On being plagiarized: spoiler alert, it sucks!

noun: plagiarism; plural noun: plagiarisms
  1. the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.

I don’t get to do a lot of writing these days, but the reason is a happy one! We have a new baby in the house, and she’s keeping me on my toes…literally! She sort of only sleeps when she’s in a sling and I’m carrying her around. I’m clocking some serious Fitbit steps, lemme tell ya! I do miss writing but I know from experience that things will even out eventually and I’ll have the time again.

Another happy side-effect of not really having time to write is that I have more time to read, so baby and I have been making many trips to the bookstore together. I haunt the Native Studies section, trying to find the next awesome book to devour, and just possibly (and mischievously) removing all the works by Flanagan and refiling them elsewhere.

I was on just such a trip the other day when I stumbled across a book I hadn’t noticed before. I flipped it open at random and started reading…and I got the strangest feeling. The words, the tone, the content were SO. FAMILIAR. It took me a few moments to place the familiarity. All of a sudden it hit me like a blast of cold air. It felt like I was reading my own words.

I had a pretty intense reaction. My heart began racing, and my skin went hot, then cold, then back again. I felt like I’d just had a dozen shots of espresso. Just reading this had triggered my fight or flight response, and there I was in a bookstore, with a sleeping baby strapped to me. I had no way to let out the emotions (and adrenalin) I was feeling. I desperately wanted to jump on the internet, navigate to my site and confirm whether what I was reading was a verbatim copy or not, but alas! I was making some damn point about staying offline and having quality time with books. So I grabbed the book and read it more thoroughly. And angrily, if that’s something you can imagine someone doing.

The first thing I did was check the acknowledgments in the back of the book. Surely this person was going to list me as a source at least! They must have contacted me and I just forgot about it, because it happens a lot. Sometimes people don’t contact me first, but I end up as a footnote or endnote in their books or papers, which is pretty fun to come across, and has actually introduced me to some interesting written works! I told myself to cool my jets and not jump to conclusions. I was definitely going to be in the section on sources.

Except I’m not. Not at all.

So I’d like to introduce you to the book that I found on that day. It is called “Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth About Lies About Indians”, by Darrell Dennis, published in 2014 by Douglas & McIntyre. Apparently it has won and been short-listed for awards, like the PMC Aboriginal Literature Award, which comes with a pretty sweet amount of $5000.

The first section I happened to flip to was one on Native Housing, starting on page 182. It’s only two and a half pages, and it is sort of a weird coincidence that I ended up opening it to that exact spot on that day, because it is this section that most strongly triggered my “huh, I swear I’ve read this before” response. Other sections of the book simply seem as though they could have been influenced by other pieces I’ve written and compiled in my Indigenous Issues 101 section of this website, like “The stereotype of the drunken Indian” which Dennis tackles in pages 84-100. In that section, it is as if Dennis merely availed himself of exactly the hyperlinked sources I provided in my article, and followed the same general order of my arguments, which wouldn’t really be plagiarism, if true. It would just be the use of someone else’s labour and research, without crediting them for either. This seems like it happens a lot throughout the book, in ways which could strike a person as ceasing to be coincidence when the sources used follow in exactly the same order as those I provide in my articles. Unless great minds really do think eerily, exactly, specifically alike. I’m sure that’s it.

Most of the book seems to be original work, and even in the sections that are hauntingly familiar to me, Dennis tends to fill those sections out with more information and witty repartee than are present in my original pieces. He also writes about topics I have never covered on this blog. (Someone today pointed me to his CBC show, ReVision Quest where many of his pieces likely come from.) It is simply that oddly enough, certain conclusions are drawn in exactly the way I drew them in pieces here, sources are used in exactly the way I present them here, and certain sentences or paragraphs are almost exactly like ones I have written…save for the changing, omission or addition of certain words. Again, a joyful coincidence no doubt!

Back to that section I came across first. My original article on Native Housing was published in August of 2012. This is Dennis’ 2014 section on Native Housing. Read them side by side, and you may start to see what had my blood running cold, then very, very hot that day in the bookstore. Or you might not see any similarity at all.

There is most definitely NOT any copyright infringement here. For that to be the case, my exact words would have to be used in large enough chunks to make it actionable at which point I’d be filing a court action. It’s not even really plagiarism in the sense one thinks of it in an academic setting…where people are often encouraged to go ahead and use previous works as long as you change the words enough to make it ‘your own’. Academia does sort of expect that you’ll provide sources for your work, and a few are cited by Dennis in the section “A Note on Sources”. But this isn’t an academic work, and I am definitely, absolutely, completely not mentioned at all as a source, so hey, I must be imaging things!

I guess I should clarify that the title of this piece is misleading…I don’t actually know what it is like to be plagiarized. What I am experiencing is the strange, and totally unactionable feeling of encountering someone who could potentially be a fan of my blog but maybe isn’t, and seems to have been following my writing for a while but maybe hasn’t been, who through sheer coincidence has written a book that sounds almost exactly the way I sound when I write, who has stumbled upon exactly the same research as I did, who by complete happenstance often makes arguments in exactly the way I did back in 2012 and 2013, and in at least one instance, had ideas so similar to my own that when I read that section I felt like someone had handed me a copy of my own article.

Of course if ANY of that were actually true, I am certain that Darrell Dennis would have contacted me for permission to use my work, or at the very least would have included me as a source for some of his writing in some way. Otherwise, it would mean that he used my blog, all those years of UNPAID time and effort, to help him write a book he has profited from and even won awards for, without having the decency to even admit he did so; not even through a simple link to my blog and a “kinanâskomitin” in his “A Note on Sources”. But na! What kind of a person would do that?

What kind of person indeed.

UPDATE, SEPT. 5, 2015:

The publisher has reached out to me with the following:

Dear Ms. Vowel:

I am Darrell Dennis’s publisher and have been made aware of your concerns about similarities between some of your blog entries and certain passages in his book, Peace Pipe Dreams. You are right, among the many books, articles and posts Darrell researched, he did come across several of your posts and they may have influenced him, even though his humorous style of writing is very distinct from yours. Darrell is a leader in the effort to change the conversation about First Nations in mainstream Canada and is used to engaging in a free exchange of ideas and information with others involved in the work. Darrell himself is never happier than when he sees others repeating his words and spreading the message. Still, as Darrell’s publisher I accept responsibility for not listing your excellent blog among the sources he referenced in writing Peace Pipe Dreams and I apologize to you. As you correctly noted, it is not an academic work and we chose not to include a definitive bibliography. We meant no offense by this but now that you have brought it to our attention, we will make sure to include a credit to you in any reprints or new editions.

Howard White, Publisher
Douglas & McIntyre

First, I very much appreciate the apology from Darrell Dennis’ publisher. Receiving an admission that my work was used, and having my work cited as a source in future editions is basically all I was asking for, since we cannot turn back the clock and have Darrell contacting me directly beforehand.

I do want to note, however, that the “free exchange of ideas and information” touches on issues of consent. Darrell and I have never interacted. Before I found this book, I did not even know who he was. A free exchange should not mean “your ideas are free for the taking and I offer you nothing in exchange, not even notice that I’ve done this”. I was given no opportunity to consent (or not consent) to my work being used, and in this case I am referring specifically to the Native Housing section, which is entirely too close to my own work to be coincidence. I accept that by publishing my work on this blog, people will use what I write as a source for their own work. I never expected though that someone would simply rewrite a piece of mine almost entirely and put their name on it. I would not have consented to that.

Many people use my blog, and contact me to ask if that is okay, or simply to let me know they are doing so either via my contact page, or by linking directly. I really appreciate that; such contact often exposes me to the work of others who are passionate about the topics I discuss. It reassures me that I am not wasting my time and energy here. I send a bit of that energy out with every piece I write, and when it resonates with someone, and they let me know, a bit of that energy comes back to me. Honestly, that’s really all I’m asking for, and I do not think this is a burdensome request. If you are going to use my work, please let me know, and credit me. Do not alter my words in order to lift my pieces wholesale; that is a very unprofessional way to take other people’s work but still avoid copyright infringement.  Particularly when you are getting PAID (and winning thousands of dollars in awards) and I am not. Already I am hearing a lot of feedback from authors who find this entire situation unacceptable, and this apology lacking.

This admission and apology are more than I expected (which was no response), but I think the concepts of “free ideas and information” being used to elide the issue of people’s time, effort and work is a bit disingenuous. However, that’s the way things work in publishing, under colonial law. I suppose that is why I feel a bit more betrayed than I might have had this been done by a Settler.


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36 Responses to On being plagiarized: spoiler alert, it sucks!

  1. Cathy Richardson/Kinewesquao says:

    Tansi! I’m so glad I was introduce to your blog. You write really well. I hope we can meet again sometime… I saw you briefly at McGill last week at Aboriginal week. Sorry to hear your work got poached.
    Best wishes, Cathy Richardson

  2. Shannin says:

    I do remember the blog you posted back then and remeber sharing it widely as the style is fun and easy to follow. I do see alot of you in there and it should be cited…”not nice” as my daughter would say. Keep up the writing as we love to read your style. Talent always trumps followers so looking forward to your consistent return.

    Take Care.

  3. blaiserboy says:

    Of course I am sorry to know that your work was ‘copied’;however, even our Prime Minister copies from others.

    This new baby seems to be running the household. recently, must be a very special child!

    I am happy for you and the little one.


    • You draw a very important parallel….if someone of such fine moral character as Stephen Harper copies from others without attribution, surely this is a laudable act!

      And don’t all newborns basically run the house? She’s pretty great, thanks 🙂

  4. Barbara Murray says:

    You are absolutely correct. The plagiarism really kicks in at the section on Market Housing. The plagiarism is obvious and startling and I think you have a case.

    • No actionable case. Copyright is the easiest intellectual property right to gain, and as a result, the weakest of intellectual property rights to protect. To violate copyright in an actionable form, a person has to use solid chunks of your unaltered work. Plagiarism, however, is more of a moral issue and it varies.

  5. Bob Hearns says:

    It sucks and, at the same time, spreads the word.

  6. leslie says:

    Wow. So sorry to hear that this happened to you. I know how you feel. My work was plagiarized when I was in graduate school, by a fellow student. Our professors gave him a slap on the wrist and he went on and is, from what I understand, happily ensconced in academia himself. As for me, I couldn’t stomach it and I got out. No regrets! 🙂

    • Brutal. I am hearing a LOT of stories about this happening in academia and it is so abusive! It is also ethically indefensible. I don’t understand why post-secondary institutions make such big noises about not tolerating academic dishonesty, while this kind of thing is clearly still going on.

  7. Gayl Veinotte says:

    First, and most importantly – Congratulations on the new wee one!!! Once she gets into a regular sleeping pattern and isn’t feeding every few hours, you should be able to get a little restorative sleep. Until then, I hope you have some help in the house. Raising a child takes the energy of at least two people. Okay, enough of grandma’s advice – LOL!

    It’s ugly and ultimately very petty of Darryl Dennis to poach your work like that. Would you be out of line or in a difficult position if you sent links to your articles to the PMC Aboriginal Literature Awards or to Quill and Quire? Maybe Quill and Quire would like a column about the vagueness of copyright or the broader definition of plagiarism that leads to travesties like this. Or to Douglas & McIntyre? It is they who would be in line for censure as much, if not more, than Darryl Dennis. After all, they are the copyright holders now, n’est-ce pas? They had a duty to verify that the work was original. All it takes is one little Google search… I’m a writer/editor who coaches other writers and am very strict about this with my clients. It’s not only bad form and possibly actionable, it reflects very badly on them as writers and as human beings.

    I actually don’t understand the compulsion to steal another’s work, no matter how much you “change it to make it your own.” (I’m old enough to remember when this was whispered around campus as a way to fudge an assignment without actually doing the work. That it’s now accepted in academic settings is appalling.) Using someone else’s work — with permission and acknowledgement — simply elevates one’s own status as a researcher, showing the reading public that one has real-world sources and didn’t just make it all up.

    Back to the good stuff — congratulations and enjoy this new life you’ve brought into the world! With such and intelligent and insightful woman for a mother, this child will surely soar! Blessings to one and all.

  8. Michelle says:

    It’s intellectually dishonest and morally repugnant. He’s taken your work, your ideas and tried to pass them off as his own. It’s even more outrageous given the fact his whole book is based on telling “the truth about lies”. He’s an arrogant prick (and that’s the truth!).

  9. C says:

    This is awful. So sorry you are having to deal with it but I find it very interesting how Creator brought it to your attention! I posted this on FB and Twitter

    • It was very weird that I opened the book to just that spot! Otherwise I probably would have put it down and never discovered this! I don’t know, maybe that would have been better. Then again, this is an abject lesson in the way people will exploit your work. I don’t know that it’s going to change anything I do, but a lesson is a lesson.

  10. Ethe other day I was look through a random collection of papers when I came upon a very good article that was vaguely familiar. After reading much of said article, I realized I was reading a bit of my now 30 year old dissertation. The thing was, I really liked it!

    That entire episode was great fun, as It has been many, many years since I even looked at said dissertation. That said, had I recognized my hard work claimed by someone else ( what was it, 4 years of my life), I would have had a very different experience.

    I insist that my students cite their work. For heaven’s sake, writing is both intensely personal and challenging. There is no excuse for the theft of another’s labor so, although it seems endemic to all layers of settler/dominant culture.

    I am glad you are having the life changing experience of being a parent. I am angry someone ripped you off.

    • parentassets says:

      Congratulations- and enjoy the moments and chersh the time with her.. Wow, your writing is very easy to follow— and i have enjoyed and was wondering for a while????Where is this amazing – woman.

      I agree with the rest of the responses- it is sad— that the gentleman did that? Did u contact him by anychance after u discovered that he had used your research? Of course after u were calm???

      Woould be interesting to know his response….

      • I did consider approaching him first, but I don’t think I’m calm enough, and frankly, with this post I’ve had my say. There’s not really anything I’m looking for other than some credit, and hopefully some more awareness out there that these kinds of practices should and will not go undiscussed.

  11. Peggy Perry says:

    I ran into this in high school when one of my classmates asked me barefaced to let them cheat off my test answers. I was so mad I gave them the wrong answers. I didn’t do all that studying so they could pass without doing the same. Word got around and nobody was stupid enough to ever ask me again. I’ve written technical material for my job and always had someone trying to take the credit for it, but it was hard for them to achieve that because I gained a bit of fame for my work. I never got extra pay for it, but I got lots of ego strokes, and that still feels pretty good.

  12. jonathan snell says:

    congratulations on the new baby

  13. rightojibwe says:

    I am sorry that has happened. I have been blogging for six years and have written on many subjects but I don’t have the traffic. Anyway I have been a fan of yours in the Native papers for a while now. I hope you are not going to change what you do or how you are because of the actions of others. It would be a shame. Me I am a grandpa and love it. So congratulations on parenthood. We are now raising our granbaby as well. she is a little over two now.

    • I want lots and lots of grandbabies, so I’ve decided to have lots of kids to increase the chances of that 😀 This is our fifth daughter, with a gap of 11 years between her and the youngest! It’s pretty wonderful 🙂 Much love to your little one too!

  14. nmr says:

    Congratulations on your newest family member!

    Publishing houses and academic centers have plagiarism computer programs where they run new works through the databases and see where they have plagiarized. Because of this deterrence, the overall rate of plagiarism has not changed despite having a world wide base to steal from.

    Nevertheless, it sounds like the author in question has heavily borrowed from your blogs and it would have been good manners and writerly respect to acknowledge you SOMEWHERE in his book. It is great that he built on your ideas, but he should let others ‘discover’ you also and let other readers have a first look at the female perspective.

    Through the years I have noticed a consistent pattern of male authors who conveniently forget to acknowledge female scholarship. Funny how they always remember their male colleagues.

    • And that’s really all I would expect. An inclusion as a source. Although seeing a particular section so very closely mirror one of my pieces is a bit much. That is not a good writing practice.

  15. amiigawech for writing this. i have experienced being plagiarized by an indigenous scholar and erased from being influential in their thinking and work. much of what you write resonates, except in my case, the person presented themselves as a friend over a long period of time. i’ve had a kick witnessing them be upheld for excellence and seeing them be supported by folks who know my experience with them. ultimately, i’ve learned that people give us stories and some of them you have to just shake your head at and say, “really? of all the stories you want to give me about you, this is the one you want me to have? really?”

    the good thing is i’m too busy with other life-giving projects to do anything with it and am pretty content to let the spirit of the story this person gave me do it’s work–whatever that is. that said, the hurt and confusion of being exploited and deceived by someone i trusted and having my story erased by people who know it lingers.

