By Waldo Jaquith
June 23rd, 2009
In the course of reading Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Hyperion, $26.99), for a review in an upcoming issue of VQR, we have discovered almost a dozen passages that are reproduced nearly verbatim from uncredited sources. These instances were identified after 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. Anderson is the author of the best-selling 2006 book The Long Tail and is the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. The official publication date for Free is July 7.
Examples of the passages in question follow. The words and phrases that are found in both Free and the apparent original source are highlighted. Note that narrowest possible criteria are employed here, with only identical words highlighted; Anderson’s substitution of the word “on” for “about,” for instance, would result in no highlighting of that word. (Click on an image thumbnail to see the full-sized version.)
Occupying the bulk of pages 41–42, Anderson here explains the origin of the phrase “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” writing about the nineteenth- century phenomenon of saloons offering free lunches with the purchase of alcohol. The great majority of this text exists phrase for phrase on the Wikipedia entry “Free Lunch,” including a block quote and several quotes from contemporary newspaper accounts.
Transcription errors are present in most of the quotes and citations within this Wikipedia entry, a result of contributors making mistakes while entering information from nineteenth-century newspaper articles. Those errors have been reproduced verbatim in Free. That includes citing an 1875 New York Times article as having been published in 1872 and omitting words and phrases from quotations. (Disclosure: I contributed to this Wikipedia entry two years ago, but my tiny modification is not included within Free.)
On page 37 Anderson explains the Catholic Church’s historical stance on usury, with 65 consecutive words—the great majority of the description—that are identical to the Wikipedia entry titled “Usury.” The passage in question was originally written by Wikipedia contributor “Ewawer” on March 24, 2008.
“Benjamin T. Babbitt”
Little-known soap marketer Benjamin Babbitt is described on pages 42–43 in language that is nearly identical to that contained within the “Benjamin T. Babbitt” Wikipedia entry. This passage was written by Wikipedia contributor “Josette” (Josette Pieniazek) on September 9, 2008.
Anderson explains the concept of a learning curve on page 82, using language substantially identical to that in the “Experience curve effects” Wikipedia entry. Much of this text was originally written by “MyDogAteGodsHat” (Paul Gallienne) on September 19, 2003, though it has undergone significant revision in the past six years at the hands of many different contributors.
“There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch”
Here Anderson explains the economic concept that there is no such thing as a free lunch, using phrases that are virtually identical to those that appear on the “TANSTAAFL” Wikipedia entry.
This passage was written by a series of different Wikipedia contributors over the course of several years, including “Stormwriter” on November 6, 2002, an anonymous individual on September 19, 2004, “Smallbones” on May 28, 2006, and an anonymous individual on July 22, 2006.
“Salt as Currency”
This is an instance of text within Free that is strikingly similar to already-published text from a source other than Wikipedia. This explanation of salt (on pages 50-51) as a once-valuable commodity is found in a work originally published on Professor Petr Beckmann’s “Access to Energy” bulletin board system, and now archived on a website dedicated to his work. This essay is undated, with no author noted, but the BBS ceased to exist in 1993, so the work is certainly from prior to that date and probably written by Beckmann.
Another example of text that appears in a non-Wikipedia source, this brief passage is also found in Heather Rogers‘s Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (New Press, $23.95), published in 2005. The book was excerpted by The Brooklyn Rail the same year with the title “A Brief History of Plastic.” It is found on page 51 of Free.
Though reproducing words or original ideas from any uncredited source is widely defined as plagiarism, using text from Wikipedia presents an even more significant problem than reproducing traditional copyrighted text. Under Wikipedia’s Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license, Anderson would be required to credit all contributors to the quoted passages, license his modifications under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, note that the original work has been modified, and provide the text of or a link to the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Anderson has not done any of these things in Free.
Anderson responded personally to a request for comments about how this unattributed text came to appear in his book, providing the following remarks by e-mail:
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, I went through the document and redid all the attributions, in three groups:
- Long passages of direct quotes (indent, with source)
- Intellectual debts, phrases and other credit due (author credited inline, as with Michael Pollan)
- In the case of source material without an individual author to credit (as in the case of Wikipedia), do a write-through.
Obviously in my rush at the end I missed a few of that last category, which is bad. As you’ll note, these are mostly on the margins of the book’s focus, mostly on historical asides, but that’s no excuse. 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.
Look for a full review of Free in the Fall issue of VQR.
5:15 p.m. update: Hyperion has provided us with the following 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.
Hyperion says that they intend to have the notes online by the time that the book is published.