A Plagiarism Scandal Is Unfolding In The Crossword World

A Plagiarism Scandal Is Unfolding In The Crossword World

Organisation: FiveThirtyEight (United States)

Publication Date: 04/09/2016

Size of team/newsroom:large


A news-breaking story about a plagiarism scandal that roiled the crossword community. We were the first to report how a new database had found that USA Today’s crossword editor was routinely copying elements of New York Times crosswords, and often re-publishing crosswords that he had once edited, but under pseudonyms. The editor, Timothy Parker, acknowledged that he was doing that, but didn’t consider it plagiarism. But through a use of data analysis, data visualization, and reporting, we showed that it would be difficult to call it anything else. The story was covered widely by other outlets after we broke the news, and Parker has since been put on leave from USA Today and the Universal crossword syndicate.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

This is a story that could not exist without a mix of reporting and data analysis. We pulled the crossword data set from open-source data, verified it by visiting the library and looking through microfilm of old crosswords in newspapers, used data analysis to find that Parker was copying crosswords at a vastly higher rate than any other publication, and reached the principal source to introduce readers to the person behind the data anomalies. The news couldn’t have been broken without our combination of data analysis and traditional reporting.

Technologies used for this project:

The crosswords database that we drew from was compiled using Python, and the open-source code was waiting for us on Github. To analyze the data on our end, we used Excel and R, and we charted the data using our in-house table-making and chart-building tools, along with refinements in Illustrator.
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