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June 24, 2009 8:06 AM   Subscribe

Waldo Jaquith of The Virginia Quarterly has discovered considerable evidence of plagiarism in Chris Anderson's new book, Free.

Anderson, editor of Wired magazine and writer of The Long Tail, has a new book coming out, called Free. In a lengthy article previewing the book in Wired, Anderson argues that as the costs of broadband and storage dive ever lower, the value of many kinds of information plummets to zero, prompting the development of entirely new business and service models and spurring creativity. He lists Wikipedia among the strange new fauna of the zero bound --- calling it an example of a "Gift economy." It sure seems to have been a gift to Anderson --- Jaquith found "almost a dozen passages that are reproduced nearly verbatim from uncredited sources," including plenty from Wikipedia. Anderson says the apparent plagiarism occurred when passages formally included as footnotes were sloppy incorporated into the main body of the text. He has in the past been a bit of a stickler on media laziness (creating a blacklist of publicists who send him inappropriate pitches) and a defender of print, being quoted recently in the New York Times as saying (of Wired), “We need to do something that doesn’t exist online, and do it in a superior way. Otherwise we should just do it online.”
posted by Diablevert (74 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
This will end well.
posted by blucevalo at 8:13 AM on June 24, 2009


Oopsie!

Silly printers! Always making little goofs!
posted by From Bklyn at 8:14 AM on June 24, 2009


The weirdest thing to me about all of this is how his publisher was like "Eh this is no big deal." When I was reading about this yesterday there was a certain amount of super-handwringing about it, but it does seem like copypasting a bunch of text that you changed a few words in is pretty lazy. Edrants has a few specifics for people who cant really get through the VQR highlighting. I'm happy he owned up to it, and I don't really think using Wikipedia as a source is that omg-awful, but this still leaves me scratching my head. This is really ok? Really?

creating a blacklist of publicists who send him inappropriate pitches

I think that's actually a pretty normal thing, right there.
posted by jessamyn at 8:15 AM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Using Wikipedia as a source is one thing, but straight copy pasting with perhaps a few grammatical shifts is total bullshit. I hope this guy goes down hard. If the publisher's nonchalance is indicative of the feelings of the community at large, we're all in a heap of trouble.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:18 AM on June 24, 2009


I'm sure he thinks borrowing other people's work without attribution or payment should also be free. However, I'm sure he thinks the information in his book should not be given away for free.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:18 AM on June 24, 2009 [8 favorites]


I don't think using Wikipedia as a source is awful either, but his explanation, though seemingly scrupulous, still leaves me scratching my head too. There may be something going on somewhere here about "OMG I can't possibly use Wikipedia and then cite it, because Wikipedia is not a Valid Source of Information," but that's just a surmise.
posted by blucevalo at 8:20 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not that this would fly in court (either legally or of public opinion) but I always kind of think of Wikipedia as The Oracle. I'm not quoting a source, I'm getting The Facts from The Horse's Mouth. It would be like putting quotes around "2 + 2 = 4" because I'm quoting the platonic realm of mathematics.
posted by DU at 8:23 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Are there any authors, PhD thesis writers, etc, on Mefi who would like to explain why the frequently heard "I confused my notes for my own writing" excuse isn't just total BS? I don't doubt the difficulty of keeping track of sources and citations, but when it comes to knowing whether any given passage of writing is my own or someone else's... I just know.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:23 AM on June 24, 2009 [10 favorites]


Waldo is a Mefite!
posted by AaRdVarK at 8:23 AM on June 24, 2009


Anderson says the apparent plagiarism occurred when passages formally included as footnotes were sloppy incorporated into the main body of the text.

That is bullshit. I'm sick of that excuse, if you're supposed to be a professional pay some fucking attention to what you are doing.

Didn't Godwin or Ambrose have a similar excuse?
posted by marxchivist at 8:25 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


He has in the past been a bit of a stickler on media laziness (creating a blacklist of publicists who send him inappropriate pitches)...

This is not an example of "media laziness." See the comments in this former FPP for clarification.

jessamyn: I think that's actually a pretty normal thing, right there.

It's an appropriate and common reaction to blind pitches. However, most journalists don't do so publicly. Personally, I wish more would.
posted by zarq at 8:27 AM on June 24, 2009


Waldo is a Mefite!

