Monday, March 29, 2010

Did NYT Art Critic Benjamin Genocchio Lift Language From Wikipedia For A Review? It Sure Looks That Way.

We get fairly regular emails at The NYTPicker from readers peddling accusations against NYT reporters that relate to the copying of language and ideas from other sources. Most of them we ignore, because the similarities don't suggest anything beyond coincidence.

But an email we got yesterday from a reader -- pointing out the resemblance between a phrase in a review by soon-to-be-departing NYT art critic Benjamin Genocchio, and a line in an earlier review in the Yale Daily News -- prompted us to do a little more checking on our own.

And when we did, we found some similarity in language and juxtaposition between a paragraph of Genocchio's review -- of an Eero Saarinen reception at Yale, published in yesterday's Connecticut edition -- and the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on Saarinen, the celebrated 20th century architect. (Saarinen designed the Yale skating rink pictured above, known as the "Yale Whale.")

Here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia page's first paragraph, followed by two paragraphs from Gennochio's review. We've added italics and emphasis to denote the passages in question.

From the Wikipedia entry, first paragraph:

Eero Saarinen (August 20, 1910 – September 1, 1961) was a Finnish American architect and product designer of the 20th century amous for varying his style according to the demands of the project: simple, sweeping, arching structural curves or machine-like rationalism.

From Gennochio's review, 8th & 9th paragraph:

Saarinen was widely criticized during his lifetime for having no identifiable architectural style, seemingly adapting his designs to each project....

Compare, for instance, those sensual, sweeping, arching curves of the TWA Terminal with the extreme rationalism of his many projects for American corporations...

It's that same paragraph from Gennochio's review that caught the eye of our reader, who noted a seeming similarity between it and a paragraph from the Yale Daily News review by Amir Sharif, published on February 19.

From Gennochio:

Compare, for instance, those sensual, sweeping, arching curves of the TWA Terminal with the extreme rationalism of his many projects for American corporations, like the boxlike IBM Manufacturing and Training Facility in Rochester, Minn., or the simple, rectangular CBS corporate headquarters in New York. It is hard to believe they are all by the same architect.

From the Yale Daily News:

The white model of the voluptuous Ingalls Rink is juxtaposed with plans of the irregularly angled Morse and Stiles Colleges. At another corner of the gallery the rectangular outline of the IBM corporate campus contrasts with the parabolic St. Louis Gateway Arch. It is hard to imagine that the same hands drew the sketches for all.

While these similarities strike us as worth noting, we don't think they remotely give rise to a charge of plagiarism. This seems more the apparent sin of laziness, in which a critic read over Wikipedia and then -- perhaps even unconsciously -- borrowed a phrase or two to help him make a point. The same thing may have happened with the Yale Daily News review.

We consider this the sort of offense that warrants a simple reminder to Gennochio -- and to everyone else at the NYT -- that while Wikipedia is a handy backstop for writers in need of a quick summary, it's not okay to copy from it.

Readers of the NYT have the right to expect that the paper's reporters aren't taking words or information from Wikipedia -- or anyplace else -- and putting it into the NYT.

Mediabistro reported on March 16 that Genocchio is leaving the NYT to become the editor-in-chief of Art + Auction magazine, and vice-president of editorial at Louise Blouin Media, its owner. A spokeswoman for that company told Mediabistro that the new position means that Genocchio "will no longer be contributing" to the NYT.

We've contacted the NYT and Genocchio for comment on the similarities between the review and the two pieces, and will update when we hear back.


Anonymous said...

I'm asking just because I'm curious: why is it wrong to copy from the Wikipedia? It's released under an open license that encourages reuse. It's not specifically authored by anyone, indeed Genocchio might be the author of those lines in Wikipedia. It's a bit different from plagiarizing from a single human who is probably not getting full credit and pay. But anyone who contributes to the Wikipedia knows that it's a contribution to the digital commons.

I realize that the NYT wouldn't be in business for very long if it routinely grabbed entire articles or even sections from Wikipedia without attribution.
But what's wrong with a sentence or two here and there?

Just curious.

Anonymous said...

Really? You think that there's anything going on here? I expect this to be another post that gets disappeared once you reread it a couple of times.

Alex said...

I expect this to be another post that attracts whiny detractors who apologize for the NYT and attack the blog in spite of fairly strong evidence of a problem.

How likely is it that Genocchio, by some fluke of the cosmos, in a single sentence, just happened to echo the grammatical structure of Wikipedia, the substantive argument of Wikipedia and four of the adjectives and nouns of Wikipedia, with other words swapped out for synonyms such that Genocchio's sentence feels virtually identical to Wikipedia's? It's not impossible, certainly, and (as the first commenter notes) it's not necessarily even wrong even if Genocchio did rely on Wikipedia.

But I would say it's a pretty good catch by the Nytpicker. Why not just admit it, raise an eyebrow, and move on, rather than cry and whine in the defense of the NYT?


To Anonymous, 8:48 a.m.:

The NYT warrants that all its content is original. A NYT editor wouldn't condone his or her child copying language or ideas from Wikipedia for a school essay. The same standard should apply to the NYT's editorial content.

Anonymous said...

Aside from all of the reasons not to copy from Wikipedia that have already been stated, here's another one: It's often wrong--both factually and in critical assertions. Which is why you'll never see it footnoted in a legitimate book or explicitly cited in an article of any journalistic merit.

Anonymous said...

To further, much of Wikipedia's content is not heavily user-editted, but under the control of individual topical editors with a vested interested in the topic.

Anonymous said...

From an art critical stance, Ginocchio's vestigial regurgitation amounts to the dubious positioning of rationalism as a non-organic formalism that strictly caters to generic corporate blandness. Good {^cking riddance.

Anonymous said...

Ever noticed that Wikipedia entries are routinely patched together from other sources? The deeply ironic story behind this story is that even if Genocchio did lift a line or to from a Wikipedia entry, that entry may well have been lifted wholesale from someplace else.

Try searching a few random lines from Wikipedia entries sometime and you'll see what I mean.