Chris Anderson, Plagiarist?

freeThe Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Waldo Jaquith has uncovered several instances of apparent plagiarism within Chris Anderson’s forthcoming book, Free. Unfortunately, I have learned that the VQR‘s investigations only begin to scratch the surface. A cursory plunge into the book’s contents reveals that Anderson has not only cribbed material from Wikipedia and websites (sometimes without accreditation), but that he has a troubling habit of mentioning a book or an author and using this as an excuse to reproduce the content with very few changes — in some cases, nearly verbatim.

As the examples below will demonstrate, Anderson’s failure to paraphrase properly is plagiarism, according to the Indiana University Bloomington Writing Tutorial Services’s very helpful website. It is simply not enough for Anderson to cite the source. An honest and ethical author cannot, in good conscience, swipe whole sentences and paragraphs, change a few words, and call it his. Plagiarism is not an either-or proposition, although we leave the readers to decide whether the cat inside the box is dead or alive.

It appears that Chris Anderson, who boasts in the acknowledgments about spending a year and a half writing this book, has spent most of these eighteen months repurposing content from other sources. Anderson has explained to the VQR that he had “an inability to find a good citation format for web sources.” But this “explanation” hardly accounts for the wholesale theft of language documented here and at the VQR.

And I must point out that, like Mr. Jaquith, I have hardly committed an exhaustive search.


The section on the beginning of Jell-O on Pages 7-10 has lifted almost all of its information from the Jell-O Museum Website, only slightly rephrasing sentences. Here is one example:

Anderson, P. 9: “First, they crafted a three-inch ad to run in Ladies’ Home Journal, at a cost of $336.”

Jell-O Museum Site: “A three-inch ad costing $336 in the Ladies Home Journal launched the printed portion of the campaign….”


In a subsection called “The Three Prices,” Anderson writes about Derek Sivers’s “reversible business models,” but entire paragraphs from Sivers’s “Reversible Business Models” August 2008 blog post have been recycled with very few modifications.

Anderson, P. 32: “In China, some doctors are paid monthly when their patients are healthy. If you are sick, it’s their fault, so you don’t have to pay that month. It’s their goal to get you healthy and keep you healthy so they can get paid.”

Sivers: “In China, some doctors are paid monthly when you are healthy. If you are sick, it’s their fault, so you don’t have to pay that month. It’s their goal to get you healthy and keep you healthy so they can get paid. ”

Anderson, P. 31: “In one instance, he told his class at MIT’s Sloan School of Business that he would be doing a reading of poetry (Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) but didn’t know what it should cost. He handed out a questionnaire to all the students, half of who were asked if they’d be willing to pay $10 to hear him read, and the other half of whom were asked if they’d be willing to hear him read if he paid them $10. Then he gave them all the same question: What should the price be to hear him read short, medium, and long versions of the poem?

Sivers: “Professor Dan Ariely told his class that he would be doing a reading of poetry, but didn’t know what it should cost. He handed out a price survey to all students, but secretly half of the surveys asked if they’d be willing to pay $10 to hear him read, and the other half asked if they’d be willing to hear him read if he paid them $10!

“Those who got the question about paying him were willing to pay. They offered to pay, on average, $1, $2, $3 for short, medium, long readings.”


When opening Chapter 3 (“The History of Free”), Anderson uses very close phrasing from Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (which Anderson credits). Anderson’s sentences skirt the line between acceptable paraphrasing and plagiarism, but this is certainly a bit too close for comfort.

Anderson, P. 34-35: “Instead, they used just two marks: a wedge that represented 1 and a double wedge that represented 10.”

Seife, P. 13-14: “Also, the Babylonians used only two marks to represent their numbers: a wedge that represented 1 and a double wedge that represented 10.”

Anderson, p. 35: “Greek math was epitomized by Pythagoras and his Pythagorean cult, which made such profound discoveries as the musical scale and the golden ratio (but not, ironically, the Pythagorean Theorem — the formula for calculating the hypotenuse of a right triangle had actually been known for many years before Pythagoras).”

Seife, p. 28-29: “In modern schools, children learn of Pythagoras for his famed theorem: the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. However, this was in fact ancient news. It was known more than 1,000 years before Pythagoras’s time.”


Chris Anderson’s habit of citing a book, without acceptable paraphrase, is also evident in a section on the transistor cadged from Chapter 4 of Kevin Kelly’s New Rules for the New Economy (cited but not acceptably modified).

Anderson, P. 79: “For instance, in the early 1960s, Fairchild Semiconductor was selling an early transistor, called the 1211, to the military. Each transistor cost $100 to make. Fairchild wanted to sell the transistor to RCA for use in their new UHF television tuner. At the time RCA was using traditional vacuum tubes, which cost only $1.05 each.

“Fairchild’s founders, the legendary Robert Noyce and Jerry Sanders, knew that as their production volume increased, the cost of the transistor would quickly go down. But to make their first commercial sale they needed to get the price down immediately, before they had any volume at all. So they rounded down. Way down They cut the price of the 1211 to $1.05, right from the start, before they even knew how to make it so cheaply. “We were going to make the chips in a factory we hadn’t built, using a process we hadn’t yet developed, but the bottom line was: We were out there the next week quoting $1.05,” Sanders later recalled. “We were selling into the future.”

“It worked. By getting way ahead of the price decline curve, they made their goal of $1.05 and took 90 percent of the UHF tuner market share. Two years later they were able to cut the price of the 1211 to 50 cents, and still make a profit.”

Kelly: “In the early 1960s Robert Noyce and his partner Jerry Sanders—founders of Fairchild Semiconductor—were selling an early transistor, called the 1211, to the military. Each transistor cost Noyce $100 to make. Fairchild wanted to sell the transistor to RCA for use in their UHF tuner. At the time RCA was using fancy vacuum tubes, which cost only $1.05 each. Noyce and Sanders put their faith in the inverted pricing of the learning curve. They knew that as the volume of production increased, the cost of the transistor would go down, even a hundredfold. But to make their first commercial sale they need to get the price down immediately, with zero volume. So they boldly anticipated the cheap by cutting the price of the 1211 to $1.05, right from the start, before they knew how to do it. “We were going to make the chips in a factory we hadn’t built, using a process we hadn’t yet developed, but the bottom line: We were out there the next week quoting $1.05,” Sanders later recalled. “We were selling into the future.” And they succeeded. By anticipating the cheap, they made their goal of $1.05, took 90% of the UHF market share, and then within two years cut the price of the 1211 to 50 cents, and still made a profit.”


The opening of Chapter 11, which involves French mathematician Antoine Cournot, features text pulled and only slightly modified from Cournot’s Wikipedia entry

Anderson, p. 171: “The members of the French Liberal School, who dominated the economics profession in France at the time, were uninterested, leaving Cournot dispirited and bitter.”

Wikipedia: “The denizens of the French Liberal School, who dominated the economics profession in France at the time, took no notice of it, leaving Cournot crushed and bitter.”

Anderson, p. 172: “Bertrand argued that Cournot had reached the wrong conclusion on practically everything. Indeed, Bertrand thought that Cournot’s use of production volume as the key unit of competition was so arbitrary that he, half-jokingly, reworked Cournot’s model with prices, not output, as the key variable.”

Wikipedia: “Bertrand argued that Cournot had reached the wrong conclusion on practically everything, and reworked Cournot’s duopoly model with prices, rather than quantities, as the strategic variables — and obtained the competitive solution immediately.”

UPDATE: In the course of my investigations, I accidentally stumbled upon what was apparently Chris Anderson’s hard drive. The only thing I did was peek at the files related to the book. I certainly didn’t scour through emails or add files, as Anderson suggests. (Indeed, I didn’t even know that this represented a public hard drive.) But Anderson, instead of addressing any of my findings here or at the VQR, has instead accused me of adding files to his hard drive, a charge that is patently false. Because I neither possessed the knowledge nor the desire to mess with Anderson’s hard drive. Anderson has since made his hard drive private, demonstrating just how committed he is to open source.

UPDATE 2: Anderson’s spin control continues. Chris Anderson has told the Guardian that the errors were “a lot less” than the VQR suggests.

UPDATE 3: Chris Anderson issues a response on his blog, but refuses to address the verbatim excerpts cited above, despite additional requests in the VQR thread.

UPDATE 4: To offer a point of comparison, as it so happens, Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap — a book that will be discussed on these pages in a forthcoming roundtable — has also paraphrased the Ariely poetry experiment on p. 68. And the specific ways in which Shell has paraphrased and Anderson has paraphrased demonstrate a substantial difference:

As example, Ariely described an experiment in which he offered to recite Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to a classroom of students. Half the students were asked whether they would pay $2 for the pleasure of hearing him read the poem, while the other half were asked if they were willing to listen if they were paid $2. Then both sets of numbers were asked whether they would attend the recitation if it were free.

Only 8 percent of the students who were offered money to listen to the recitation were willing to attend the performance without pay, compared with the 35 percent of the students who were originally asked to pay to hear it. Clearly, the “framing” of the event — the context from which the proposal emerged — influenced its perceived value, a perception that trumped whatever inherent value it might have held for the students (unlikely to be much). (68)

One can see a major difference between Anderson’s practice of cutting and pasting text from websites and Shell’s actual journalism. Shell actually went out to talk with Ariely. Shell then summarized Ariely’s example and explained to her readers why it’s important within the context of her point — in this case, the framing and the perception of pricing — and developed an independent explanation. Anderson, by contrast, merely used the Ariely example that was also used by Derek Sivers, and even closely parroted Sivers’s phrasing of the Ariely example.

UPDATE 5: Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin offers propaganda in favor of Chris Anderson. Jardin is a frequent contributor to Wired, but she’s failed to disclose this pivotal conflict of interest in her post. Additionally, former Wired regular Mark Frauenfelder can also be found defending his beloved employer. Don’t you just love journalistic integrity?

UPDATE 6: It pains me to report that the Los Angeles Times‘s Carolyn Kellogg has written an ostensible “story” on Anderson. Unfortunately, Kellogg has failed to contact anybody other than Anderson and Mark Frauenfelder, who has professional connections with Anderson at Wired (which are not disclosed by Kellogg). With quotes like “My attribution failures aside, this is an important book,” the piece reads like it come from a press release issued by Anderson’s publicist. If Kellogg practiced objective journalism, she would have spoken with Anderson, Waldo Jaquith (who broke the story), and a plagiarism expert — thereby giving the reader an objective account with which to make a decision.


  1. I would have been expelled for violations of the Honor Code had I committed even one of these ‘errors’ when I was in college. Admittedly, that was in the ’70’s, before we had to worry about internet citation standards, but not to cite or obtain permissions in multiple instances was and is inexcusable for both Anderson and his editor(s) at Hyperion.

    “Information wants to be free” doesn’t grant a license to steal.

  2. Wow, this is disturbing (to say the least). I don’t think the first example re: Jell-O is too persuasive. In that case, at least, he legitimately helped himself to the facts and put a little English on the phrasing. But the others are damning.

  3. These selections certainly suggest that the language was lifted and lightly edited. Even putting aside the nonchalance with which the Wikipedia attributions were lost in editing, what Ed has picked up (all of it not part of the Wikipedia issue) would best be addressed by Chris Anderson directly. I hope that he can step away from criticizing Ed and deal with these examples directly.

  4. This was a dumb mistake no doubt, but i do think that the digital world will continue to offer challenges to our understanding of “plagiarism,” that evolved at a time when perhaps *finding* information was the skill to be displayed in research. Now finding has become trivial, and the real skill is putting the right stuff together.

    In the same way that downloading content without paying is just not seen as bad by a younger generation, it’s likely that our understanding of “cheating” will have to change with technology as well.

    Not really excusing a mistake in this particular case, but it highlights the complication of a time when so much information is so easy to put together, from sources with very uncertain licensing requirements.

  5. Ed, I’ve owned up the the Wikipedia citation errors over at VQR, but you’re out of line here. I conducted several phone interviews with the Jell-O historian, for example (it is no surprise that the facts she gave me agree with what she wrote) and Kevin Kelly reviewed a draft and we worked out the attributions together.

    In all these cases where it wasn’t my original research credit was properly given, as a fair-minded reading of the examples will show.

  6. Chris Anderson: If James Marcus is willing to give you the first example, then I will too. So let’s throw that out. But you STILL have not explained why you have taken almost the exact phrasing from these other sources and claimed it to be yours. Whether Kevin Kelly accepted the attribution or not is not the issue. The issue here is your failure to offer an independent opinion. Please see Update 4, which demonstrates the difference between actual journalism and your cutting-and-pasting.

    I am not out of line at all. Again, I urge you to click on the above link to the Indiana University Bloomington Writing Tutorial Services’s very helpful website. You may actually learn a few things about what constitutes plagiarism. And it is my hope that this incident will also aid you in discovering a few things about journalism.

  7. If Anderson isnt fired, if we as a united group of writers and readers arent outraged enough to stand up and demand Anderson be held accountable for his actions which insult the very fabric of our industry than shame on us for allowing this latest incident to pass as simply something to be chatted about for a day. The problem is bigger than Anderson. This isnt the first time such a crime – yes crime – and fraud has happened, and if we are apathetic and complacent, it will not be the last. Anderson quite simply must go. If he isnt held accountable, we are all lost.

  8. Accountability is one thing, and it’s good that Anderson has owned up, although when he says “Mea culpa” I don’t think that’s quite what he means; I think he means “OK, now leave me alone.” Sorry, plagiarism is zero-sum, the only way to counter it is not to accept apologies and then everything’s OK; at the very least the book has to be withdrawn. Anderson speaks of the peripheral relationship that the material he plagiarized has to the rest of the text, and others speak of its “isolated” nature, as if these things ameliorate the offense. Sorry, if you steal lawn furniture from the park for your own backyard, it’s still stealing, even if the stuff isn’t given pride of place in the living room. It doesn’t matter whether his excuse is good or bad, it doesn’t matter whether or not he’s sorry.

  9. Ed–they gave you a tip ‘o’ the hat on Gawker, which is pretty ironic, considering their plagiaristic ways…

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  11. Funny bit about the Robert Noyce and Jerry Sanders bit is that Sanders was NEVER a co-founder of Fairchild, so CA just repeats this earlier mistake.

  12. Subscription canceled.

    No, not because an editor stole ideas and foisted them off as his own. It’s because I just finished the latest issue and wasn’t as entertained by it as I am by this scandal and the insights offered by others, for FREE, in the comment section of a blog.

  13. Hugh Howey: That’s funny, because I was thinking the same thing about canceling. The July issue of Wired was boring x 10, and this incident makes me wonder how much of that boring content was original. Or maybe it was boring BECAUSE they actually had to think of it themselves.

  14. Your example 3 is ridiculous. It is not remotely too close for comfort. People can write about the same ideas.

  15. I teach writing at UC Berkeley, and year after year students point out that they are held to different standards than professional writers, most often citing Ambrose and Goodwin. Almost any university online writing guide will contain the most narrow and strict definition of plagiarism because it is a definition meant to be used by students. But just as the consequences or “punishment” for plagiarism differ, so do definitions, along with approved ways of using the words of others.

    I’m not defending plagiarism by any means, but I don’t think it’s always an open and shut case. I often have international students who are very confused by American university standards for plagiarism because in their own countries they are taught to take, liberally and enthusiastically, the words of writers and use them in their writing with just the mention of the writer’s name. No need to paraphrase or cite. This is pretty easy for me to detect in their writing, as often the styles simply don’t mesh well. And I do require them to revise with the strictest definition in mind because it is the academic standard they will be held to as student writers.

    In any case, I’m compiling a set of articles on plagiarism for an intermediate writing class as the foundation for a research project on plagiarism. And this fits in nicely–as do the comments. I’m hoping they will find some additional interesting cases to cite.

  16. Guides to referencing on-line sources have been around since the early to mid 1990s (e.g., Li and Crane’s 1993 title Electronic Style). I am not convinced by Anderson’s explanation.

  17. […] I’m also wondering if it’s fair to chide customers for standing in line for Ben & Jerry’s Free Ice Cream Day. Sure, the flavor options are limited. But it’s not as if you’re lining up for melted vanilla ice milk. And, yes, you can always go to another Ben & Jerry’s, slap down three bucks, and get an ice cream immediately. But are people lining up because bargain hunting and consumerism have replaced less conspicuous ways of frittering away our time? Is it the consumer or the corporation who is guilty of letting discount culture and bargain hunting dominate our culture like this? Have we lost the ability to let time simply be time? Why most every action have a monetary value? (That last question may involve bringing up Chris Anderson’s book, which I’ll let the others bring up, for obvious reasons.) […]

  18. There is a flip side that I think needs to be taken into account here, at least for the passages in which Chris mentioned sources.

    Was Chris trying to steal other people’s words?

    Or was he–as it seems to me–merely attempting to write in such a way as to stay true to the originals?

    If a writer, having cited sources, engages in too much paraphrasing, he runs the risk of altering the content so much that such attribution would amount to putting words into other people’s mouths.

    Most of the examples above deal with people’s recounting of things that are supposed to be facts–including series of events. There’s only so much paraphrasing one could do without running the risk of altering the facts and/or making it seem that the sources had said things they actually hadn’t.

    I think Chris simply opted for meticulous adherence to the facts that others had previously recounted. I see that as a good thing.

  19. In my previous comment, I referred to the citing of sources.

    Just to make it clear, I do understand that part of the concern here was the way in which he cited them (in the paragraphs vice a more formal format) and another part was that he evidently didn’t always cite them.

    Certainly they should have been cited in all instances but, when it comes to the acceptability of format of the citation, that’s really a judgment call on the part of the publisher.

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