Copy, paste: Jaquith catches best-selling plagiarist

photophile-waldo-bBlogger and digital plagiarism watchdog Waldo Jaquith.

Put a blog in Waldo Jaquith's hands, even a literary magazine's blog, and there's no telling what can happen. Last week, the Virginia Quarterly Review employee called out Wired editor and best-selling author Chris Anderson on VQR's blog for lifting whole passages from Wikipedia and other sources for Anderson's new book "Free: The Future of a Radical Price," something many other reviewers, including New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, appeared not to have noticed.

The post came with a mea culpa from Anderson–- he was told before-hand that his book was going to be challenged–- who claimed that it was a mistake and that he  and his publisher had "forgotten" to cite the passages.

Jaquith's post made an immediate impact, having generated 177 comments to date from people–- including Anderson–- arguing about the nature of plagiarism in the digital age, and it has led to scads of follow-up stories including articles in the New York TimesThe Guardian, Fast Company, and the New York Post. The LA Times said Jaquith's challenge "framed the Internet content debate."

Ironically, one of the themes of Anderson's Free concerns the nature of free content available on the Internet. Anderson continued to explain and apologize on his own blog.

"This is entirely my own screwup, and will be corrected in the ebook and digital forms before publication," Anderson wrote. "VQR rightly spotted that I failed to cite Wikipedia in some passages...This was sloppy and inexcusable, but the part I feel worst about is that in our failure to find a good way to cite Wikipedia as the source we ended up not crediting it at all."

So was Jaquith satisfied?

"I’m not comfortable saying whether I was satisfied with his response," Jaquith writes on his blog on June 23. " I’ve got my reporter cap on, and it’s not my job to be satisfied or not."

However, Jaquith does mention the most frequent objections to Anderson's response found in other media reports, namely his defense of "writethrough," or rewriting Wikipedia passages, strikes Jaquith as "a euphemism for covering up plagiarism."

In an email to the Hook, Jaquith notes that VQR has "pointedly avoided passing any judgment on Anderson's explanation, because we don't want people's perceptions of these facts to be colored by our opinion."

"The really good news here," writes Jaquith, " is that a wide-ranging, interesting, valuable discussion is taking place across the internet about what plagiarism is, about Wikipedia's role in the dissemination of facts, and about the thesis of Anderson's book." ("Also," he notes, "I've gotten really good at spelling 'plagiarism.'")

Still, Jaquith, who has since spoken with Anderson about the fall-out, seems willing to give him some benefit of the doubt, as in this June 25 comment to FishbowlNY.

"I'm not able to peek into his motives, but you'd have to be mentally ill to do this on purpose," said Jaquith,  "To assign malice to this would mean something was seriously wrong with him."

Jaquith says the quote is accurate, but a bit out of context.

"The point that I was making is that I cannot believe that anybody in Anderson's position would plagiarize intentionally," he writes. "Malice isn't up for debate here, at least from my perspective. Unfortunately, that quote came off as if I was describing the guy as mentally ill. Quite the opposite."

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Waldo did get accepted at Kenyon, which has admission criteria standards that might make U. Va. look like the charm school Jodie Foster claimed it isn't, in Silence of the Lambs. But Waldo didn't go, instead hiking part of the Appalachian Trail (until his feet gave out). Then after President Casteen called Waldo one of U. Va.'s best students--which he would have been had U. Va. accepted him--Waldo went to that place in Blacksburg. This writer advised him at the time that education is as much or more about one's fellow students than getting a fast diploma, and tried to coax him into Williams or Harvard. But behind that mule-like toothy smile Waldo can be a little stubborn. He just didn't want to leave Virginia. The best that can be said about that decision is he went and he got his ticket stamped, a tribute more to determination and perseverance, than academic prowess. Now he's writing, and writing well, so at least college didn't narrow him and then graduate school grind him down further into a bespectacled specialist. He liberally educated himself.

Hey, is that the same Raman Pfaff who bitterly despises everything about Charlottesville (and elsewhere)? After all, it's possible that we're both confusing each other with somebody else, what with our respective names being so common. (How awkward would that be?)

Lucy, thank you for your kind comments. Though, honestly, this was a) an all-hands-on-deck team effort at VQR, and b) this was part of my job�I was paid to do this research and write this article�so I feel more than a bit guilty taking much credit for it. And�on preview�thank you for your very kind words, "Root Beer Float." You make me want to work harder to be the person you describe me as. :)

The content of the book is gathering of facts and putting them together as a new idea or examining them in a different way. That is where the talent in this book shows. The fact that he did not credit wikipedia (who after all is "wickipedia" anyway....?)is slightly noteworthy but hardly worth the fuss.

It is not like he is a great entertainer who in his private life slept in the same bed with 12 year old boys...

Kudos Waldo. One of the problems with so much of the writing on the internet and in blogs is it's repetitive and devoid of thought on the writer's part. Just too easy to cut and paste and repeat what someone else has written rather than have an original thought of one's own.

Is that the Waldo that couldn't get in to UVA and had to go to that other school somewhere in the (un)CommonWealth? I think he is still pissed about that. Speaking of mentally ill...would TJ approve of one person saying another is possibly mentally ill? Guess it all depends on what your definition of is is.(*)

(*) This sentence is plagiarized from Clinton.


Kidding of course. But I must caution against the seductive pleasure of kudos. A spur to achievement, sure. But also a vulnerabililty. Might there be injured vanity in response to one posting here?

Honor pricks you on? Consider Falstaff on the subject.

Honor is fragile: "detraction will not suffer it." Honor is in the mouths and eyes of others--and others can take it away. Too bad that college in some places never challenges us to read Shakespeare carefully--or more importantly read Plato, seriously, carefully. One would have encountered Plato at Kenyon, wrestled with a stronger mind, and come away better exercised. In the process one might find a stronger and more reliable, more self-sufficient source of happiness than the transitory kind words and good opinion of others.