Mefites: Fucking your shit up!
posted by milarepa at 8:28 AM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


UVA seems to have gotten very plagiarism-sniffing-happy lately, what with several cheating scandals involving direct copy-pasting into submitted papers. It's a huge deal there given the single-sanction Honor Code imposed on all academic work there requiring expulsion if found guilty of lying, cheating (especially Academic Fraud which is pretty clearly defined) or stealing. I knew professors who wrote (or had students write for them) plenty of code to check for this type of stuff in submitted papers, exemplified by the How Things Work cheating scandal that hit while I was still a student there.

Off-topic: You know, it's amazing that I graduated from UVA, and spent 8 years in Charlottesville in total, yet never really heard of the VQR until after I moved away.
posted by This Guy at 8:31 AM on June 24, 2009


Waldo is a Mefite!

Oh, yeah? Then where is he?
posted by adamdschneider at 8:32 AM on June 24, 2009 [6 favorites]


The value of many kinds of information plummets to zero, prompting the development of entirely new business and service models and spurring creativity

He should give the book away for free to prove his own point.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 8:39 AM on June 24, 2009


Crap, sorry. I meant to link to the entire former FPP and not my own comment. :P
posted by zarq at 8:39 AM on June 24, 2009


Really, if the book is about information wanting to be free, it only makes sense to liberate the best passages you find. To buy something you are proving has no value would not be thematically consistent at all.

Also thematically inconsistent is paying to read about how information wants to be free, so in the spirit of Waldo Jaquith this space will be updated with a RapidShare link to download this book in semi-convenient .pdf.
posted by paisley henosis at 8:40 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, if he copy-pasted from Wikipedia, doesn't that mean his book is now GFDL? Or Creative Commons, whatever version they're using now?

It'd be ironic if Free ended up actually being free.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:40 AM on June 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'll never understand why people doing research use the text directly from the Wikipedia. It's a secondary source -- a good one, but also one that changes over time. This is good for an encyclopedia, but maybe not so good for a source from which you are quoting specific facts. However, it has done a lot of the research for you. At the bottom of every Wikipedia article is a bibliography of often primary sources for the subject at hand. Can't writers at the very least use these resources instead? And for goodness sakes, at least you could cite it properly.
posted by bluefly at 8:40 AM on June 24, 2009 [8 favorites]


I have no opinion at all on Anderson, but as about twice a year I see headlines trumpeting OMG PLAGIARISM, I am curious to see if the charge ever gets refuted or withdrawn in any of these cases: essentially, do writers ever get falsely or mistakenly accused of it, or are they ever get found, er, not guilty? Or is plagiarism the academic equivalent of a story that you have a hard drive full of child porn: a stain that can never get removed even if turns out the accusation is totally baseless?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:41 AM on June 24, 2009


The class has 300 to 500 students each semester.

Professor Bloomfield set up a computer program to detect similarities of six consecutive words or more between term papers submitted to him over the last five semesters. It took the program 50 hours to run through more than 1,800 papers, but it was not long before the first matches appeared, he said, and they showed the papers to be virtual replicas.

"I expected to see a couple of matches," he said. "I was a bit shocked to find 60."


Not clear how "match" is defined here (is that 60 papers total, or 60 copies of N =< 60 originals?), but this seems pretty remarkably LOW to me. It's only about 3% of the papers, in a massively overpopulated class in a mandatory subject that most probably wish they didn't have to take.

I know for a fact that my HS geometry class had a cheating rate much higher than this and that was for nightly homework, which would be a lot easier to just DO than a term paper.
posted by DU at 8:42 AM on June 24, 2009


At the risk of sounding extremely naive, is it not possible that he wrote the sections that seem to have been lifted from Wikipedia? Attribution isn't its strongest suit.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:47 AM on June 24, 2009


...when passages formally included as footnotes...

Formerly?
posted by ericb at 8:52 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


As a grad student with several published articles, I can relate to the frustration about convincing the various citation managers I use to spit out anything resembling a proper citation for a URL without lots of tweaking (I'm glaring at you, BibTeX!). All the same, this is no excuse whatsoever to fail to cite a resource. There's no way he didn't know about this challenge well in advance of the deadline, and for someone as supposedly "tech-saavy" as Anderson, I find it pretty inexcusable.

Also: I don't know much about Free, so I may be retreading things it covers, but the marginal cost of distributing additional copies of digital information is essentially free. There's still a sunk cost creating the information and the distribution infrastructure. I haven't yet encuntered anyone pushing anything remotely close to a working model to monetize digital information (DRM-enforced artificial scarcity = boo, hiss..) but I don't think "free" is going to cut it. Somebody's got to subsidize the effort of creating the work, and the infrastructure to distribute it..
posted by Alterscape at 8:52 AM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


"I don't doubt the difficulty of keeping track of sources and citations, but when it comes to knowing whether any given passage of writing is my own or someone else's... I just know."

I can see internalizing stuff. A turn of phrase that strikes you as perfect through vanity must have been thought/written by you.
posted by Mitheral at 8:52 AM on June 24, 2009


Actually, he's said a few times that Free will, in fact, be free on the internet after publication.
posted by droob at 8:53 AM on June 24, 2009


Isn't Waldo Jaquith one of the made up people Ambrose Bierce quotes in The Devil's Dictionary?
posted by fleetmouse at 8:55 AM on June 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


AaRdVarK: Waldo is a Mefite!

Where?
posted by shakespeherian at 8:56 AM on June 24, 2009


DU, from my memory, and probably faulty understanding of it, there were 60 copies of essentially the same paper floating around in the 1800 submitted papers. What caused the real problem was that it's an Honor violation, and if found guilty the accused would be kicked out of school. Or if they'd already graduated they could have their degree revoked. Also, the class was a pretty dumbed-down, funned-up version of physics for non-science majors, and a pretty easy A, so the blatant cheating was A) not even needed B) causing a huge problem for what could be considered a small infraction.
posted by This Guy at 8:57 AM on June 24, 2009


"This is not an example of "media laziness." See the comments in this former FPP for clarification."

Yeah, I should have described that better. What I meant was, Anderson went to the length of naming and shaming publicists who sent him blind pitches --- a common, unfortunate, and ineffective practice, which PR people basically do out of sheer laziness --- not bothering to check who the appropriate contact is and just sending a flier to the top of the masthead.

It struck me as ironic that we went so far as to publicly castigate lazy PR people reaching out to him as the editor in chief of Wired, yet in his own work as an author basically pulled a bunch of his colorful background material straight from wikipedia and then jammed it in the text without attribution. I mean, these days Wiki usually has links to primary sources for a lot of this stuff --- it would have involved scarcely more effort to go to them and use them, as he should have been reviewing them anyway rather than blindly trusting wiki.


Also, I wish to state that I am heartily ashamed of my own ironic misuse of the work "sloppy," above; it should of course be "sloppily."
posted by Diablevert at 8:59 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


kittens, read the article. The authors of the Wiki pieces are named.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:00 AM on June 24, 2009


"I don't doubt the difficulty of keeping track of sources and citations, but when it comes to knowing whether any given passage of writing is my own or someone else's... I just know."

Cryptomnesia, or inadvertent plagiarism, is a memory bias whereby a person falsely recalls generating a thought, an idea, a song, or a joke, when the thought was actually generated by someone else.
posted by dontoine at 9:02 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


The thing that baffles me about plagiarism, especially in this context (what with Anderson being a popular/high-profile author, and Wikipedia being an oft-read source) is that he was bound to be caught!

It's one thing if you plagiarize an obscure source for some paper that only a few people will read. It's lunacy if you plagiarize Wikipedia for your pop-news novel.

One might almost come to some strange conclusion that Anderson did this stunt to generate publicity (I know it sounds weird but hey, we're talking about him and the book...)
posted by gen at 9:11 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Professor Bloomfield set up a computer program to detect similarities of six consecutive words or more between term papers submitted to him over the last five semesters. … "I expected to see a couple of matches," he said. "I was a bit shocked to find 60."

Seems to me there are two possible conclusions you could draw from here, and you need more research to figure out which is appropriate:

- One is that there are indeed way more cheaters in the class than Prof. Bloomfield ever expected.

- Alternatively, maybe something about the methodology is returning a lot of false positives. Maybe six words is too low a bar for "plagiarism." E.g., perhaps there are commonly-repeated phrases that exceed six words that are being reused, or two papers are quoting a particularly pithy passage from the same source. In a sample of hundreds of papers all written about the same general topic, as you'd get across several years in one class, this seems like it might be very likely.

You really need to dig down into the matches returned by the computer and perform some subjective analysis to determine if it's really plagiarism. That's what makes me nervous about the increasing reliance on automated "cheater detection" tools; they put the stamp of objectivity on what's inherently a subjective judgment.

Are the tools smart enough to not include quotes when performing their analysis? I'd hope so, but I sort of doubt it. That's a whopper of a problem right there: if you have 200+ papers on, say, Herodotus' The Histories, I can guarantee you quite a few of them are going to use the same, or at least overlapping, pull quotes. But none of them would be copying from each other, so there's not necessarily any real problem or dishonesty going on.

When computer analysis turns up results that are strikingly different than what subjective, real-world experience leads us to expect, the burden of proof is on the computer analysis to make sure that it's not somehow using a flawed methodology.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:14 AM on June 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


There's always someone, somewhere, with a big nose who knows.   —King Walnut
posted by king walnut at 9:14 AM on June 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is why we need librarians in the future. I know how to cite Wikipedia.
posted by jessamyn at 9:17 AM on June 24, 2009 [12 favorites]


kittens, read the article. The authors of the Wiki pieces are named.

Right, I'm just wondering how really confirmable the author of any Wikipedia piece is. Hence my comment vis a vis my own naivete -- this just isn't a subject I know that much about.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:23 AM on June 24, 2009


There's always someone, somewhere, with a big nose who knows

Talent borrows, genius steals - Oscar Wilde, as quoted on a Smiths record sleeve.
posted by Infinite Jest at 9:27 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Are there any authors, PhD thesis writers, etc, on Mefi who would like to explain why the frequently heard "I confused my notes for my own writing" excuse isn't just total BS? I don't doubt the difficulty of keeping track of sources and citations, but when it comes to knowing whether any given passage of writing is my own or someone else's... I just know.

When it's dry, technical writing, there isn't as much of a personal stamp on it. Sure, I can recognize long passages that I wrote, but in a massively collaborative field, it's easy to confuse a snippet of writing from someone you've collaborated with or even someone who's work is highly influential on your own prior research with your own. That's not to say that it's ok to mix up the mess and fail to cite correctly, but it can be tricky.

It just goes to show, you can't be too careful.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:31 AM on June 24, 2009


don't doubt the difficulty of keeping track of sources and citations, but when it comes to knowing whether any given passage of writing is my own or someone else's... I just know.

Not snarking: have you ever written a project that took more than a year of consistent full-time effort?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:31 AM on June 24, 2009


- Alternatively, maybe something about the methodology is returning a lot of false positives. Maybe six words is too low a bar for "plagiarism." E.g., perhaps there are commonly-repeated phrases that exceed six words that are being reused, or two papers are quoting a particularly pithy passage from the same source. In a sample of hundreds of papers all written about the same general topic, as you'd get across several years in one class, this seems like it might be very likely.

I'm sure it depends heavily on the topic. If the papers had all been undergrad history papers on Pearl Harbor, I would be shocked if the phrase, "a date which will live in infamy" appeared in only sixty of them.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:32 AM on June 24, 2009


the weakness seems to be that he bothered to author a book on the topic at all, rather than just compiling + connecting a lot of "found" verbiage (with acknowledgements and clearances, of course) and letting the "free" paradigm speak for itself.

This is something Buckminster Fuller did way back when with I seem to be a Verb.
posted by philip-random at 9:33 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


If there was say a few (3?) passages that were accidentally plagiarized, then I might be able to see how that could have happened. When it's a dozen, there's really no excuse I can believe. If you're plagiarizing a dozen times, then it is obviously a conscious decision to do so, not accidental.
posted by gen at 9:34 AM on June 24, 2009


I'm just wondering how really confirmable the author of any Wikipedia piece is.

It's actually pretty easy to nail down individual contributions to Wikipedia to a certain username or IP address because Wikipedia keeps a revision history of every change that was made. So here is an example of comparing revisions. You can see that the Wikipedia user Everything_counts has changed some capitalization and they also thoughfully left a note that that is what they did. That user doesn't have much a personal user page on Wikipedia but they do have a lengthy talk page where other people have contacted them about the work that they have done.

Whether that user is independently verifiable is a different story. The guy who wrote chunks of the stuff that Chris Anderson supposedly copied is user Dpbsmith. I happen to know of him because he wrote the original Jessamyn West pages on Wikipedia (small world!) and I've corresponded with him somewhat. He writes a lot of stuff for Wikipedia. Sometimes people make edits without logging in, these can be random or less-random people. In those cases, their IP address is visible which can do two things

- colocate edits made by a single IP address [suggesting but not necessarily proving a single user]
- geographically locating the user in many but not all cases

So since articles are made up of lots of teeny pieces added over time, there has to be some serious research that goes in to figuring out who actually wrote a particular sentence [going through revision after revision] but it's a lot easier to prove that Chris Anderson did not write those parts himself.
posted by jessamyn at 9:35 AM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


The publicist blacklist has an interesting comment from someone on the list. He's a freelance photographer who shoots travel stock, so making individualized pitches was taking more time than it was worth, as his ratio of messages vs replies was really low. He says the list of contacts he purchased was supposedly from editors who opted in, and that his shotgun approach has netted positive results. This is the mentality for spam, except the mail list was made of people who (supposedly) opted in.

This is why we need librarians in the future. I know how to cite Wikipedia.

Wikipedia knows how to cite wikipedia. You just need to know where to look.

[Not anti-librarian]
posted by filthy light thief at 9:38 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not snarking: have you ever written a project that took more than a year of consistent full-time effort?

No, my work is all on a much faster schedule than that. Maybe that's what explains my bafflement. I have to say, though, I honestly believe that if I did work on a project that lengthy, I'd be intimately familiar with the text — there wouldn't be whole passages that I hadn't really looked at for months. I would notice if whole new sections popped up in the middle of existing passages.

As I understand Anderson's explanation, he's saying that at some point towards the end of the writing process, whether via some kind of automation, or an assistant, or himself, new chunks of prose were inserted into the flow of his main text, and he just didn't realize.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:38 AM on June 24, 2009


Whoa you're like a demigod of Wikipedia, jessamyn. I'm going to go write something nice in your entry!
posted by Mister_A at 9:44 AM on June 24, 2009


If I can figure out how...
posted by Mister_A at 9:45 AM on June 24, 2009


Kadin2048: I assumed that the professor would have then checked to see if the papers were plagiarised to any great degree - using the 'six words in a row' test as an initial way of flagging papers that were possibly plagiarised, not assuming that they were all plagiarised.

Because I agree, it's a fairly low threshhold test (any two papers that quoted the same primary source would trigger it).

Personal experience: I once caught out plagiarism on the part of a lecturer. I was reading the course handout and thought it looked familiar. It turned out that large chunks of three pages or so had been lifted pretty much word for word from a published book, without acknowledgement, and so blatantly that the book said "[statement x], [statement y], [statement z], but it is the contention of this book that...[contention]" and the course handout said "[statement x], [statement y], [statement z], but it is the contention of this course that...[contention]".

I emailed the head of department (anonymously, because I am a coward or at least cautious, but at the same time I pretty much felt obligated to report it) and it was investigated, and eventually I got the response that it was an accident and the lecturer was very embarassed and had been told to be more careful about citations in the future. Which, let's face it, it wasn't a problem of forgetting to cite, it was a problem of lifting wholesale chunks of text.
posted by Infinite Jest at 9:49 AM on June 24, 2009


Anderson is on the fast track to becoming the geek version of Thomas Friedman. You know the drill:

1) Find a fuzzily-defined idea that has a marginal hipness factor (which is to say, somewhat new, and not all that bandied about, with an attractive simplicity and a self-assuredness far greater than what its threadworn blazer would merit).

2) Become excited about the idea, which is morphs into how this New Thing will Just Work, and it's The Future!

3) Write a book overstating the impact of this Game-Changing Paradigm.

4) Publish, then defend.

5) Before the dust settles and the idea turns out to have some cracks in it, return to Step 1.
posted by adipocere at 9:53 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Jesus, how fucking lazy do you have to be with your "information needs to be free" idea that you can't bother to google "citing wikipedia"?

Of course, his excuse doesn't really check out, because if you're appropriately citing those pages you aren't going to be changing small words and grammar which he has done in several of the examples.

The main problem I have with plagiarism is that, in the real world, there is basically no penalty. None. His publisher's response was "Meh".
posted by graventy at 10:19 AM on June 24, 2009


I am very much a MeFite, but I'm on vacation today, driving across Virginia. (We're in Montross at the moment.) I look forward to reading the discussion when I get back on Friday.
posted by waldo at 10:19 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Anderson's response: 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…

Wha huh?

Wired Style points to The Columbia Guide to Online Style, MLA Style Manual, Online! A Reference Guide to Using Internet Sources, and The Everyday Writer: A Brief Reference for authors writing in an academic context.
posted by pokermonk at 10:20 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


droob: Actually, he's said a few times that Free will, in fact, be free on the internet after publication.

According to the VQR, it already is available free on the Internet.
posted by notyou at 10:20 AM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm a publisher, of sorts. With my freelance authors, I give them five bits of advice about why not to plagiarise:

1) I'll sack you
2) It's ethically dodgy, but (for a corporate) more importantly, opens up a legal minefield
3) You're far more likely to include irrelevant, contradictory or illogically ordered information
4) If you (i.e. we) get caught it casts a shadow over your original writing
5) You're supposed to be adding value. You can't add value if you're just taking someone else's stuff.

The old, "whoops, I meant to source my plagiarism" really is bullshit. The reason it comes about is because sometimes the guy before you really may have written it about as well as it can be written, time's tight and, frankly, who's gonna know. Half decent writers know how to chop and change things, add a nugget here, subtract a bit of stuff there to make the similarities acceptably, cosmetically different. Newspaper journos do it all the time.

As an editor, Chris Anderson knows this, and knows - as my ol' grandma used to say - he's been caught with his pants down.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:21 AM on June 24, 2009


Wikipedia knows how to cite wikipedia. You just need to know where to look.

In fact, every page on Wikipedia has a "Cite this page" link that does the hard work for you. Here's the one for "TANSTAAFL." APA, MLA, MHRA, Chicago, they got it. Of course, if you looked up those styles in Wikipedia they each link to helpful (usually library related) websites that tell you how to cite a website.
posted by ALongDecember at 10:27 AM on June 24, 2009


This is why we need librarians in the future. I know how to cite Wikipedia.
A friend of mine in the SC library system forwarded me a hilariously long discussion -- not a joke, mind you -- about the raging battle over how twitter status updates should be cited. It comforts me that someone is figuring this out.
posted by verb at 10:34 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you look at the link provided by droob, and read the comments section, it would appear that Anderson apparently has a history of being accused of plagiarism. So no surprises here. Here's the relevant comment:

Posted by: inquiry | 03/18/09 | 12:52 pm

Someone should ask Mr. Anderson about his years at The Economist, where there were multiple accusations of plaigarism by Mr. Anderson, copying the work of other writers — for “free”. Has he ever come clean on his Economist years?

posted by dbiedny at 10:42 AM on June 24, 2009


shakespeherian: "AaRdVarK: Waldo is a Mefite!

Where?
"

Don't look at me.
posted by barbershop pole at 10:53 AM on June 24, 2009 [6 favorites]


Y'know, as editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, which has won a National Magazine Award under his tenure, this guy should know that plagiarism, as defined in the 1995 Random House Compact Unabridged Dictionary, is the "use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work is in violation of many laws concerning giving the author of an original work exclusive right for a certain time period in relation to that work, including its publication, distribution and adaptation, after which time the work is said to enter the public domain. In addition to being something that is prohibited or not authorized by law or, more generally, by rules specific to a particular situation (such as a game), it is also an egregious violation of a branch of philosophy which seeks to address questions about morality, such as what the fundamental semantic, ontological, and epistemic nature of ethics or morality is (meta-ethics), how moral values should be determined (normative ethics), how a moral outcome can be achieved in specific situations (applied ethics), how moral capacity or moral agency develops and what its nature is (moral psychology), and what moral values people actually abide by (descriptive ethics). This guy is a piece of equipment for douching—a bag for holding the fluid used in douching, which, of course, is considered to be a pejorative term in North America, though In other English speaking countries the term is not well known.
posted by barrett caulk at 11:09 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


