Monday, August 3, 2009

A Lesson on Plagiarism in Chris Anderson's "Free"

Normally this blog posts just twice a week, on Sundays and Wednesdays, but I'm making an exception today to share some of my thoughts on the allegations that Chris Anderson plagiarized ideas--and even verbatim passages--from Wikipedia in his new book Free.

It is an excellent lesson on the complicated subject of plagiarism.

For those of you unfamiliar with this controversy, here's the background: In a thorough article appearing in the Virginia Quarterly Review, author Waldo Jaquith claims Anderson plagiarized several sections of his book. As evidence, Jaquith quotes several lengthy passages from Free alongside nearly identical text from Wikipedia. Chris Anderson himself responds to the allegations in a comment below that article, claiming that because of a disagreement with his publisher on citation formatting, he made a decision to remove all footnotes and then do a rushed "write-through" of the affected passages.

Here's the inconvenient truth: in attempting to defend his actions, Anderson admits openly that he meant to rewrite these passages, clearly oblivious to the fact that rewording or paraphrasing ideas taken from others without citation is still plagiarism.

Let me say that again: Anderson got caught taking ideas verbatim from Wikipedia while claiming he meant to take ideas from Wikipedia and paraphrase them. They are identical crimes of scholarship! Without knowing it, Anderson admits to plagiarism as he attempts to defend himself.

Once you compare the highlighted text samples in The VRQ's article to the first edition of Anderson's book, and then compare those segments to the emended version of Free now available, you'll see that this was much more than, as Anderson claims, a debate with his publisher on footnote formatting.

It is a clear-cut example of plagiarism by a well-known author.

I hope Chris Anderson now has a more nuanced and complete understanding of what, exactly, plagiarism is. Regrettably, it's too late for this book.

We'll address plagiarism here at Quick Writing Tips in greater detail in the coming months.