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Chris Anderson's 'Free' appears to borrow freely from Wikipedia and other sources

June 24, 2009 |  1:49 am

Freebychrisanderson Late Tuesday, the Virginia Quarterly Review posted startlingly similar passages from Chris Anderson's new book "Free" and several Wikipedia entries. Language common to both was highlighted in bright yellow. "Chris Anderson's 'Free' Contains Apparent Plagiarism," Web editor Waldo Jaquith wrote.

The common passages -- which include definitions for the phrases "Free Lunch," "There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch" and "Learning Curve" -- appear without attribution within the text. The book has no footnotes or endnotes.

The VQR also saw similarities between "Free" and a book excerpted on the website of the New York monthly the Brooklyn Rail, as well as on an archive of an old bbs. Other careful Googlers have found at least two additional samples of text in Anderson's book that seem to match online resources.

Anderson responded to an inquiry from the VQR by e-mail.

"All those are my screwups after we decided not to run notes as planned, due to my inability to find a good citation format for web sources," he wrote.

As citations for Web sources have been established for some time, this seems an odd explanation from Anderson, who is no publishing novice. His previous book, "The Long Tail," was a bestseller, and he is currently editor in chief of Wired magazine.

The book's publisher, Hyperion, sent a note to VQR, which it posted at the end of the day.

We are completely satisfied with Chris Anderson’s response. It was an unfortunate mistake, and we are working with the author to correct these errors both in the electronic edition before it posts and in all future editions of the book.

The lack of attribution may indeed have been a combination of mistake and lack of oversight. But as one commenter on Gawker lamented, "Can't decide which is more embarrassing -- failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source."

Wikipedia is one of the resources Anderson lauds -- in  "The Long Tail," he called it a phenomenon. In this one, he writes,  "there is the amazing 'gift economy' of  Wikipedia," later explaining, "Wikipedia makes no money at all, but because an incomparable information resource is now available to all at no cost, our own ability to make money armed with more knowledge is improved."

The whole point of Anderson's "Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price" is to explore what he calls "the paradox of Free," in which "people are making lots of money and charging nothing."

Anderson's hardcover costs $26.99. Wikipedia is still free.

And within hours, Anderson's Wikipedia's entry had been updated -- with attribution -- to reflect the charges of plagiarism. Updates to "Free" are expected to take a while. Which proves Anderson's point -- I think.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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