The whole premise of “Free” seems to be a rather mixed bag these days, especially in publishing where the economy and technology are reeking havoc on the old ways of doing business. I just organized a workshop for university presses and one of the most interesting panels was one called The Politics and Economics of "Free". Two speakers, one from the National Academies Press and one from the Rand Corporation, talked about their experiences giving away their content, and how Open Access seemed to have a negligible affect on their sales, but the third speaker from University of Chicago Press told the most interesting tale. He talked about their experience publishing The Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

The manual was produced by the Army and Marine Corps, and is available online for anyone to download for free. But as one of the authors is also the author/co-author of a few University of Chicago publications, they asked him if he would be willing to write some new material for the book which they thought could get wider distribution if it were in print. They created a new cover, cleaned up the text, added new front matter, and slapped a $15 price on it. The book quickly sold through its initial 10,000 copy print run, but more importantly, it made the cover of the New York Times Book Review and was covered and reviewed in many other publications. The same author was then asked to appear on The Daily Show with John Stewart to discuss General David Petraeus’s new approach to Iraq. Yes, the PDF had 1.5 million downloads, which makes the University of Chicago’s 10k+ seem paltry, but as a PDF it seems highly unlikely it would have been covered in the Times, and even more unlikely it would have been a topic on The Daily Show. What the price appeared to do was add a certain air of tangible legitimacy to the concepts in the book, and the fact that it was a book, and not just a PDF, allowed those concepts a much broader platform, especially for the public debate on the war, and particularly its execution.

I don’t know if these things had any real influence on how we changed our approach to Iraq, but I do think it’s fascinating that a price could change the arena in which very important ideas are debated. The free version helped a lot of soldiers do their jobs more effectively, but it seems the $15 version had an influence on policy makers and ordinary citizens, and in some ways it seems that’s just as important, if not more important. For those of us in the business of disseminating knowledge, it was certainly an interesting counter-point to the current view that Open Access is usually the best way to do that.
posted by Toekneesan at 11:22 AM on June 24, 2009 [12 favorites]


Aren't we getting sick of the "whoops, sloppy editing!" excuse for plagiarism at this point?

20 years into the PC revolution, people should have figured out how copy and paste works, and how to Google chunks of text to check on such things *before* committing them to print if you know you're "sloppy" about handling sources (which, as a scholar, I don't really understand in the first place; I mean, I *know* my own words when I read them).

Being "sloppy" doesn't excuse the crime of plagiarism. Intention has little to do with the end result. You go to jail for manslaughter as well as murder, you know?
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:31 AM on June 24, 2009


People have done a very good job covering Anderson's plagiarism, but I'd like to direct you attention to the intellectual laziness of the subject matter of this book. His central thesis is that a number of formerly price-positive markets will adopt a zero-price-to-the-consumer price structure, because the internet an the digital domain generally have reduced the marginal cost to nearly zero.

The appropriate reaction to this is "duh." Newspapers, TV, and radio have essentially offered their content free or nearly free to end consumers for half a century at least. The web has adopted advertising models, the shareware model revolutionized software long before the adoption of the Web

Where Anderson goes completely wrong is in precisely two ways:
1. He confuses a the consumer paying a price of zero with the consumer incurring a cost of zero. This is false. While television programming was offered by the networks free to the consumers, the viewers incurred a number of costs. An important cost incurred by the views was the costs of having to sit through intentionally misleading and often deceptive sales pitches that they almost universally would have preferred to avoid. Secondly, and more importantly, the content offered for free to the viewer was low-quality - it was programming designed to appeal to the "lowest common denominator" - cheap laughs, safe politics, marginalization and vilification of out-of-the-norm lifestyles and ideas. The viewer incurred a cost resulting of from the quality of programming he did see and what that which he didn't.

2. Conflation of the economic definition of pricing and the marketing definition of "pricing". As he notes, measurement of consumer behavior on line is difficult, and using conventional methods, impossible. But only at present. Furthermore, the VC model underlying the growth of much of the internet in the 90's and 00's meant that most companies did not have to focus on pricing at all because nascent and crude advertising models could cover marginal costs while the investors absorbed the fixed costs. What will happen is that now that the economy is slumping for the first time in the post-internet era and advertising spend is down and VC's have tightened their purse strings, companies will focus more on generating revenue through pricing and that will mean deploying all the traditional pricing strategies described here. That will mean that what is now free to you, may not be in the future.

