Possibly plagiarized book disappears from Amazon and the Princeton University Press website

Twelve days ago I described my discovery of some possible plagiarism, and other unsavory journalistic shenanigans, in a Nautilus article by Robert Levine. That article, about the botfly that I acquired in my head as a graduate student visiting Costa Rica, was characterized as an except from his book Stranger in the Mirror: The Scientific Search for the Self, published by Princeton University Press on May 10.

The excerpt not only contained wording clearly taken from an account of my botfly in earlier book by friends of mine (Tropical Nature by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata, Scribner’s, 1984), but also seemed to attribute quotes that I gave Robert Krulwich on Radiolab to an interview with Levine himself. In fact, I’d never spoken to Levine.

I notified Princeton University Press (PUP), Nautilus, Scriber’s, and Radiolab about this, for they would have to be the ones hashing this out. Nautilus published a correction, attributing my quotes to Krulwich and not Levine, but didn’t address the words copied from the 1984 book, which I considered true plagiarism. And, despite my having written them twice, they didn’t even have the decency to reply.

At any rate, curious about what had happened, I looked up the book on Google two days ago, and found both the Princeton University Press link and the Amazon links:

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 2.52.36 PM

But if you click on the Princeton website, you got this:

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Note, though, that other things about the book remain on the PUP site (e.g., an interview with the author).

And if you click on the book’s Amazon site, you got this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 2.52.23 PM

But when I clicked on another Amazon link today, I got the notice of the book, but with no publication date given.

On the Nautilus site there’s still the original notice:

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 2.51.49 PM

What’s up? I knew PUP was conducting a serious investigation of the book with lawyers and editors, because they told me. Now, from the book’s absence from both their site and its changed status on Amazon, I conclude that the book has been withdrawn from publication. That would have been an expensive endeavor for PUP, as the book had surely been sent to bookstores and would have had to be destroyed.

It’s a fair guess that PUP found sufficiently serious problems with the book to remove it from publication. I don’t know what those problems are, of course, but they could include not only the mistakes I found, but others. The fact that it’s now been put back on Amazon implies that they may be trying to fix the book, rendering it suitable for publication. But even that means they had to withdraw it and destroy it.

Time will tell.


  1. Chemist
    Posted May 14, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Always astounds me (especially with technology available today for detecting plagiarism) that people conclude they can get away with it. Is it the same delusion that has people believing in homeopathy or reiki or the supernatural? I don’t know, but it certainly demonstrates weak or non-existent critical thinking and flawed ethics.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 14, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      I know “of” anti-plagiarism tools, but since I come from the pre-internet era (I’d been at uni for 2 years before I discovered that I had an email address, and another year before someone failed to explain what that meant ; I never used it), I don’t actually know what these tools comprise. My first guess would be something that
      (1) reads the submitted text
      (2) strips boring words (“a”, “and”, “the” …)
      (3) submits the word salad to Google to look for matches.
      (4) [magic]
      (5) …
      (6) Profit!

      … but like I said, I don’t know the reality of such things. Anyone with any practical experience?

      • Posted May 14, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        There are a number of free plagiarism checkers that do pretty much what you describe; they break the text into chunks of several words each, put each chunk in quotation marks, and do a Google search (the quotation marks make Google look for exact matches to the phrase). They work pretty well for catching egregious plagiarism, but you can only search fairly small pieces of text (like 1000 words) at a time.

        The best-known for-pay plagiarism checker is Turnitin.com . It’s somewhat controversial, because it retains copies of all the text submitted to it. That means that it can catch students who copy other students’ papers, recycle their own papers in different classes, use term-paper mills, etc. But it also means that Turnitin.com is making money from the student papers that get submitted to it, without the students getting a cut or having any say. It does a really good job, though.

        I teach an upper-level undergraduate evolution class, and I’d guess that I find plagiarism in about one out of 20 papers, despite all my warnings to the students. To see a professional author plagiarize in a book is pretty surprising.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted May 14, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

        I used to teach a class where students were to write a scientific paper. If I found a paper that was ‘too good’, I would copy and paste snippets of it into a search by Google Scholar. I would sometime get a hit.

  2. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted May 14, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Googling it in the UK, I get … (hang on – does WP accept UL list markup? I can’t remember.)

    The PUP page.
    The Amazon.co.uk page (back-cover blurb with 5 mini-blurbs, no customer reviews)
    Something from “Google Fusion Tables” (WTF?) where the description “Livre Ebook PDF” is appended to the name with links On first appearance, that looks like piracy, but on second thoughts (I’m not going to delve deeper) it might be someone advertising an e-book store of some sort.
    A Google Books page – that question has certainly been to court, but I forget the outcome – something lawyer-pleasing.
    A link to “one of the world’s leading literary and talent agencies,” who appears to have sold the translation rights in several languages.
    A boilerplate Facebook page – part of the marketing, I guess.
    And then the litany of online bookshops and reviews starts …
    Short version – it appears that Amazon.co.uk are satisfied about the book (or have punted the issue to the publishers for them to deal with).

  3. Posted May 15, 2016 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I searched the PUP website and the PUP blog just now, and all mention of Robert Levine, including the interview with him mentioned by Jerry in the OP, seems to have disappeared.

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