Lit Mags Confront a Serial Plagiarist

Enma Karina Elias
From the May/June 2024 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

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 e-mail, 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 plagiarism-recognition 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 non-fungible 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 is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest.