Publishing in the echo chamber

Thu 02 Jul 2009 11:13 AM

In these two related items, Wikipedian prose appears in print:

1. Dublin student Shane Fitzgerald invented a quotation and attributed it to the recently-deceased composer Maurice Jarre in the latter's Wikipedia entry.* The quote was subsequently printed by several major newspapers in obituaries for Jarre. [coverage in the Irish Times, here]

Regarding Wikipedia, this just corroborates things I already knew. Even though the quote was written to sound like something that the composer might plausibly have said, it was quickly removed from Wikipedia. Fitzgerald had to add it repeatedly until it slipped by Wikipedia's first responders. Even then, it only persisted for about a day. Wikipedia did its usual decent but imperfect job of filtering out fibs.

Regarding the state of journalism, it's more depressing. When people lament the demise of newspapers, they often say that real journalists do important work that citizen bloggers do not. Surely that is true in some cases, but not here. Newspapers played exactly the same echo chamber game that bloggers play.

2. Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, has a forthcoming book titled Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Waldo Jaquith at the Virginia Quarterly Review discovered that some sections of the book had been plagiarized. Anderson replied that the original draft had included footnotes, that the editor had decided to eliminate the apparatus at the last minute, and that errors had been made when incorporating attributions into the body text. Both he and his publisher have said that the footnotes will be available as an on-line supplement.

This much seems fine. He tried to acknowledge sources, made honest mistakes, and has made a good faith effort to correct for those mistakes. In any case, the standards are somewhat fuzzier for popular books than they are academic monographs.

The more worrisome thing is that some of the passages relating facts (about usury, for example) are copied verbatim from Wikipedia. One might worry again about plagiarism. It is verboten to repeat text verbatim without indenting it or putting quotation marks around it. Yet perhaps in the original draft, along with a footnote crediting Wikipedia, there were quotation marks.

The more substantive concern is that the text uncritically turns to Wikipedia as a relevant and reliable source. Anderson wrote a popular, nonfiction book and so is effectively operating as a journalist. Just as I expect reporters to take the few minutes required to follow up on what Maurice Jarre said, I expect a book author to follow up on whether charging interest was made a heresy in 1311.

In the case of Jarre, it is possible that many of the papers just took stories from the wire. It might even be that only one reporter knowingly took the quote from Wikipedia, and subsequent newspaper editors just unwittingly traded it around. In Anderson's case, we know that he was the one who did the cut-and-paste job.

* I let this news item pass without comment a couple of months ago, but blogging about it now lets me stick a pin in it. I live in the 21st-century, and the internet is my scrapbook.