Few people on earth are as impressive as Dr. David B. Agus. A physician who specializes in advanced oncology, he has in his time been research director of the Cedars-Sinai Louis Warschaw Prostate Cancer Center, head of the Laboratory of Tumor Biology at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and founding director and C.E.O. of the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine in Los Angeles. He also chairs the Global Agenda Council on Genetics for the World Economic Forum.
As a doctor, he is credited with extending the life of Steve Jobs and treating Johnny Ramone. A 2013 Wired profile lists his friends as including Al Gore, the late Sumner Redstone, and will.i.am. He is a regular on television, an enthusiastic podcast guest, a serial award winner, and the author of several books.
In fact, his most recent, entitled The Book of Animal Secrets: Nature’s Lessons for a Long and Happy Life, was set to be published last month. Except, here’s the thing. You can’t buy The Book of Animal Secrets. Nobody can. This is because Dr. Agus’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, hauled it from the shelves in a panic, after the Los Angeles Times revealed that it contained at least 95 separate occurrences of plagiarism. The incident has triggered a wave of panic that has not only threatened to undo the credibility of Dr. Agus but also elements of the entire publishing industry.
It makes sense that Dr. Agus would continually publish books. His first, The End of Illness, became something of a sensation upon publication in 2012. Lauded as seminal by doctors, and a No. 1 New York Times best-seller, The End of Illness was very much a book that found itself in the right place at the right time. Not only did it read like the sum total of knowledge gained by a brilliant medical professional, but it was published mere months after the death of Dr. Agus’s best-known patient, Steve Jobs. The world fell upon the book greedily, and Dr. Agus became a star.
He wrote two more books, each of them becoming best-sellers, before settling on The Book of Animal Secrets as his fourth. In terms of subject matter, it’s markedly lighter than his previous work. A cynic might assume that it was simply the result of wanting to write another book, rather than needing to share his knowledge with the world.
As a doctor, he is credited with extending the life of Steve Jobs and treating Johnny Ramone.
Nevertheless, Dr. Agus’s star was bright enough for Animal Secrets to land with a bang. (And warrant a fancy dinner party hosted by Arianna Huffington in honor of its publication, with a box-fresh copy of the book laid neatly on every plate.)
But the spirit of celebration didn’t last long. Corinne Purtill, a science-and-medicine reporter for the Los Angeles Times, received a tip-off about the book from a source concerned about its originality. Piqued, she found some plagiarism-spotting software, paid $300 to buy it, uploaded the book in PDF form, and found herself presented with a long list of sections that were copied, seemingly wholesale and without attribution, from a range of publications.
Purtill found passages lifted from The Washington Post, BBC News, Fast Company, Wikipedia, and several blog posts (including one called “Bat Quiz 101” and another called “The Ten Craziest Facts You Should Know About a Giraffe”), as well as Sanjay Gupta’s 2021 book, Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. This final one is hilariously significant, for reasons we’ll come to in good time.
The Los Angeles Times presented Simon & Schuster with its findings, and, within a matter of days, The Book of Animal Secrets: Nature’s Lessons for a Long and Happy Life was no more. A terse statement on the publisher’s Web site reads, “Dr. Agus has decided, with our full support, to recall the book, at his own expense, until a fully revised and corrected edition can be released, and which Dr. Agus is currently working on. We do not currently have a projected publication date for the new version of the book. As a result, Simon & Schuster has ceased distribution of all formats of the book and advised our retail and distribution partners to return copies of the book.”
Buoyed by her findings, Purtill then did what any good reporter would do and ran all of Dr. Agus’s books through the same software. She found at least 120 more instances of plagiarism, from sources including “newspaper and magazine stories, scientific journal articles, popular science books, Wikipedia and blogs.” Some of the borrowed material, she found, ran to several pages in length. These books, the publisher explained, would also be revised. However, it added, the original versions would remain on sale until the replacements were ready.
This is not the first time a book has run into trouble over plagiarism accusations. Last year, Australian author John Hughes was forced to remove his novel The Dogs from a prestigious award’s long list after The Guardian found that it contained 58 similarities to Svetlana Alexievich’s 1985 nonfiction book, The Unwomanly Face of War.
And, as reported by Air Mail in July 2022, the publication of up-and-coming author Jumi Bello’s novel The Leaving was canceled last year when it emerged that she had extensively lifted portions from other published works. And that isn’t even why anyone remembers Bello. No, they remember her because she subsequently wrote an essay about the scandal entitled “I Plagiarized Parts of My Debut Novel. Here’s Why.” That too was quickly taken down, when it transpired she had plagiarized that as well. And not just from anywhere, but from a Web site called Plagiarism Today.
Now, these instances are all contemporary, because plagiarism has simultaneously become easier to do and easier to spot in recent years. While unscrupulous authors have been copying the work of others for centuries, the Internet has made it far easier to find, copy, and paste other people’s work into their own. Meanwhile, anti-plagiarism software has meant that anyone with a hunch can undo entire careers in seconds. A modern author would have to be very confident or very stupid to try such a thing today.
So which one is Dr. Agus? Potentially neither. Because, on the one hand, Dr. Agus has a very good excuse that seemingly clears him of any wrongdoing. On the other, the excuse is that he didn’t actually write the whole books in the first place. In a statement made to the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Agus said, “This has been a painful but valuable learning experience for me and I want to reiterate my deepest regrets for my own lack of rigor in supervising my collaborator in our process of finalizing the manuscripts.”
That’s right, his collaborator. Or, as this individual might otherwise be known, his ghostwriter. The Book of Animal Secrets: Nature’s Lessons for a Long and Happy Life, as well as Dr. Agus’s three other books, were written with Kristin Loberg, a Los Angeles–based writer who has co-authored dozens of books with scores of authors, ranging from investor Phil Town to mathematician Mike Byster.
She found at least 120 more instances of plagiarism.
In a 2021 interview with VoyageLA, Loberg said of her job: “I help high-profile authorities craft their book proposals and, ultimately, write their finished books. I work with the large main publishers in the U.S. … and projects come in from them or through my literary agent.... And I’m a no BS-er. I think my authors enjoy my work ethic, engaging personality, and dedication to get things right no matter what.”
Some authors will credit her on the front page, like Dr. David Perlmutter, who wrote Grain Brain, a million-seller about the dangers of carbohydrates. Others, like Dr. Agus, will keep the cover for themselves but credit her elsewhere. Many more, you suspect, will have been keen to hog all the glory for themselves. Some will dictate the bulk of their ideas to their ghostwriter. Others will just take the money and run.
Again, this is understandable; a lot of these figures might have valuable insight but lack the mechanical knowledge needed to write a book. When a partnership aligns, it can work beautifully. Whatever you think of Prince Harry’s Spare, there is no denying that his ghostwriter—the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and novelist J. R. Moehringer—did a tremendous job of drawing out enough startling stories to warrant his rumored million-dollar fee. Loberg won’t command that sort of figure, but it isn’t unrealistic to assume that, by now, she would be charging six figures for every book she co-authors.
But when a co-author uses unacknowledged sources, without the blessing of the person named on the cover, that’s when problems begin. And it’s starting to seem as if Loberg might have been doing this more than she made out. A fascinating LA Magazine piece claimed that Dr. Agus, spooked by the Animal Secrets hoo-ha, also ran his previous books through plagiarism software and found that The End of Illness contained 25 extracts from Grain Brain (yes, the work by Perlmutter that was also co-authored by Loberg).
Nobody noticed at the time, though, because Grain Brain came out after The End of Illness. Loberg, it seems, was lifting everything from everywhere all at once. And remember Keep Sharp, the book that the Los Angeles Times discovered was plagiarized in Animal Secrets? You’ll never guess who co-authored it.
As we speak, it’s easy to imagine a herd of authors all feeding their books through the same program, anxious to know how far their co-author sold them down the river. Indeed, as LA Magazine noted, “It’s beginning to look like Loberg might be the biggest serial plagiarist of all time.”
In response, Loberg has shuttered her Web site, which now contains only a 700-word statement about the scandal. In it, she apologizes to all her authors and publishers but also tries to explain. A telling passage hints that she sees herself as a victim of her own success, stating that “I have written so many books in the health area over the years that sometimes I’m up against myself. There are only so many ways to state certain facts, describe basic biology, or to summarize certain studies, and they spring from my way of addressing a topic. Therefore, I often find that similar language is contained in many of the books I write.”
Her scandal might have ruined a fleet of careers, not least her own, but at least Loberg is going out with an original sentiment, even if that wasn’t the case at any other point in her career.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals