30 Jun 2009 10:00 pm   //   Filed under: Books, Media

The fall of Chris Anderson

Wired editor Chris Anderson and I are in the same line of work. The difference is he’s the top editor at a major business magazine, while I’m a mid-level editor at a small business magazine. He’s published a successful book called The Long Tail and is a popular public speaker; I can claim no such accomplishments. You might say he’s very skilled at his job. Until recently, I would agree.

A week ago, a reviewer for the Virginia Quarterly Review discovered that Anderson committed plagiarism in his upcoming book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. In at least seven passages, Anderson fills in his argument with background paragraphs he copied from Wikipedia.

Anderson says the passages got into the book by mistake. He wrote on his blog: “In my drafts, I had intended to blockquote Wikipedia passages, footnoting their URL.” But last-minute editing changes led to the passages being published without significant rewrites, and without citations. Anderson adds:

“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. That is, among other things, an injustice to the authors of the Wikipedia entry who had done such fine research in the first place, and I’d like to extend a special apology to them.”

Anderson has plenty of supporters. One fellow writer says in a comment:

I think many non-fiction writers share the same nagging fear that their source notes will accidentally get mixed into the manuscript without proper attribution. Because it’s so easy to copy and paste, this kind of thing is going to happen to other writers. I’m working on a book now and I really hope I haven’t screwed up!”

Has everybody lost their minds? Anderson didn’t just make a careless mistake. He committed an act of supreme intellectual lameness. He disrespected every reader who will buy his book on the promise that it contains original thoughts from a gifted communicator.

What Anderson did here is not typical for writers, and the fact that he owned up to his goofs and apologized doesn’t make it much better. A book is supposed to be your best work, not a mash-up of notes you cribbed from the Internet.

I often rewrite information from other sources (such as press releases) when I’m writing short stories, but I’m careful with attribution. For a long-form story, however, that’s totally out of the question. I keep notes I’ve gathered from electronic sources strictly segregated from working copy. Like everybody, I make mistakes and get lazy sometimes. But the worst stories I’ve ever written are at least in my own words.

Anderson was already skating on thin ice. His under-performing magazine is on everybody’s death-watch list. His Free book, which was conceived before the credit crisis, already sounds quaint and dated. Malcolm Gladwell savaged it in The New Yorker (a Conde Nast publication that always gets more respect from the corporate mothership than Wired).

I’m making a big thing out of this because Anderson is one of the very few people in my field whom I idolize. Some day, I’d love to have my name atop the masthead in a magazine as good as Wired. I like Anderson’s style—he’s incredibly good at spotting trends that are just beginning to crystallize and putting them into words. I like to hope that after a decade or two of practice and hard work, I’ll be as good as he is.

And then this happens.