The crossword world has been abuzz with this FiveThirtyEight report for the past few days. The investigation and its aftermath have spawned several threads of conversations about plagiarism in puzzles.
In this case, the data is so overwhelming that it leaves no doubt - but often the difference between plagiarism and coincidence is not so marked. A few clues with shades of similarity, a brilliant clue that was done before, an identical theme, even a full puzzle almost like another – any of it can happen by sheer chance.
In 2015, two consecutive Guardian prize puzzles by different setters carried the same theme of US Presidents – the grid fills naturally shared common entries, and what was arguably the cleverest clue in both employed the same wordplay device.
In 2009, two American crossword setters produced crosswords with a theme that, on the face of it, doesn't look like it could get repeated: phrases with the word RAVEN embedded inside. Both puzzles had near-identical theme entries in the exact same places in the grid. Matt Gaffney, the setter of one of those puzzles, wrote about how such a thing could happen independently and coincidentally.
Earlier when I spotted similar clues across crosswords, I used to blog about it (Déjà Vu, The Times Squires). I discontinued doing so as finding such commonality turned out to be too frequent to be post-worthy. Talented wordsmiths can surely see without external prompting that a TARANTULA is "natural at spinning" or a RHINO is a "one-horn animal" – it surprises me no more to find these words clued by different setters in the same style.
Some words (extra risotto, anyone?) are grid-friendly and will show up often in crosswords. Some words can be treated for clueing in only so many ways. Sometimes the ways of word breakup are many but two setters pick the same idea since it produces a great surface.
In clue-writing contests such as CCCWC, which do not make the entries public till after the deadline, participants cannot possibly copy/get inspiration from other participants' clues. And yet, declare the clue word CLEMENTINE and three entrants turn in "Papal cross? (10)".
So how do we identify a case of wilful copying?
If a setter does actually lift/tweak another setter's work, it is hard to tell when the instances of resemblance are few and the clues in question aren't markedly different from the setter's usual style. Only the setter knows!
I believe that we should be careful in using the P-word unless the evidence is very strong, such as:
- Repetitions over a large volume of puzzles
- Wide variation in quality of puzzles/clues by the setter
- A pattern of resemblance to others' work especially in the long grid fills, where the potential for copying is the highest
The recent case reveals another tell-tale sign: expressing a disregard for the puzzle that your own work closely resembles. Not a fan, never have been a fan? If these repetitions were by chance, the setter/editor would like the crosswords that happen to be uncannily similar to his own!
Sometimes even a single clue can raise suspicions of copying. Say an amateur setter whose clues are generally unremarkable writes a brilliant clue on social media. There will be those who notice this anomaly and search for the clue online. If they find that this clue resembles a winner on another CWC, they will suspect. If this happens over and over, they will be sure. There may not be charges of theft made openly, but people watch, people know!
With publicly available puzzle databases and advanced search tools online, plagiarising puzzles/clues is easy. What is also easy is getting caught. The same puzzle databases and advanced search tools are available to consumers of puzzles. Puzzle solvers are smart and curious and driven to unraveling mysteries. Plagiarism in puzzles, if attempted, is bound to come out sooner or later.
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