I think it would be fair to say that investigating and prosecuting cases of malpractice in fiction competitions probably isn’t a high priority for the forces of law and order. It is inevitably something of a grey area; proving that people were holding competitions illegally or with bad motives is difficult to prove, and many people would feel that, in common with many other goods and services, the most sensible procedure is “buyer beware”.
In defining a “scam”, I am referring to occasions where the main motive of the organisers is probably to make as much money for as little return as possible, meaning very little attention is given to the quality of entries and results are published in only the most cursory and inadequate way. It is rare for competitions to ask for an entry fee exceeding £10 – £15; if they do ask more, and the prize money is small or non-existent, that in itself is probably an indication of bad intent. The small entry fees will tend to mean that people are unlikely to become very incensed about the loss of such amounts, and I think that indifference does open up opportunities for the unscrupulous although, that having been said, I would be hard pressed to give a specific and indisputable example of a blatant scam, and I might well open myself up to legal action by doing so. However, working on the buyer beware principle mentioned, competitions with one or more of the characteristics described below would make me cautious about participating.
Firstly, if there are no other contact details but a website address, with payments being made by PayPal arrangements, the competitor has no way of tracking down whether entries have been registered or read or even seen. Once payments have been made, the fate of both the piece of writing and the entry fee are totally obscure, and it is an easy enough matter to produce from somewhere three pieces of writing which have supposedly been awarded prizes. If no other details are given of these people than brief bios, neither is there any way of establishing whether they actually did enter the competition, or even whether they exist at all. The organisers have, therefore, taken possibly quite a considerable amount of money, without making any attempt at a serious competition, and no form of redress is available, because no contact details can be used.
Secondly, the lack of a named judge is, for me, a bad sign. It is true that there are cases where the naming of a judge is probably not to be expected, most particularly in the cases of local writers’ groups, who make joint or committee judgements about the entrants, but usually the reputable and established competitions will not only name a specific judge or judges, they will provide biography details of the person and probably refer to the relevant website. Unless it is clear that group decisions are being made by a well-established writers’ group or magazine, the lack of a named judge calls into question the whole judging procedure, or lack of it, and means the competition entrant has no way of knowing who has looked at the piece and when, and how decisions have been arrived at.
Thirdly, I would tend to avoid competitions with no prizes other than “publication on the website”, especially when entry fees are being charged. Even when entry fees are not being charged, the organisers are being supplied with copious amounts of copy for their site free of charge; if entry fees are being charged, the site is in effect a subscription site, and its competitions are being used to subsidise it. How much credibility then attaches to having work published on it must immediately be called into question. Fourthly, most legitimate competitions will make their own timetable, either by announcing the date by which competition results will be available, or by setting a date in the form of an event, such as usually applies to the literary festivals. A competition which sets no dates at all for publishing shortlists or results is immediately suspect, because there is no opportunity for the competition entrant to ask for results if no timetable is available, and the suspicion is that the competition organisers, unless they belong to a well-established and reputable organisation or publication, are simply waiting long enough for everyone to have forgotten the competition details.
Finally, clues are available in the payment methods. In this context, PayPal is probably good news, because it means the organisation does have a separate account. Where cheques are asked for, to be made payable to an individual rather than an organisation or publication, I think the entrant has every right to be suspicious, and where this applies, a look at how many previous competitions have been held and what appears to have been done with the proceeds is probably very justifiable. If organising scams can be the major sin of competition organisers, plagiarism is probably the major sin of competition entrants. I have read of, or heard of, several cases in recent years where competition prizes have been awarded to pieces which bear startling resemblances to existing stories by some more famous names. One entrant, whose story was placed second to what he knew was a blatantly plagiaristic piece, was so incensed that he threatened legal action.
Plagiarism is not always easy to define. Shakespeare could be said to have never written an original story, insofar as his plays were all historically sourced or based, like Othello and Romeo and Juliet, on already existing legends or story outlines. The copyright laws forbid a particular piece of writing from being plagiarised, but ideas and plots cannot be protected in the same way. It is difficult to see how any writer can take any pleasure or genuine satisfaction from seeing a piece of work heavily imitated from somebody else record a result in a competition, and the possibility must always exist, as it is not feasible for competition organisers to know every published short story from every published writer. The line of legitimacy is not as clear cut as it might be; does updating a story originally written in the 18th or 19th centuries constitute plagiarism? If one puts a fictional interpretation on a widely known local legend or item of history, is that plagiaristic? Even pieces of ‘faction’ which use the words or sayings of historical writers might be said to have their plagiaristic side. The whole area does not lend itself to hard and fast rules, let alone moral judgements.
My personal belief, which I understand readily enough will not be shared by everyone, is that there are enough sources of material available from an individual writer’s own life and experience to make any direct poaching on other people’s material unnecessary – see Questionnaire 3 – and I think the better examples of ‘faction’, such as Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ trilogy and Hilary Mantel’s chronicling of the time of Thomas Cromwell, illuminate and add extra dimensions of interpretation rather than have a parasitical or advantage-taking nature. Direct plagiarism of text is clearly a risky business, as those found doing it once are unlikely to be admitted to future competitions, and the word about such incidents does ‘get round’ quite rapidly. Plagiarism in the other direction, i.e. organisers taking advantage of the ideas and material sent in by entrants, is thought of as rare, given that many agents, organisations and publications are generally inundated with more material than they know what to do with, and if they do find something which seems particularly promising, they have no especial interest in allowing anyone but the contributor responsible to use it. What I do get a little uneasy about is competitions which advertise that the results will be read, or sometimes judged, by a ‘leading literary agent’. These alleged ‘leading agents’ are worth checking on, because it is sometimes the case that they are heavily linked to vanity publishers or organisations dedicated to help authors self-publish, and they may well be more interested in finding aspirant authors who are willing to pay considerable sums of money to see their work in print than they are in finding work of genuine literary merit. For plagiarist, read predator.