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Inside the Mind of a Plagiarist

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Late last month, the poet Ailey O’Toole was publicly accused of plagiarism by multiple writers. The allegations poured forth after a series of tweets from the poet Rachel McKibbens, who wrote that two of O’Toole’s published poems closely resemble her work — and that O’Toole had just received a Pushcart Prize nomination for one of them. McKibbens’s tweets went on to explain that it was O’Toole herself who made her aware of this, describing an email O’Toole apparently sent apologizing and attempting to explain some of her poem’s images. McKibbens also retweeted from O’Toole’s (now deleted) account, which includes a photo of O’Toole with lines from the Pushcart-nominated poem tattooed on her arm.

In the midst of the scandal, O’Toole sent Vulture a statement from a publicist: “As a writer myself, I understand the importance of the written word, and the creativity and ownership that goes into both poetry and prose. That is why I sent an apology note to Rachel McKibbens, to let her know how truly sorry I am for having borrowed her lines. It was a mistake, and I have learned a lot from having made it.” Since McKibbens’s tweets, three other poets, Wanda Deglane, Hieu Minh Nguyen, and Brenna Twohy, have also come forward with similar accusations of plagiarism.

What goes on in the mind of someone who takes from another person’s work and attempts to pass it off as their own? The Cut spoke to three women, some of whom appear under pseudonyms, who have a history of plagiarizing.

Helen: ‘It was almost as if the grade was secondary — my main focus was always on not getting caught.’

I was a professional cheater, a career cheater. It started in second grade when I copied this kid’s maths homework. He realized what I was doing and wrote down the wrong answer on purpose, to catch me out. But I was on to him and pretended that I got that answer wrong, too. And that’s when I learned that if you’re going to cheat you gotta get good at it.

I’d pay people to write my papers. I’d buy papers online. I’d tell people I needed their help with homework and then just copy their papers.

I got caught twice when I was in high school. One time my teacher said she was going to tell the principal but I convinced her that if she told him, my parents would find out. I had a pretty abusive home life and I knew if he told my parents I’d be in a lot of trouble. She never told on me, but I had to stop cheating in that class, which I found really hard.

One of my classmates let me copy her papers. Why? Because I guilt-tripped her. I’d be so scared and then when I got away with it I’d feel high — it was addictive. I thought, well, I’ve been doing this for so long I just have to keep going. I was very manipulative. In a way the same things that made me a good plagiarist (I have a quick, manipulative, brain) are what make me thrive in my current career.

Buying papers on the internet was the most frightening because it was hard to predict what could be tracked. But I risked it. I went online and bought a paper for a final, but it wasn’t even very good. It felt like it had been translated, which made me so angry I harassed the company until they sent me a new one.

When I submitted a paper I’d paid for, I’d be shitting myself. I was praying, checking my email, my phone, going to the toilet but then, when I got it back? Even if I didn’t get an amazing grade, just the fact that the paper didn’t say “plagiarized” on top was the best feeling. There was a rush of relief that ran throughout my body and this unique joy. I’d think, I didn’t do anything and look at how well I did. That really fucked with my mind. It was almost as if the grade was secondary — my main focus was always on not getting caught.

I started at such a young age that I internalized the thought that whatever I do is not good enough so these days I walk around secretly thinking I’m stupid. Even though I might actually be smart, I plagiarized so much I became conditioned to think my original work was no good.

I never got caught submitting plagiarized written work. Never. I’d buy books from the ’80s or ’90s — I felt relatively safe as long as they were written before 1999. Nobody was reading them, or quoting from them, and they weren’t online. Then, I’d copy their words verbatim.

Buying papers online was scary but I think the most frightening thing I did was hand in another student’s final paper from a previous year. Everyone knew that there were these so-called “tradition” papers floating around campus and it was understood that you were supposed to change things around, but I was like fuck that, and just handed it in word-for-word. When I got away with it I’d think, how do you not notice? Especially when the teacher praised me — they had read the exact same paper the year before. How could they not remember?

I have never finished reading a whole book. In fact, I probably didn’t do a single assigned reading in college. I have to take a big test early next year and my anxiety is out of control because I have never ever been assessed honestly. If I pass that test, that will be an unbelievable moment.

Melissa: ‘I was completely aware that I’d stolen from a person who had created something.’

I plagiarized in 1997, back when there was some internet but not a ton. I was about to move to a brand-new high school, which had a newspaper that to me seemed like a real newsroom. I really revered the editor and it was all very intimidating. That application may have been one of the first things in life that I took seriously. I was agonizing about it over the summer — what would I use as a writing sample? I considered myself a writer, I had written in my journal forever, but the stakes were so high. I envisioned myself being a famous and successful writer, and I didn’t care what it took to get there. I also happened to be a big zine reader and back then they were so hard to find because again, there wasn’t really that much internet. I lived in a suburb that didn’t have any cool stores so if you had one you wouldn’t let it out of your sight, you wouldn’t even loan it to a friend. I felt very confident that if I copied from one it would never come back to me.

I thought hard about whose work I was going to copy. There were some writers I really admired, but I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking their stuff and putting my name on it. It was as if their work was sacred. I was crazy jealous, and in theory the jealousy could have given me fuel. But my jealousy was mixed with respect.

So I picked an essay by a woman I had never heard of. I barely changed the title. It was kind of a polemic about difference and diversity using M&M’s as a metaphor. I was like, “This is high-minded but she uses a candy metaphor, which I can also use because I’m a kid … Her writing makes so much sense — who’s to say we didn’t just divine the same muse who told us both the same words?” I was certain that if I handed this in it would be better than anything I could have done.

I didn’t copy word for word, though. I tried to make it better and take out things that seemed obviously not mine. It worked, and I was invited to join the newspaper.

I had no intention of doing it a second time. But once I started working at the newspaper I was assessing my competition and thinking nobody is that amazing … fuck this, now I want to be editor-in-chief. I made it, still riding on the success of my plagiarized essay. I even got to publish my own monthly column. For the first two months I wrote it myself but then when I was late for a deadline I panicked, and trotted out the plagiarized essay. It was much less scary the second time, I think that’s because I felt like I did it! Nobody knows … It was a twisted power trip — I actually got away with this. But that power was mitigated by the thought: I’m a loser.

A good liar takes it all the way so I had an answer for everything. I considered what would happen if someone brought the original zine to the principal and I decided I’d just say that I wrote that one too, but I used a pen name. I had an answer for everything.

I was completely aware that I’d stolen from a person who had created something. I was paranoid that it would come back to haunt me and there was a hot minute when the internet exploded and everything was digitized when I worried I’d get caught. The shame stopped me from doing it again. I knew that if I let it become a thing I’d lose my confidence.

I’ve never plagiarized again. I was on scholarship and I’d come from community college so I worried that everyone already saw me as having cheated my way in — you know, “she’s here because of affirmative action.” It really mattered to me that it was my own work. Also at college you can’t afford to get busted because then I’d lose my scholarship and get kicked out.

Angela: ‘I was ready to party, thinking, I passed and didn’t even do any work.’

I had to turn in a paper and I was at risk of flunking out of school — I’d partied so hard and hardly been to class. I was worried what my family would think, and I didn’t want to lose my funding. So I went to the library and got a bunch of books and copied them. I just changed the wording a bit; I really didn’t change much. I was stealing their ideas, their words.

After I handed that paper in I was so nervous that when I got home I unplugged the phone to make sure the school didn’t call. I imagined the professor on the end of the line saying she’d caught me and my parents overhearing, or worse, picking up the other line. My family was like, why aren’t we getting any phone calls? They were very strict. If they found out I’d have been in so much trouble.

For the rest of the semester my professor pulled me aside and praised me for how great my writing was. My parents were so proud. It was like I had it all, I could party and be at the top of the class. But when it came to our final paper our professor wanted references, footnotes, and citations. I was so freaked out, thinking, what am I going to do? I’d heard about this woman who said that she charged for papers, and we met and had a whole meeting. She said that I had to tell her all my requirements, what style, the topic, length … I got an A. That was a good feeling — a rush — I was ready to party, thinking, I passed and didn’t even do any work.

It was easy to plagiarize, but the guilt was way too much. I thought about all the effort those authors put into that work and here I go, just casually taking it. I still feel bad about that.

When the semester was over I was sick with guilt and I realized that I hadn’t given myself the chance to see what would happen if I just did the work myself. Looking back the psychology seems simple: I was too scared to show that I was struggling. I made excellent grades at high school but when I got to college I felt out of my depth. I decided I didn’t care if people knew I needed help and started asking questions in class. I stayed late and told a professor I wanted to improve my research skills so she took me to the library and taught me how to use it. I went to writing labs. That took the fear of writing away — I started to enjoy it.

I still don’t know how people manage to party, stay social, and get good grades. They are probably all plagiarizing.