Fast Company

Chris Anderson Lifted Wikipedia Passages for 'Free'

The Virginia Quarterly Review took a close look at Wired editor Chris Anderson's upcoming book Free, and discovered that entire passages appear to match entries in Wikipedia verbatim. Says reviewer Waldo Jaquith:

"... [A]fter 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." (Emphasis mine.)

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Jaquith's discovery (an excerpt, above) is an embarrassing oversight for the normally meticulous editor, whose book is scheduled to go on sale July 7 (no delay has been announced). In a response to the reviewer at the Virginia Quarterly Review, Anderson issued this mea culpa:

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... Obviously in my rush at the end I missed a few of that last category, which is bad.

Anderson's citation-based plight comes in part as a result of a lack of standards in book publishing for the referencing of online sources. Since URLs are often long, unwieldy and dynamic, they're hard to publish without becoming quickly outdated or adding scores of pages to the book's final count. As Anderson says:

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.

But 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. And yet, what do we expect from such a devoted Web disciple as Anderson?

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11 Comments

  • notquite leet

    Michael,

    Did you miss this part of the articles you posted: "The quote had no referenced sources and was therefore taken down by moderators of Wikipedia within minutes"

    You see, this is what the history tab is for... along with the explanation of why a portion of the page or any information therein was removed. Most people with common sense check the history tab to see how frequent the content changes, and what content is being disputed. The "stability' of the topic is a strong indicator of fairness and controversiality. On top of all this, your example was a malicious effort by a random person in the first place, likely earning him a ban from Wikipedia.

    The same theme is present in your second article. People extracting information from Wikipedia without the source of said information being present in the article. This condition is why moderators remove content that is not backed up with a link or citation.

    All you have pointed out is a mistake on the publishing authors of their own work to make sure what they were extracting from Wikipedia was verified, which they didnt, which is also required by Wikipedia moderators/editors for any presentation of fact to exist as information in any article.

    Next please.

  • Michael McDonnell

    This bothers me a lot and makes me quite bitter. I've written or co-written four books and took pains to make sure that the material was original.

    Writing books this way is hard and yes, a couple of these projects had impossible deadlines. I didn't get rich doing work this way but it infuriates me that it appears some authors are apparently willing to cut corners just to get the product out onto the market. I guess "pride in one's craft" is completely dead today.

  • notquite leet

    Noah, please cite how and when Wikipedia has been proven wrong too many times and in too many ways. And keep in mind it wouldnt be wikipedia that is proven wrong, as Wikipedia is, again, not a source of original content. The citations within the Wikipedia article are what would be proven wrong, and that would effect any author or person/entity otherwise using said citations, not Wikipedia.

  • NoahRobischon

    @notquite leet: Wikipedia is an amazing and self-correcting tool. But it's been proven inaccurate too many times and in too many ways for your argument to hold up. And the way it's been proven inaccurate is often through journalists who relied on the text in an entry and then found out that the material was fabricated or worse.

    I do think that Wikipedia will become a more reliable source of accurate information as it evolves. But right now, today, every journalist knows better than to take anything in a Wikipedia entry as truth without getting other sources to back it up.

  • Jimmy Lee Shreeve

    As an author myself, I think we should give Chris Anderson a break. He probably pulled material straight off Wikipedia because he was pushed for time. Books don't really pay. You've got to sell a lot of copies to make good money when your royalties are between 8 and 10%, less with all the discounting.

    So he was likely weighing up how he could get his copy moving fast, so he could keep up his other business activities.

    In the end you don't write books for love, you write them for money. Like any other business you might have to cut corners to get the product out.

    But unlike Microsoft, Nintendo, etc, etc, authors are expected to be above money, or to be somehow financially self-sufficient, and write for love. Like they're supposed to have aristocratic parents who give them an allowance.

    So before we knock Chris Anderson, let's consider the corners we cut in our own business lives...can we really judge Chris for what he seems to have done?

    Lastly, I can't see any of it matters because "copyright" work is likely to go the way of the dinosaurs as as result of the internet and filesharing. No amount of legislation will hold it back...and nor should it, some level of free market will win out in the end (which is great in my view).

    If this happens, I'll be out of an income, but I accept that.

    --
    Jimmy Lee Shreeve, cult author
    http://www.jimmyleeshreeve.net

  • notquite leet

    Again, the only issue here is your personal bias toward Wikipedia.

    You are basing your assertion on an assumption that there was no cross-referencing. Have you bothered to look at the sources on the "free lunch" article on wikipedia?

    You say wikipedia is a patently unacceptable source for serious research. Why? Articles themselves can be wholly, or in part comprised by sources that are certainly based off of publications considered "serious research" or at least in part based off of "serious research" itself. You see, this is the part you still don't understand. Wikipedia is not a source of original content. The "serious research" for most articles has already been done (and cited) and is what forms the content of articles, within reason mind you. You seem not to like it because Wikipedia acts as an intermediary between the articulation of the common layperson and sophisticated works of academia and/or journalism. Guess what? Thats why Wikipedia is so successful.

    On a side note I'll pretend you didn't base your argument against Anderson on validity of sources, then turn around in your reply and cite theregister.co.uk as a valid and "serious" source. That might make you look a bit... unfavorable.

    Also, you haven't explained exactly why copying text verbatim is a negative thing. If I want facts, and an article on a website presents just that, compounded with a free and open license - explanation forthcoming, why is there any need to alter the information that I am already looking for, and have found? Here again is where you miss the entire premise of wikipedia. The entire site operates off of an open, free license to use its content in any way you so choose. In fact I would contest, legally, any accusation of actual plagiarism when a wikipedia page is involved due to several caveats. You really need to read the Forward by Jimmy Wales in "The Wikipedia Revolution". In fact Ill save you the trouble since you seem a bit too biased to do so. In said Foreword he states:

    "What do I mean by free? I mean free as in speech, not free as in beer. It means we give our people four freedoms. You get the freedom to copy our work. You can modify it. You can redistribute it. And you can redistribute modified versions. And you can do all these things commercially or noncommercially. When we talk about Wikipedia being a free encyclopedia, what we're really talking about is not the price that it takes to access it, but rather the freedom that you have to take it and adapt it and use it however you like."

    On the Wiki vs Britannica front - do you really think that a publication that has held an authoritative dictatorship in this arena over a period of a few centuries is going to welcome news, that a free, internet based communal encyclopedia can be as accurate as they are lying down, without trying to take a few shots back? Do you really? Do you not think that this news would challenge the prestige, respect, authority, economic and reputational credibility, validity, and expertise of the editors and experts of Britannica? Do you not think that there is enough potential for bias in that alone for Britannica to try to smear the study, regardless of the reality? Do you really think the company with the most to lose financially would not cry foul?

    Seriously, try being a little more pragmatic.

    You strike me as the old school teacher type, who shuns ingenuity because result of the aforementioned hasn't been approved by an authoritative figure. Did you know we make words up in English everyday. But they aren't "real" words! Why? Because Merriam-Webster hasn't added them in to the dictionary. Yet we know from 7th grade Language Arts class how to break down words by prefixes, suffixes, etc, and thus can derive its intended meaning with some level of certainty. But what does it take for a word to be entered in to the dictionary - to officially become a part of our English language? Essentially it simply needs to become a word in common use. Nevermind the meaning or articulation of whatever the word is trying to convey. People are too busy judging it by how many other people are using it, then and only then does it become acceptable. And lost in this ironic paradox is the whole reason that language is art, as is journalism.

    I once had a brilliant professor who, in one of his lectures said, "Anyone who survived high school knows that popularity has nothing to do with relevance." Odd how far reaching this subtle truth is.

    If Chris Anderson wants to contact me please do so a notquiteleet[at]gmail.com. I'd love a copy of the book to review for myself without the *cough* bias from random critics.

  • Chris Dannen

    @notquite leet:

    Wikipedia is a patently unacceptable source of information for any piece of serious research when used alone, and to argue otherwise is confusingly, bizarrely irrational.

    Assuming that what we've learned from the VQR review is accurate, we know this: had Anderson cross-referenced the information he found on Wikipedia to ensure its veracity, then Wikipedia, in that context, would be a fine tool for him to use. But by using text from the site verbatim, he reveals that he didn't do any cross-referencing -- and that's precisely what's so distressing about this story. Wikipedia can serve as a great platform for launching research, but it should never be allowed, under any circumstances, the final factual word on any entry.

    You say Wikipedia is "not a source of original content," but that's precisely its problem; because of it smacks of factuality, editors can wedge biased information into well-cited research subtly and based on any agenda. That phenomenon was the genesis for the satirical concept of "truthiness" that so clearly eludes you.

    In the study you reference in your comment, both Britannica and Wikipedia were found to have errors -- but Wikipedia had an average of 25% more of them, a statistically significant disparity (see citation below).

    Then again, anyone who valued cross-referencing would have dug deeper into that study and discovered that the entity that did the research, Nature magazine, was subsequently slapped with several weighty accusations of bias by several other publications. In one part of their experiment, according to IT trade journal the Register, Nature compared Wikipedia to a childrens' edition of Britannica, and cited as "errors" shortcomings in conceptual explanation. And some of the articles attributed to Britannica in the experiment, the encyclopedia's editors claim, appear nowhere in any of its volumes.

    Wikipedia is a marvelous tool of sundry uses--but book research is not one of them.

    (*http://news.cnet.com/2100-1038...
    (**http://www.theregister.co.uk/2...

  • notquite leet

    The true shame in this piece is the author of it, Chris Dannen.

    It is widely known that wikipedia is just as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica. What baffles me is that this misunderstanding of this issue comes not from Chris Anderson's understanding of journalistic integrity, but Chris Dannens complete ignorance, void of any understanding of what exactly wikipedia is.

    Wikipedia is not a source of original content. It is an aggregation of existing information culminated in to page articles on any particular subject. Each presentation of fact must be cited with a link where such conclusion, or presentation of fact is derived.

    Whether Anderson chose to cite such wikipedia pages or not is irrelevant. There merely needs to be a reference that wikipedia was used to gather information presented in his book, which leads me to my next point. The whole freaking premise wikipedia is so popular and ultimately reliable, especially in light of scientific studies (see the Britannica study), is because of its sheer accuracy created from a communal contribution. This ultimately led to the Stephen Colbert coined term of "truthiness", meaning truth by consensus which is in one part a sarcastic stab at the wikipedia phenomena, and the other part a testament that there is very much a proven, sustainable, and measurable truth to the same phenomena.

    This article is purely a reflection of how much Chris Dannen doesnt understand, and the quarrel with the "credibility" of sources he should have used, which are likely cited in the wikipedia articles anyway, are preadolescent at best.

    Again, the issue lies with Dannen, not Anderson.

  • Peter Mortensen

    It always shocks me when people get caught plagiarizing, not least because it's so much easier to take a true scholar's approach and credit your sources as they come.

    I will say Wikipedia is a great research tool -- not for getting your data, but for referring you to authoritative sources and key articles on a topic. Ironically, the one thing that could have avoided this mishap is Wikipedia's diligence on footnoting...