“Can’t decide which is more embarrassing — failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source.”

From the Virginia Quarterly Review blog, a post by Waldo Jaquith titled “Chris Anderson’s Free Contains Apparent Plagiarism”:

In the course of reading Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Hyperion, $26.99), for a review in an upcoming issue of VQR, we have discovered almost a dozen passages that are reproduced nearly verbatim from uncredited sources. These instances were identified after a cursory investigation, after I checked by hand several dozen suspect passages in the whole of the 274-page book. This was not an exhaustive search, since I don’t have access to an electronic version of the book. Most of the passages, but not all, come from Wikipedia. Anderson is the author of the best-selling 2006 book The Long Tail and is the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. The official publication date for Free is July 7.

Examples of the passages in question follow. The words and phrases that are found in both Free and the apparent original source are highlighted…

Though reproducing words or original ideas from any uncredited source is widely defined as plagiarism, using text from Wikipedia presents an even more significant problem than reproducing traditional copyrighted text. Under Wikipedia’s Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license, Anderson would be required to credit all contributors to the quoted passages, license his modifications under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, note that the original work has been modified, and provide the text of or a link to the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Anderson has not done any of these things in Free.

Anderson responded personally to a request for comments about how this unattributed text came to appear in his book, providing the following remarks by e-mail:

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, in three groups:

* Long passages of direct quotes (indent, with source)

* Intellectual debts, phrases and other credit due (author credited inline, as with Michael Pollan)

* In the case of source material without an individual author to credit (as in the case of Wikipedia), do a write-through.

Obviously in my rush at the end I missed a few of that last category, which is bad. As you’ll note, these are mostly on the margins of the book’s focus, mostly on historical asides, but that’s no excuse. I should have had a better process to make sure the write-through covered all the text that was not directly sourced.

I think what we’ll do is publish those notes after all, online as they should have been to begin with. That way the links are live and we don’t have to wrestle with how to freeze them in time, which is what threw me in the first place….

5:15 p.m. update: Hyperion has provided us with the following statement.

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.

Hyperion says that they intend to have the notes online by the time that the book is published.

Make sure you also read the comments to the post, which are fascinating, especially the smackdown between Chris Anderson and Edward Champion.

Carolyn Kellogg, in the LA Times Jacket Copy blog, comments:

As citations for Web sources have been established for some time, this seems an odd explanation from Anderson, who is no publishing novice. His previous book, “The Long Tail,” was a bestseller, and he is currently editor in chief of Wired magazine…

The lack of attribution may indeed have been a combination of mistake and lack of oversight. But as one commenter on Gawker lamented, “Can’t decide which is more embarrassing — failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source.”

Wikipedia is one of the resources Anderson lauds — in “The Long Tail,” he called it a phenomenon. In this one, he writes, “there is the amazing ‘gift economy’ of Wikipedia,” later explaining, “Wikipedia makes no money at all, but because an incomparable information resource is now available to all at no cost, our own ability to make money armed with more knowledge is improved.”

The whole point of Anderson’s “Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price” is to explore what he calls “the paradox of Free,” in which “people are making lots of money and charging nothing.”

Anderson’s hardcover costs $26.99. Wikipedia is still free.

And within hours, Anderson’s Wikipedia’s entry had been updated — with attribution — to reflect the charges of plagiarism. Updates to “Free” are expected to take a while. Which proves Anderson’s point — I think.

Edward Champion decided to investigate himself:

Unfortunately, I have learned that the VQR’s investigations only begin to scratch the surface. A cursory plunge into the book’s contents reveals that Anderson has not only cribbed material from Wikipedia and websites (sometimes without accreditation), but that he has a troubling habit of mentioning a book or an author and using this as an excuse to reproduce the content with very few changes — in some cases, nearly verbatim.

By the way, recent editions of style manuals contain detailed information on how to cite websites and online sources, most notably the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. (See my post “The writer’s bookshelf (part 3)” for more information on style manuals.)

Update 1: Today Chris Anderson posted an explanation on his blog:

First, as readers of my writings know, I’m a supporter of using Wikipedia as a source (not the only one, of course, and checking the original source material whenever possible). I disagree with those who say it should never be used. But the question is how to use it.

In my drafts, I had intended to blockquote Wikipedia passages, footnoting their URL. But my publisher, like many others, was uncomfortable with the changing nature of Wikipedia, and wanted me to timestamp each URL… which struck me as clumsy and archaic… [I]n most cases I did do a writethrough of the non-quoted Wikipedia text, although clearly I didn’t go nearly far enough and too much of the original Wikipedia authors’ language remained… This was sloppy and inexcusable, but the part I feel worst about is that in our failure to find a good way to cite Wikipedia as the source we ended up not crediting it at all. That is, among other things, an injustice to the authors of the Wikipedia entry who had done such fine research in the first place, and I’d like to extend a special apology to them….

This is totally lame. Somewhere Research Cat is crying…

Update 2: My husband pointed out that every Wikipedia entry has a link called “Cite this page,” which contains permanent page links and nine different citation styles, including Chicago, MLA, etc. Here’s the citation page for the Wikipedia article on Chris Anderson. Please note what’s written at the top of the page:

IMPORTANT NOTE: Most educators and professionals do not consider it appropriate to use tertiary sources such as encyclopedias as a sole source for any information — citing an encyclopedia as an important reference in footnotes or bibliographies may result in censure or a failing grade. Wikipedia articles should be used for background information, as a reference for correct terminology and search terms, and as a starting point for further research.

As with any community-built reference, there is a possibility for error in Wikipedia’s content — please check your facts against multiple sources and read our disclaimers for more information.


5 responses to ““Can’t decide which is more embarrassing — failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source.”

  1. Lazy on so very many levels. Was there no Wired intern hanging around to volunteer to do the research legwork if Anderson couldn’t be bothered? And Wikipedia entries are supposed to cite sources anyway, so it’s not even hard to independently verify information (assuming it’s good and sourced as it’s supposed to be).

  2. I can’t believe this story! While it is reprehensible that someone use information without citing the true owners of the intellectual property, what really bothers me here is Anderson’s excuses. I am a high school English teacher and had NO trouble teaching my students about citations and media literacy – two lessons it appears Anderson could use. What I don’t understand is how this got past everyone at the publishing house. If my 16 year old students can get this right, why can’t the EDITOR(?!) of Wired?

  3. Have lost all respect for Chris Anderson. There is no excuse for failing to cite. Shame also on his publishers for condoning plagiarism. And so flagrantly!

  4. Who knew it was so hard to use the standard “referenced on Month Day Year” for a web reference?

  5. Pingback: Le blogue de Marie-Claude Ducas » Blog Archive » Free, de Chris Anderson : duel de gourous et histoire de plagiat