    • Since sharing this, so many people have told me similar stories of people exploiting their work without even a thank you. It really bothers me that this appears to be a very common practice among some. I am sorry you have experienced this as well. I really questioned whether I should even name names, and since seeing a few people come to this author’s defense, I have definitely engaged in some second guessing of myself. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have someone close to you abuse your trust like that and ‘get away with it’ essentially. But naming names is not easy, and often can have negative consequences. No wonder so many people stay quiet about it.

      The thinking of SO MANY people has influence my work, so when I write, I try to link to primary sources I use, and I try to link to the work of others when I have integrated that work into my writing. I really don’t see this as onerous, and I’m not sure why this isn’t the standard?

      It sure feels like a slap in the face to know your work influenced another (or was outright altered and then used by another). Definitely hard to get over, and my situation is such a minor one in comparison to other stories I am now hearing.

      Best to you, I hope the hurt and confusion do not stop you from continuing to create excellent works, even if now you feel the need to hold them a little closer to yourself than you would have before being betrayed.

  16. Katherine Walker says:

    Tansi! While we are on the subject of appropriate authorship, I should mention that I actually wrote the original ‘drunken Indian stereotype’ ‘article’ for CBC when I was hired to write opinion columns about indigenous issues for their ‘viewpoints’ section starting in 2004. I don’t know how it morphed into an unauthored article. My name is Katherine Walker by the way, and I’m Cree from Okanese in Saskatchewan. My op-eds and newspaper articles have been copied in form and substance countless times. And I agree, it sucks!! I love your op-Ed pieces by the way!!!

    Keep on writing!


  17. Yes, it sucks, and it’s happened to so many of us. It seems too many of those who hold paid positions in more mainstream media and/or academia particularly seem entitled to steal the groundbreaking content of women who have blogs and small websites. I see a lot of my writing and artwork as service to my spiritual and cultural communities, so in most cases I haven’t demanded or even requested payment. But that is not an invitation for dishonourable people to swipe our work and disappear us.

    I have a similar situation going on and am weighing my options. It’s not the first time I’ve dealt with it, either. I had that same adrenaline/disbelief/fight-or-flight feeling, first coming upon the too-familiar text, then looking through all the footnotes, then searching all the acknowledgements, and seeing everyone I linked to and credited listed… absolutely everyone but me. It’s a particular kind of not only theft, but boundary violation. A type of skinstealing. I think others have described it as the person putting off a “F*** you, Kill you, Be you!” vibe. It’s chilling.

    I so appreciate your work. You have my support and empathy and I thank you for speaking out, for keeping this issue out there and demanding accountability. <3

  18. lolamcgee says:

    Utterly indecent. But, for what it’s worth, I’m a librarian and I do a lot of work in teaching undergraduate students about academic integrity – I’d love to be able to use this blog post (and share it with my colleagues) to put a human face on the ethic of using (and citing) information.

  19. Howard White says:

    Dear Ms. Vowel:

    I am Darrell Dennis’s publisher and have been made aware of your concerns about similarities between some of your blog entries and certain passages in his book, Peace Pipe Dreams. You are right, among the many books, articles and posts Darrell researched, he did come across several of your posts and they may have influenced him, even though his humorous style of writing is very distinct from yours. Darrell is a leader in the effort to change the conversation about First Nations in mainstream Canada and is used to engaging in a free exchange of ideas and information with others involved in the work. Darrell himself is never happier than when he sees others repeating his words and spreading the message. Still, as Darrell’s publisher I accept responsibility for not listing your excellent blog among the sources he referenced in writing Peace Pipe Dreams and I apologize to you. As you correctly noted, it is not an academic work and we chose not to include a definitive bibliography. We meant no offense by this but now that you have brought it to our attention, we will make sure to include a credit to you in any reprints or new editions.

    Howard White, Publisher
    Douglas & McIntyre

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  21. vgoodale says:

    I find it disturbing to hear your experience and think it is wrong in so many ways as well as disrespectful, dishonest and hurtful. I hope at some point you will be able to address your concerns directly (written or spoken) with D. D. For in my experience people don’t change their behaviour if they are not informed about the effect oi has on others.

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