Jane Goodall Book Scandal- How You Can Avoid This

Jane Goodall, the esteemed naturalist and best-selling author, is embroiled in a literary scandal. According to the reports in the Washington Post, New York Times, and other news outlets, Goodall’s latest book has been delayed by the publisher for numerous passages which were lifted from Wikipedia and other websites. The publisher now needs to get written permission for all those passages or the writer needs to remove them from the manuscript. Plagiarism is illegal and a very serious issue…and a black mark on an author’s reputation.

I have great respect for Jane Goodall and don’t want to suggest any wrong doing on her part. Goodall worked with a co-writer and publicly apologized for not realizing that parts of her new book were copied from websites, so we can assume it was done without her knowledge.

However, many authors are unaware of the plagiarism laws and may accidentally fall into the same embarrassing situation that Jane Goodall finds herself in today.

Today an increasing number of high profile authors are being accused of plagiarism. Before the internet, if you were doing research and wanted to use information from another source, you had to copy the information out by hand. Remember composition classes in high school which required you to turn in note cards full of citations with author, title, page numbers and even the publisher’s name for your sources?

Now it is so quick and easy to cut and paste information from websites into your document that you may not even think twice about it. Unfortunately, when you do that, you are plagiarizing.

So, what’s an author to do?

Just keep these rules of thumb in mind:

1. Any material that is published in a book, blog, website, magazine, or newspaper belongs to someone-either the author or the publisher. If you did not write it, you can’t use it in your writing unless you give credit to your source. For example, if I wanted to use part of the Washington Post article on Jane Goodall, I’d do a direct quote like this;
Washington Post reporter Steve Levinson writes, “Among the passages her new book apparently rips off (as discovered by a critic for the Washington Post) are ones stolen from Wikipedia, some marketing material for an organic-tea company, and an astrology Web site.”

2. Copyright law allows you to do brief quotations, generally considered a sentence or two, without written permission from the author as long as you cite your source as in the example above. If you are using more extensive material, you need to get written permission from the owner of the material.

I suggest that you make it easy on yourself. Do your research, find all the facts you need from the web and other sources, and then express the information in your own words. If you need to use a quotation to support your ideas, give attribution to the original author.

In that way, you are acting from the highest levels of integrity and professionalism, plus giving your readers what they long for- your knowledge, ideas, and wisdom, not anyone else’s.

What do you think about this?  Leave your comments below.

Comments 21

  • Hi Lynne
    Thanks for this very invaluable bit of info.

    I do have a question. I did quote a sentence or two from a certain author, with permission. A significant section of a chapter of mine is also from the same author, but para phrased. I openly admit in the para immediately before, that a lot of the next few paragraphs are from Dr XYZ’s book ABC. I emailed the author for permission, and was given the go ahead by his PA. She said so long as I acknowledged that I was quoting from Dr XYZ, he was ok about it.

    Is that email approval by his PA or wife sufficient?

    Thanks for answering.



  • Good reminder for all.

  • Thanks for reminding us. We need this nudge every once in awhile because so there is so much information out there, a writer could easily get caught up. Great article.

  • Thanks, Lynn! For me, it’s actually inspiring that Jane’s situation is pointing out how WRONG it is to not give credit for info used. A barrier to writing my own book is the knowledge that someone with a lot more money and a huge list can take my stuff and call it their own! It’s happened over the years while doing workshops around the country. I’ve been horrified to hear my signature transformative story, including my children’s names repeated verbatim in radio shows, workshops and other media presentations! The first time I called an abuser I was told “if you want to sue me, go ahead, In the meantime I’m using your story as my own and in the long run you will go broke trying to stop me.”

    “Imitation” is not always flattery! I’m afraid Jane’s experience is a lesson that we need to hear over and over again. I’m sorry for that this amazing woman’s many messages are being kept from us as she hires someone more reputable to secure proper sourcing. But the rule needs to get out! Especially today! I’ve read advice from “experts” who say that there are no new thoughts, so use them as they suit YOU because then they are new as your view. I think our leaders need to walk a more responsible road, like you just have! Thank you! Barbara

  • Very helpful example Lynne – thanks!

  • Lynne, I remember just before the famous writer Stephen Ambrose died he was accused of plagairism. Is was a bitter shame. Writers simply can not be too careful. It pays to check and double check.

  • Is 50 words the maximum one can use if the author is given credit?

    • Hi Jo-

      The law is very vague so there is no firm word limit. I use a 2 sentence rule of thumb, but that’s just me.

  • Hi Lynn,

    Thanks for the nice reminder….it is helpful.


  • I wonder how many young writers are aware of this? Even their instructors, who’ve grown up with the internet at hand, might not know the true rules of plagiarism, copyright, etc. It’s just too easy to copy things, and many people think that the capability implies that it’s “okay” and no big deal.

  • I am surprised that Jane finds herself in this place. As a scholar she should have a better grip on proper documentation on quotes. I love wikipedia, but I’m also surprised she would be using this as a source.

  • What a sad situation for Jane. But you’re right: in academia it’s called plagiarism. In the “real world” it’s copyright infringement. In academia, “all” that can happen is that a student fail a paper, a class or perhaps be suspended in grievous circumstances. In the ‘real’ world? YIKES! painful lessons.

  • Excellent advice, Lynne! I always call or write to request permission, no matter how brief the excerpt I’m planning on using. I have to say that I do not always receive permission, which is disappointing, plus I have even had publishing companies say they wanted me to pay for the privilege of using even a very brief quotation. I have not done that yet and I’m not sure I ever will. Anyway, personal integrity counts and says a lot about you! Keep up the great work and information! I greatly appreciate you!

  • Does this apply to using passages, even entire chapters, from the public domain? Should we cite the public domain work if we derive anything from it?
    I used some public domain material from a government website, so it’s not old, but I’ve heard that government content is public domain and free to use without attribution.

  • Tonight I was looking at some of my web pages and realised that I had carefully quoted the ideas of some writers and named their books. The idea of referencing quotations and adding a biography was drilled into me when at university.

    I then had an idea. I have started developing a new page for my site listing recommended reads. The idea is to add Amazon affiliate links to their books as a sort of win win situation.

    I just have to remember how to add the links as I have not used that program for years. Only thing is my links will be to Amazon UK so I am wondering what will happen if the buyers are outside the UK.

  • Thank you for the reminder, Lynne! This is great information.

  • Sorry to hear this about Jane Goodall. Thanks for the reminder, Lynne, to be mindful, use wisdom and have integrity in what we write.

  • Very good to know, Lynne. What if one mistakenly wrote a sentence or two that sounded similar to a lecture they went to? I agree it’s best to quote, but in the healing arts there are so many people speaking on so many similar things with similar ideas.

    I’m filing this for future use. Thank you!

  • A good reminder! It could happen to any of us.
    Ever vigilant we must be!

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