Examples: iTunes replacing Napster and iphone apps replacing free web apps; instructables.com's shifting of many features to its pro plan; many more.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:31 AM on June 24, 2009 [7 favorites]


MetaFilter: why we need librarians in the future
posted by hippybear at 11:39 AM on June 24, 2009


In academia he would be burned at the stake.
posted by LarryC at 11:40 AM on June 24, 2009


Examples: iTunes replacing Napster and iphone apps replacing free web apps

While I will give you the Instructables example, I'm not sure iTunes replaced Napster. That would fall to Limewire or Bittorrent, or possibly Pandora. The iPhone example feels like apples and oranges to me, as well.

Still pissed off about the Instructables thing... unless they're paying their content creators, they're putting a paywall around a community-based knowledge project. That's just wrong on some level that makes my skin crawl.
posted by hippybear at 11:43 AM on June 24, 2009


> In academia he would be burned at the stake.

o rly?
posted by sid at 12:01 PM on June 24, 2009


Oh, yeah? Then where is he?

Listening to a lot of Police tunes, according to his last.fm profile.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 12:24 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


How frigging hard is it to put things in your own words? Not very--and from a stylistic point of view, critical.

Using shit straight out of Wikipedia isn't just plagiarism; it's like building your house with uncut boards straight from the lumberyard.
posted by gottabefunky at 1:01 PM on June 24, 2009


unless they're paying their content creators, they're putting a paywall around a community-based knowledge project. That's just wrong on some level that makes my skin crawl.

I don't disagree with you... but, man, in this era of the internet, you're a sucker if you're paying your content creators.
posted by pokermonk at 1:12 PM on June 24, 2009


Are there any authors, PhD thesis writers, etc, on Mefi who would like to explain why the frequently heard "I confused my notes for my own writing" excuse isn't just total BS? I don't doubt the difficulty of keeping track of sources and citations, but when it comes to knowing whether any given passage of writing is my own or someone else's... I just know.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 11:23 AM on June 24 [7 favorites +] [!]


No, because it's total BS. It's a mistake when a 12-year old does it, and you metaphorically slap his knuckles, and then delete his whole paper and make him write it again, albeit with support and a few leading questions to pull out of him what he actually knew. (Yeah, I did this to a kid I tutor, and the paper he wrote was better.)

When anyone over 12 does it, it's against the wall time.

/PhD thesis writer, who HATES plagiarism with extra heat because I know what sweat it takes to write even just a wikipedia article
posted by jb at 5:26 PM on June 24, 2009


In addition to my own dissertation, book, and couple of dozen articles, I read other people's writing constantly as an academic.

Not only would I know my own words after half a sentence; I can almost always tell when someone whose writing I know at all well -- say, I've read at least one or two papers from them -- slips into another's words without citation. Writing style is like vocal timbre for a practiced writer or editor, completely distinctive down to very fine grained levels of syntax and style. It has an unmistakeable individual signature.

Any serious writer who claims s/he made "a mistake" and "accidentally" copied someone else's writing is simply and plainly full of shit. Period.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:31 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Anderson is on the fast track to becoming the geek version of Thomas Friedman. You know the drill...

Given his essentially self-published mode of bloviation, there's a strong Wolfram flavor there too: A NEW KIND OF CHRIS ANDERSON
posted by blasdelf at 3:30 AM on June 25, 2009


Chris Anderson was recently on Fresh Air and it was pretty interesting. Not only was his discussion of "free" marketing-nerd nirvana, (favorite bit—his friend who worked for Google incredulous about not having the ad next to the article or product review in print journalism, because that's where it's most relevant) and his explanation of the plagiarism thing was a bit more plausible. He also discussed being erroneously diagnosed with Lyme disease, and how groups on the Internet could get caught in cycles of self-reassurance about the interpretation of symptoms, and the causes of diseases. It was refreshing to hear the editor of Wired discuss his personal experience with a problematic aspect of the Web. Never Google your symptoms. Here's the podcast of the interview. Note that the commenters on this linked page do not share my opinion that this was an interesting discussion.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:31 PM on July 9, 2009


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