Poets and Writers

Lit Mags Confront a Serial Plagiarist


After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Julie Weiss, a poet living in Spain, wrote “Pink Bunny” to express her sorrow, shock, and fear of a wider European conflict and how it might affect her two children. Her poem was published in One Art in April 2022. Nearly two years later, on January 21, Weiss was devastated to learn that “Pink Bunny” had been plagiarize­d in its entirety by someone going by the name John Kucera and published in the literary magazine Topical Poetry under the title “Explosion.” Soon after, she learned that “Explosion” had also been published in Lothlorien Poetry Journal and was scheduled to be published by a third journal before it was discovered that the work had been plagiarize­d.

“Through his two-second copy and paste, Kucera hijacked my thoughts, my feelings, and, worst of all, the images of my children,” says Weiss, who works as a full-time teacher. “I’m only able to write a bit very late at night. I take my poetry as seriously as a paid job.”

It turns out that Weiss is not the only poet to have been plagiarize­d by Kucera. By the time Mark Danowsky, editor in chief of the poetry journal One Art, informed Weiss of the transgress­ion via email, he had been conferring with other editors for several days on the matter. On January 16, Wendy N. Wagner, the editor in chief of Nightmare magazine, a horror and dark fantasy publicatio­n, had posted a message on Bluesky Social, a blogging platform, urging the community to check work published by Kucera, as she had just been in touch with seven different editors who had been defrauded by the serial plagiarist.

Perhaps the greatest offense a writer can commit is to steal the work of a fellow writer and present it as their own. The taboo is so ingrained in the psyche of scribes that many of the literary magazines and presses to which writers submit operate on an honor system, Danowsky says. One Art’s submission guidelines, for example, state that the journal will not take previously published work, but it doesn’t mention plagiarism or require a signed contract. “I see it as something of a handshake agreement,” Danowsky says.

Since the news about Kucera broke in mid-January, it has been discovered that dozens of plagiarize­d works—of poetry and fiction— have been published under that name in Bending Genres, Moon City Review, Philadelph­ia Stories, Utopia Science Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere; some of the poems have even won contests. Kucera has also been found to use the alias John Siepkes. While the name has been called out on social media, Kucera shows no signs of stopping, reportedly submitting work under a third pseudonym, R. J. Franz, Danowsky says. Many theories have been asserted about Kucera’s motives. Some suggest the person might have a mental health condition, while others believe Kucera is after financial gain, especially since work under that byline has been submitted to paying publicatio­ns. But One Art and other journals Kucera queried or published in do not pay contributo­rs.

Since the trouble with Kucera came to light, Danowsky discovered that the plagiarist had submitted to One Art eight times since 2022, and the journal published two plagiarize­d works by Kucera in September 2023. Danowsky discovered that a more recent poem he was planning to publish by Kucera, “Summer, 1993”—which he had even put on a list to be considered for a Pushcart Prize—belonged to George Bilgere, who had first published it as “The Forge” in River Styx in 2015. Kucera had changed the title of the poem and already published it in Redivider as “Summer, 1993” by the time Danowsky was considerin­g it; Redivider’s editors took the poem down from the journal’s website after they discovered it had been plagiarize­d.

“That’s extremely brazen of him to take someone whose name is recognizab­le and steal their poems and slap his name on it,” Danowsky says. “The best that I can do as [recourse] is to get the word out about the poems if they’ve been stolen and make a point of getting those [original] poems read.”

The most accessible defense against plagiarist­s that editors have in their arsenal is Google, Danowsky says. But Google searching is an imperfect—and time-consuming—exercise for editors, who can receive hundreds of submission­s a month. And it becomes even more

daunting if they were to Google individual parts of a poem instead of the whole thing; a title or excerpts might get past the search engine’s algorithm. Although One Art is flooded with submission­s, Danowsky believes it is the duty of a publicatio­n, not writers, to determine whether work has been plagiarize­d.

The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) is aware of Kucera and has been sharing strategies to safeguard against fraudsters. Mary Gannon, CLMP’s executive director, says creating awareness has been the primary action taken by the organizati­on. The CLMP community was able to identify several e-mail addresses associated with Kucera/Siepkes and asked the administra­tors of Submittabl­e, the submission manager used by publishers, to block these accounts. Gannon acknowledg­es that it’s a flawed solution because it doesn’t prevent Kucera or any plagiarist from creating a new account.

“There’s a growing concern about the burden literary magazines have to protect what is an important part of the ecosystem where agents find writers’ work,” says Gannon. “It’s really dishearten­ing. A lot of literary magazines don’t have a lot of resources and get inundated with submission­s.”

One method magazine editors have used to thwart plagiarism is changing submission guidelines so that they require the author to share a link with their bio listing other published work. Another idea that is being talked about by editors is creating a plagiarism­recognitio­n software for creative works. While similar technology is frequently used by academics to check student papers, it does not easily transfer to the world of literary magazines, says Benjamin Davis, cofounder of Chill Subs, an online submission­s manager that has positioned itself as an alternativ­e to Submittabl­e. By Davis’s count, there are about four thousand literary magazines published in a variety of mediums, including in print, websites, PDFs, and images that contain text on platforms like Instagram. No single software can scan all formats, not to mention catalogues going back decades, says Davis. And even if there was one, it couldn’t check for other kinds of plagiarism, such as unpublishe­d work stolen from a friend or colleague.

Timothy Green, editor of the poetry journal Rattle, says he started checking for plagiarism fifteen years ago. Depending on the length of the work, he will submit roughly two hundred words into a search engine. But rarely does he find anything. Occasional­ly he will try different plagiarism checkers that come onto the market, including software using artificial intelligen­ce, but Google is still the best resource, he says.

Green is a proponent of one idea that he thinks could better protect against poetic theft: Encourage more poets to “mint” their poems with nonfungibl­e tokens, commonly known as NFTs. An NFT is a digital file that is accessible to the public but can be traced to its original creator.

Green thinks “the whole system of publishing is kind of broken…. Changing the way we distribute literature is one way to get around these problems.” –ENMA KARINA ELIAS

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