story because it was a hard life lesson for me. Although no one other than myself and the magazine owner, who is someone I know personally and like and respect, and whom I don’t expect to make this public or to ruin my reputation in any way, knows about it, I thought it was important to share this lesson. I thought I was doing the right thing when I included the links to the source articles in my article. I didn’t go far enough. I failed to include quotation marks. I am approved by the NCBTMB to teach over 30 classes, and I plan to run every single one of them through a plagiarism checker to make sure I’m not guilty of anything else. This is a good article, Accidental and Unintended Plagiarism, which is enlightening. Unfortunately for me, I should have read that before submitting the article.  I regret this entire incident. I regret that after writing for the past 50 years that this has happened this late in my career.  It’s never too late for a wake-up call, regardless of how painful it is.

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