Chris Anderson responds to plagiarism blog-storm over "Free"

Chris Anderson, author and Wired magazine editor-in-chief, responded on his blog to a web-tempest that blew up yesterday after Waldo Jaquith at the VQR rightly pointed out that some passages in his new book "Free" were improperly cited.

All the web loves a blogtroversy and a public takedown, and many sites covering the matter invoked the p-word: plagiarism.

In my opinion, Anderson handled the situation honorably: he responded directly, candidly, and immediately. He publicly took responsibility for the "screwup" first, and explained what had happened in more detail later, without backtracking on the failure(s) and why they matter. Read the whole thing, but here's one graf of note:

Also note the VQR is not saying that all the highlighted text is plagiarism; much of is actually properly cited and quoted excerpts of old NYT times articles and other historical sources. And as you'll see, in 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 (in a few cases I missed it entirely, such as that short Catholic church usury example, which was a total oversight). 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.
Corrections in the digital editions of Free (


  1. And as you’ll see, in 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 (in a few cases I missed it entirely, such as that short Catholic church usury example, which was a total oversight).

    Tell me more about these things you call ‘writethroughs’. Sounds like a million dollar idea.

    Now, where did I put that latest issue of WIRED?

  2. I’m writing my PhD thesis, and I’ve decided to cite Wikipedia. I explained why in my introduction, and subsequently cite entries as written by ‘Wikipedians’.

  3. “writethrough”, at a guess, would be to take parts of wikipedia articles, and rewrite them in your own words.

    Which, in many cases, would still qualify as plagerism, if unattributed.

  4. Writethrough sounds like what I did to get through my SACE (bascially my regions SATs) studies.

    Thankfully the internet was young enough then for me to be one of the few people ganking from it.

    I’ve never admitted that before, so lets just hope my Modern European History lecturer is not reading right now….

  5. Wikipedia is the communal instant-access information store, and the articles are written to a general uninformed audience. It’s really perfect for when an author just doesn’t have anything original to say on a topic but still has to include the information. In most cases (including NYT), you’d probably prefer the Wikipedia entry anyway.

    Makes perfect sense for a thesis; we use Wikipedia in my lab all the time.

    Anderson is obviously a smart guy who sees the market for solidifying a small drop of that info-goo into paper and explaining to readers how it’s all going to change the world a heck of a lot. From the descriptions on Amazon, it sounds like he admits as much somewhere in the text. I did notice that the price on Amazon is not $0.00, so perhaps we should assume readers will already be on the alert.

    Finally, I don’t see how there is any difficulty in citing Wikipedia. Their Terms of Use make attribution requirements pretty clear. He doesn’t even need to link to Wikipedia; the book could have it’s own citation website with reproductions of the Wikipedia pages.

  6. #5 is correct. Using extensive material verbatim, or nearly so, without attributing sources is the definition of plagiarism. Doesn’t matter if the copying is claimed to be accidental or not.

    Here is what Anderson’s favorite source says about it.

    A person like Anderson is paid big bucks to have presumably sound, interesting, and at least somewhat original ideas. Fail.

    But if he can’t manage good ideas, then at minimum, as the editor of a major periodical, he should conduct himself as a scrupulously professional journalist. Epic fail.

  7. He fully admits it and seems to have a decent explanation for it so it isn’t that big of a deal.

    …except in one area…

    Anderson wrote
    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 (something like this: page viewed on July 8th, 2008), which struck me as clumsy and archaic. So at the 11th hour we decided to kill the notes and footnotes entirely and I integrated the attributions into the copy.

    Clumsy or not, that’s basically how it is done. Wikipedia has on every entry a link in the left hand column that will tell you how to “cite this page.” It is even called “cite this page.” Clicking that link will take you to a page that will tell you exactly how for cite a particular version of a wikipedia entry in numerous citation styles. See the entry for Anderson himself for example Looking at the citations you will note that every single style includes the date the entry was accessed and some even include the time. Even if he didn’t want to include the date the “cite this page” link gives you a url for the entry with a specific id number so even if the entry is changed the link will still go to the version of it that is cited.

    Of course it is possible that mediawiki, the software that wikipedia runs on, didn’t have this feature when he was writing the book a few years ago but it looks like they had that feature at least as far back as December 27, 2005.

  8. I’m a university writing teacher. What Anderson did would absolutely (and rightly) be considered plagiarism at our institution. In fact, big chunks of uncited Wikipedia is the most common form of plagiarism I see.

    As for his ridiculous excuses about not knowing how to cite them, or, when being told how to do it, objecting because it looked bad? Unbelievably arrogant. It’s like refusing to put the license plate on your car because it’s ugly. It doesn’t matter; you’re still going to get busted, and rightly so.

    Not that I ever had that much respect for Anderson–his ideas are goofy at best–but this just proves how unprofessional he is.

    “Writethrough.” Unbelievable.

    Grade: F-

  9. Commenting from left field it occurred to me that any Wikipedia citation should cite the version of a page. You want to cite the version you used and at the same time credit the authors of that version. The citation should include a page reference that recreates the page version and makes it clear if there is a newer version. Something along the lines of
    which can alert the user and offer the current page if the version isn’t found.

    Half off sale today, my 1 cent.

  10. Oldscot, good idea, but crediting the “authors of that version” is impractical. There’s no practical way to know who contributed substantively to a particular Wikipedia article.

  11. One more comment, then I’ll leave this alone:

    Anderson’s specific rep is built on the idea that he’s a “wired” guy, who has a special understanding of how the new media world works, and a talent for being forward-looking.

    The fact that he didn’t anticipate that this lifting of material would be quickly and easily uncovered by the many-eyed web is, IMO, a double blow to his rep.

  12. So is anyone working on some of Anderson’s old “articles” to find all the direct copying in there, too?

    From the title of his ‘book’, the man is obviously a hypocrit…

  13. Plagiarism seems to be governed by a sliding scale, with consequences lessening as the wrongdoer’s status rises.

  14. Incredible!!!

    The guy is Editor-in-chief of WIRED magazine and can NOT figure out a way to properly credit Wikipedia??????

    Thats WAY LAME…..

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