“Laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism”

There’s been a lot of commentary in the blogosphere about the “Chris Anderson plagiarizing from Wikipedia” kerfuffle. (See my previous post for a recap.) There are too many apologists for Anderson and his use (or misuse) of Wikipedia, and even some criticisms have missed the forest for the trees. Let me spell it out:

  • It is simply not acceptable to quote or paraphrase from Wikipedia when writing a book or doing serious research. Wikipedia is a tertiary source, and a deeply flawed one at that. If high school students aren’t allowed to quote or paraphrase from Wikipedia or traditional encyclopedias, it is absurd to think that it’s acceptable for the author of a book to do so. It is not only intellectual laziness of the highest order, it ignores Wikipedia’s own warnings about its limitations and appropriate use. As I quoted in my previous post: “Most educators and professionals do not consider it appropriate to use tertiary sources such as encyclopedias as a sole source for any information… 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….”
  • If you insist on using Wikipedia, you must track down the original reference sources cited and verify the information. Errors (including transcription mistakes) in the original Wikipedia entries that Anderson used are reproduced in his own writing, meaning he never looked at the original cited sources, and he apparently didn’t verify or fact-check the information with additional primary or secondary sources. [Note to Chris Anderson:  If you don’t have the time to do the research and check sources yourself, you can hire a freelance researcher or journalist to either do it for you or check your work before publication.]
  • It is ridiculous for Anderson to claim that he removed his footnotes because he was “unable to find a good citation format for web sources.” As I mentioned in my previous post, there are many authoritative citation standards which can easily be found in style manuals and websites. Even Wikipedia itself gives you nine different citation formats (including Chicago and MLA) for each entry. Anderson says his publisher insisted on a timestamp for each URL, which Anderson found “clumsy and archaic,” so he cut out the footnotes. WRONG!  And don’t even get me started on the whole “write-through” thing.
  • Given Anderson’s background and his role as editor-in-chief of Wired, I find this all rather shocking, and it makes me wonder about the editorial standards of Anderson himself, his magazine, and his book publisher (Hyperion).

Yesterday Seth Simonds, in a delightfully snarky post titled “Laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism,” demonstrated (with screen shots and step-by-step instructions) what Anderson could (and should) have done to find a source listed in a Wikipedia entry. Here’s an excerpt:

Anderson took a last-minute 5th grade approach to writing. He found the Wikipedia listing for “Usury” and pasted the text into his manuscript…

5 Steps From Wikipedia To A Reliable Source…

Step 1: Find the citation link for the portion of the Wikipedia article you’d like to quote. (Don’t quote it. Not even if you’re a famous editor and you’re really busy.)

A. Click on citation link in the Wikipedia article.

B. Identify the key portions of the citation. In this case, author last name and date of publication.

Step 2: After finding the citation, launch a web search including the author name and original search term. Many bloggers would stop at the citation of Moehlman and use a “^Moehlman, 1934, page 7” attribution. As a professional editor conducting research for a print publication, I’m holding Anderson to a higher standard. Note: pasting from Wikipedia is a bad idea because you’re trusting a stranger’s transcription. Don’t be lazy…

5 responses to ““Laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism”

  1. Given the quality of Anderson’s research elsewhere, it is probably better that he did use Wikipedia. It probably reduced the number of errors.

  2. There are two big issues here which are being conflated. One is the plagarism charge, in which Anderson is clearly in the wrong and should suffer whatever consequences are coming his way.

    The other is the decision to use Wikipedia as a source. I’m not a cool kid in that I don’t have an advance copy of the book, but from what I understand of the book’s premise, the use of Wikipedia as a source might be warranted or at least excusable in this specific case. I’m not saying this is a particularly good practice, just that it might be worth having a debate about it instead of dismissing it out of hand. Unfortunately, because this complaint is brought up in conjunction with the plagarism, this part of the discussion gets an unfair dismissal.

    The plagarism is indeed shocking, and even with his explanations, it’s not excusable. Using Wikipedia as a source isn’t that shocking though, especially given the premise of Anderson’s work…

  3. lisagoldresearch

    Mark–
    You may be right that, given the subject matter of the book, a case could be made for the use of Wikipedia, IF he had used it properly. You use tertiary sources like Wikipedia and encyclopedias for an overview of a topic and to direct you to primary and secondary sources– you don’t quote from them or use them as your only source. Anderson could have easily gone back to the original sources for the information he wanted to use from the Wikipedia entries, verified the information, and then quoted and cited the original sources. But he never went back to original sources or verified the information he was using, so the errors made by Wikipedians in writing the entries also appear in his book. This is just wrong, especially coming from an experienced journalist and the editor of an influential magazine.

  4. Pingback: SJ’s Longest Now » Relying on non-specific reputation can be deadly

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