Blog Post

Plagiarism Isn't Free (But It's All too Easy)

Over on Facebook, I'm engaged in a very interesting conversation sparked by Siva Vaidhyanathan's posting of this excellent expose in VIRGINIA QUARTERLY REVIEW of all the passages in Chris Anderson's new book FREE that were taken all too freely from other people, mainly Wikipedia, mistakes and all, without fact checking, and without attribution. Bad, bad, bad . . . Inexcusable. Not acceptable. Intellectually lazy. Reprehensible.


And yet . . .


It's a little terrifying for a fellow author to read this, especially one such as myself who is making the transition from my insanely meticulous scholarly way of writing to trade writing. Yesterday, I'm delighted to say, I delivered Part One of THE REWIRED BRAIN: THE DEEP STRUCTURE OF THINKING FOR THE INFORMATION AGE to my editor at Viking Press. Here's the count: 153 pages of text and 20 single-spaced, tightly packed pages of endnotes. In tiny type. The printed book will not look like this.


In academic publishing, every idea is attributed to a scientist or another researcher and that person's affiliation is included in the text which then has an endnote with the relevant research fully cited. When I look through the trade publications on my shelf, there are rarely endnotes. When there are, it's usually something quite scant with "note to page 34" and then maybe one citation. Maybe a bibliography. Maybe a bibliographic essay. Maybe not even. Oi vey.


I'm not being negative about trade publishing. There are conventions specific to different kinds of scholarship and different national settings. These are conventions and like all conventions we develop them over time. But endnotes are not the way to get the message about big, important, meaningful, transformative ideas to a mass audience. Endnotes should "PROFESSOR!" and, well, we profs don't expect thousands, tens of thousdand, hundreds of thousands of readers. By last count, the typical university press monograph had something like 800 readers. I happen to think the research I am doing on a new model of mind adequate to the last twenty years of neuroscientific research and helpful in addressing the complexities of our interactive, global, collaborative Information Age deserves more than 800 readers. I do want to change the world. Yep, that's my goal.


How do you change the world and footnote the work of some new center for cognition and digitality at this or that university? We don't have conventions for that yet. What we do have conventions for is a hugely rushed (this is true in academic publishing too, by the way) final copy edit through a manuscript, where mark after mark changes the order of things, changes content, and realligns the endnotes and the author sees her baby cut up like one of those diagrams of a cow on the way to slaughter (Here Thar Be Flank Steak, Here Thar Be Filet Mignon), and the clock is ticking, and nothing says "attention blindness" like worrying over thousands of small details under a deadline.


Oy vey.   And no doubt after the success of The Long Tail, Anderson's editor was pushing him hard to deliver his new book fast, faster, fastest, to capitalize a fickle audience ready to discard him for the next new flavor of the month.   You write that fast and you cut corners.   That is as much a parable of contemporary publishing as the "crisis in humanities monograph publishing at university presses."  Different end of the spectrum, not necessarily a different crisis.


Do I forgive Chris Anderson for sloppy research, snagging whole passages from Wikipedia without checking or attribution? Even with extenuating circumstances?  No way!

Am I feeling the anxiety of competing versions, visions, goals, and methods of authorship this morning? You betcha.


In our Facebook discussion, Siva notes that he faults Anderson less for dishonesty (which may well be inadvertent--it's easy to do in our "cut and paste" era where information can so easily be extracted for further use and then one can equally easily forget it's an extraction not one's own brilliant idea) than for intellectual laziness. I agree.

Here's the rest of the Anderson story, as a famous old newscaster used to say. There is an excellent moral to this story of "Free" publishing that we can use when we lecture next fall on plagiarism. Even the pros do it. And even the pros get caught. But there's also probably another moral too. It is possible that the Big Scary Plagiarism Accusation will get so much press that his sales will actually be higher than if he had done it the right way. I've read excerpts from FREE and it seems as if it is worth reading, so I don't begrudge him a big audience. But I really wish he'd done it right. And I wish that the Hyperbolic You Been Caught Paparazzi Version of Scholarly Responsibility were not the only measure of what does or does not make honest and serious thinking through of a complex subject.


To enlarge upon Siva's point, Anderson getting caught at pasting in unattributed and unchanged paragraphs from another source may be the least offensive version of "theft" in this too-free appropriation of ideas caught-out in FREE.


What do you think?




This is from Publisher's Lunch: And here's the url to the expose itself:

Free Indeed; Anderson's New Book Lifts Numerous Passages from Wikipedia
The Virginia Quarterly Review convincingly reproduces a number of incidences in Chris Anderson's new book FREE: The Future of a Radical Price that reproduce nearly verbatim portions of a number of Wikipedia articles.

Anderson admits fault via e-mail, saying "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." He intended to "do a write-through" of "source material without an individual author to credit (as in the case of Wikipedia)," and says that "obviously in my rush at the end I missed a few of that last category, which is bad.... 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."

As you can imagine, Hyperion supports Anderson's 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."

But Fast Company observes: "What's more disconcerting is that Anderson was relying so heavily on Wikipedia for his information in the first place; even middle-school book-reports shouldn't be crafted with ancillary information from that site. Confoundingly, many of the passages that appear lifted were readily-available definitions of terms that would appear in more credible reference books like the Oxford English Dictionary."

Subsequently, Ed Champion finds and blogs about various other lightly rewritten or borrowed phrasings from other sources (including a passage from a book by Wired colleague Kevin Kelly). "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."


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