The Chris Anderson Plagiarism Controversy

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Chris Anderson is the editor for Wired Magazine, a prominent tech journalist and a long-time advocate of the “free” business model. His upcoming book, enttield “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” has been the talk of many in the tech sectors as it deals with the idea of giving content away for free and then earning a living through other means.

However, even before the book has been officially released, it has become mired in controversy. Waldo Jaquith of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VGR), a literary review journal associated with the University of Virginia, noticed similarities between some passages in Anderson’s book and other sources. After putting some passages through Google, he found over a dozen instances where it appears Anderson copied content from Wikipedia as well as other sources.

These allegations were furthered by Edward Champion on his site, who compared several more passages from other books and blog posts.

This has sparked a firestorm of controversy on both Twitter and the comments section of the VGR post.

Without actually looking at the work (I haven’t seen a copy of the book) or being able to do a formal plagiarism analysis, I can’t offer too much commentary, but I do want to briefly recap what has been said and what I think it means.

Both Sides

According to Jaquith, he performed a “cursory” search of the book after he, “checked by hand several dozen suspect passages in the whole of the 274-page book.” He repeatedly emphasizes that this is not an exhaustive search of the work as he did not have an electronic copy at his disposal.

Jaquith listed eight different examples where at least some text duplicated verbatim. The lengthiest case involved pages 41-42 in Anderson’s book, which appears to copy heavily from a Wikipedia entry about the origin of the expression “Free Lunch”. Both of the works cite an article in the New York Times about “Free Lunch” counters but there is copying that goes beyond that including several sentences that are copied verbatim and other passages that appear to be close paraphrases.

These accusations were furthered by Champion, who listed five more examples on his blog, each involving passages that appeared to have at least some level of copying.

In all of the cases, the amount of pure verbatim plagiarism is fairly small, however, in many cases the amount of editing and rewriting appeared to be very small, either changing a few words or removing passages for brevity.

Anderson, for his part, doesn’t deny having copied from the sources, but claims that he had intended to cite the sources involved. In a statement he released he said:

All those are my screwups after we decided not to run notes as planned, due to my inability to find a good citation format for web sources…

This all came about once we collapsed the notes into the copy. I had the original sources footnoted, but once we lost the footnotes at the 11th hour, I went through the document and redid all the attributions…

He went on to say that he “missed” some of the attributions, especially some of those from Wikipedia where there was no individual author to credit, and that he plans on publishing those notes online before the book is released.

In a separate statement, Anderson’s publisher, Hyperion, said the following:

We are completely satisfied with Chris Anderson’s response. It was an unfortunate mistake, and we are working with the author to correct these errors both in the electronic edition before it posts, and in all future editions of the book.

This, however, has not stopped the war of words taking place on various social news sites and in the comments of the original post. The debate has also caught the attention of the mainstream media, including mentions in The Guardian, The Baltimore Sun and the L.A. Times.

My Thoughts

Without having the work in front of me in an electronic format and only having these very limited samples, it is very hard for me to perform a thorough analysis. Given the fact that most of the plagiarism involved at least some rewriting, I would normally encourage both a thorough electronic analysis of the entire work and a close human one on suspect parts.

However, I can’t do that right now and all I have are the passages presented and Anderson’s side of the story. There is not enough here, by itself, to draw solid conclusions from, especially in the limited time I’ve had.

Indeed, Anderson’s story may have merit. If he’s able to produce the footnotes easily, it would indicate that he was keeping them and did, likely, intended them to be in the book (why keep footnotes if you aren’t planning on publishing them?).

But what I find curious is his claim that he and/or his publisher “decided not to run notes as planned, due to my inability to find a good citation format for web sources.”

This statement strikes me as odd for many reason. First, there is a well-established citation style for Web pages. Both MLA and APA styles have one. Wikipedia also provides links to each individual edit, making the argument about having to preserve the sources a difficult one. Of course, even without that there are plenty of on-demand caching services that could have helped.

Second, I don’t fully understand why Anderson or his publisher would decide to do away with the footnotes at the last minute. It’s unclear if this was a technical issue, a design choice or something other issue. Removing footnotes from a book and rewriting the body to include inline citations “at the 11th hour” is very unorthodox in my experience and it would seem to almost be an invitation for mistakes and problems.

Finally, and perhaps most worrisome, as I read through the amount of the copying in some of the sections and passages, there is far more verbatim copying and close paraphrasing than one would usually use with a simple footnote. Typically a footnote is designed more to cite the source of information, not a direct quote and Anderson’s mention of doing a “write-through” of some of the citations seems to be a very odd way to handle the problem.

In short, the attribution has to match the use and, in at least some of these instances, it doesn’t appear to me to be the case.

It is important to remember that this is not like the Maureen Dowd case where we are talking about one quote with omitted attribution, but about at least a dozen and, by Anderson’s own admission, there was a problem with the footnotes for the whole book that, clearly was not straightened out adequately.

There is no nice way to say this, at the very least this is very sloppy editing and research and, unfortunately, it paints a very negative picture of the book. Even though it doesn’t appear Anderson intended to plagiarize, his liberal copying and rewriting of other texts combined with the lack of thoroughness in attribution is, at best, extremely sloppy research.

Unfortunately, this issue severely undermines the message of his book, parts of which it seems like I was going to agree with.

Bottom Line

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Anderson’s copying truly rises to the level of malicious or even lazy plagiarism. The proper thing for the publisher to do would be to not release the book until these errors can be fixed. I recognize that it would probably mean destroying thousands of printed copies, but there is a very simple and serious problem with releasing it as is.

Wikipedia, operates under a Creative Commons BY-SA license, the same license as this site. The license not only has an attribution requirement, but the legal code requires the person using the content to “keep intact all copyright notices for the Work and provide, reasonable to the medium or means.”

One could very easily, and likely successfully, argue that posting the attribution on a Web site separate from the book does not complete the CC license as it is not “reasonable to the medium or means”. In short, if one is able to show that this unattributed copying goes beyond fair use, it could be a copyright liability.

Other books, including Kaavya Viswanathan’s were cancelled for less (in Anderson’s defense, Viswanathan’s book was a work of fiction, leading to a higher expectation of originality) and a person claiming to be an editor in the comments said that he has had to kill more than a few books for similar offenses.

It would be both prudent legally and much more respectful to the original creators for the book to be held back until these issues can be fixed and the book be thoroughly checked for other possible un-cited quotes.

Though looking at the evidence I have in front of me, I can not honestly tell if this was a case of malicious plagiarism, sloppy editing or a very bad mistake, but it is clear that there are issues with the citations in this book that need to be fixed and waiting to correct the electronic version or make edits to the future editions is not enough.

The bottom line is that, if we accept Anderson’s story at face value (and we have no evidence to make us doubt it), whoever made the decision to drop the footnotes at the last minute made a very serious error, one that almost invited this kind of problem. Without looking at the original citations, I can’t make any hard judgements about whether the citation was appropriate for copying, but if we assume that it was, the decision to change systems at the last minute was an unmitigated disaster.

I would love to do a thorough plagiarism analysis of the book and would gladly do so if I could be provided a suitable copy but, in lieu of that, I would encourage the publisher to perform one of their own. There are plenty of tools out there that can perform one cheaply and quickly. Doing so could save the publisher a great deal of headaches down the road.

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