How VQR‘s Jaquith Found Anderson’s Plagiarism (Hint: It’s In Parentheses)

free.pngVirginia Quarterly Review blogger Waldo Jaquith made quite a stir with his discovery that portions of Wired editor Chris Anderson’s new book “Free” were pulled from unattributed sources, namely Wikipedia. But we wondered, how did Jaquith happen upon Anderson’s plagiarized sections?

We tracked down Jaquith — as he was en route to a vacation in Virginia Beach — and asked him how he made the connection between “Free” and Wikipedia.

For Jaquith, it all started with a parenthetical. During the passage from “Free” in which Anderson describes the saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” Jaquith noticed that something was amiss. “It mentioned Crescent City and then, parenthetically, said New Orleans,” he said. “At first, I was thrown off. I thought that maybe that before it was called New Orleans it was called Crescent City and I was mad at myself for not knowing that.”

The reference needled at Jaquith so he did some research. His first stop: Wikipedia. To his surprise, the Wikipedia entry for New Orleans only mentioned Crescent City as a nickname. So he Googled the citation just as Anderson had written it in his book. That’s how he found an entry for explaining free lunch on Wikipedia.

“I figured that what had happened was that whoever had written it wanted to be cute and call it Crescent City, but also wanted to link to the New Orleans article [on Wikipedia]. So they put it in parentheses,” Jaquith said, explaining his train of thought upon the discovery of the link. “It struck me as odd because it didn’t seem like [Anderson’s] writing.” (Coincidentally, Jaquith had contributed to the free lunch Wikipedia article several years ago, but he said that did not help him recognize any similarities between it and passages from “Free.”)

All at once, it was clear that Anderson had lifted sections from Wikipedia. Next, Jaquith searched the book for other odd instances, finding one in a section explaining that salt was once a valuable commodity in the Middle Ages. The section used the term currency in quotes and, sure enough, Jaquith found a similar passage on a Web site dedicated to a professor’s work. Jaquith found a few other copied sections using the same unscientific method, but he said there might be other instances that have escaped him.

Jaquith first caught the mistakes in a galley version of “Free,” then checked it against a final copy he received a few days later. Although no one caught the plagiarism between the two versions, Jaquith said that ironically some editing had been done to make the copied passages even more similar to their original version — unbeknownst to the editors and, presumably, Anderson.

But Jaquith said that when he confronted Anderson about his discoveries — before he published his blog — the author was “very gracious.”

“He said, ‘Yeah that sounds like something I would do,'” Jaquith said.

In another ironic turn, years ago Anderson wrote about Wikipedia on his Long Tail blog. Quoting a post from Anderson pointed out that Wikipedia “should be the first source of information, not the last. It should be a site for information exploration, not the definitive source of facts.”

“I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t following his own advice, which he wrote so many years ago,” Jaquith said.

Ultimately, Jaquith said he thinks Anderson’s description of the plagiarism as an oversight seems genuine. “I’m not able to peek into his motives, but you’d have to be mentally ill to do this on purpose,” he said. “To assign malice to this would mean something was seriously wrong with him.”