In Brief

New York Times Arts Reporter Copies Renaissance Painter’s Wikipedia Entry [Updated]

by Mostafa Heddaya on July 29, 2014

640px-Piero_di_Cosimo_025

Piero di Cosimo, “Saint Anthony with pig in background” (c. 1480) (image via Wikipedia)

The media blog Fishbowl New York is reporting that the lead paragraph of a July 25 New York Times article by Carol Vogel bears a striking similarity to the Wikipedia entry for its subject, the Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo. The two passages in question are below, with the especially egregious second sentence appearing in bold.

First paragraph of “A Renaissance Master Finally Gets a Showcase” by Carol Vogel, published 7/25 on page C18 (and online the day before):

Artists can be eccentric, but the quirks of the Italian Renaissance master Piero di Cosimo are legendary. He is said to have been terrified of thunderstorms and so pyrophobic that he rarely cooked his food, subsisting mostly on hard-boiled eggs that he prepared 50 at a time while heating glue for his art. He didn’t clean his studio. He didn’t trim the trees in his orchard. Giorgio Vasari, the Renaissance biographer, described Piero as living “more like a beast than a man.”

Fourth paragraph of Wikipedia entry for Piero di Cosimo:

During his lifetime, Cosimo acquired a reputation for eccentricity — a reputation enhanced and exaggerated by later commentators such as Giorgio Vasari, who included a biography of Piero di Cosimo in his Lives of the Artists. Reportedly, he was frightened of thunderstorms, and so pyrophobic that he rarely cooked his food; he lived largely on hard-boiled eggs, which he prepared 50 at a time while boiling glue for his artworks. He also resisted any cleaning of his studio, or trimming of the fruit trees of his orchard; he lived, wrote Vasari, “more like a beast than a man.”

A spokesperson for the Times could not be immediately reached for comment, but poet Kenneth Goldsmith is on the case:

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 11.47.59 AM

Update, 7/29 1:21pm ET: Gawker has published an article on the Vogel imbroglio, drawing parallels to the recent firing of BuzzFeed’s Benny Johnson and quoting Times spokewoman Eileen Murphy, who says the paper is “aware of the situation and … looking into it.”

Update 2, 7/31 2:45pm ET: The New York Times has appended an “Editor’s Note” (below) acknowledging the Wikipedia duplication in the article, which has since been revised. Both Times public editor Margaret Sullivan and media reporter Ravi Somaiya have covered the issue in the paper, with the latter writing that a spokesperson “declined to discuss any disciplinary measures, beyond saying that ‘editors have dealt with Carol on the issue.'”

The Inside Art column on July 25, about a planned exhibition of the works of the Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo, started with a description of the artist’s life and eccentricities. That passage improperly used specific language and details from a Wikipedia article without attribution; it should not have been published in that form. (Editors learned of the problem after publication from a post on FishbowlNY.)

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  • Andrea Duffie

    My two cents: If somebody is building a reputation as a professional writer of any stripe (art, sports, copy writing, etc.) then part of being a writer is actually writing *original* content. Reference materials are fine, but sources should be credited appropriately.

    I understand that journalistic deadlines often get in the way of the time necessary to conduct thorough scholarly research, but come on. Art History 101 students can’t get away with quoting Wikipedia on their papers, why should a NY Times art critic?

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      is Wikipedia not considered a source for students? And if not, why not?

      • Charles

        I always tell my students that Wikipedia is a useful resource for starting their research, but to look for more reliable sources and continue their work from those. (I don’t allow them to cite it as a source.) The great thing about the Wiki model is its open, fluid authorship… information can be corrected/changed at a higher speed, and with more counterbalance (more voices) than traditional publishing, but this is also its downfall: as as teacher, I cannot easily verify the sources of information or authors, or even see what information was there when the student initially browsed. Not to mention that the general lack of nuance/historical research in many Wiki pages…

      • Dain Q. Gore

        Citing a source and paraphrasing is different than copy/paste verbatim with no quotations, format changing or indentation, or so I’ve been told (and graded accordingly)

        • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

          And it is true she didn’t cite anything.

      • Jillian Steinhauer

        I think this shows why students are not encouraged to cite Wikipedia as a source in itself: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/how-a-raccoon-became-an-aardvark

      • Andrea Duffie

        Charles gets to the heart of my original comment. My bet is that in this case, Wikipedia directly plagiarized Vasari, and Vogel plagiarized Wikipedia.

        Regarding Wikipedia as a source: I also don’t allow Wiki pages to be credited as sources, and always encourage students to use the end notes and citations to track Wikipedia information back to the original source…often a book, interview, or peer-researched journal. It teaches them how to weigh the relevancy of their sources, as well as teaching them the value of context — especially because students would often explore further into the original source to dig up more information that they could use in their papers.

        I have no problem with Wikipedia itself, but in my experience, students (and occasionally, professional writers) tend to treat Wikipedia articles as “absolute truth”, which is dangerous for any researcher as it rarely prompts them to seek out alternative points of view, proper context for quotes, etc.

        • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

          Thanks for a thorough answer.

  • http://www.christopher-howard.net/ Christopher Howard

    It might be helpful if we learn what the license for the Wikipedia page on Piero di Cosimo allows, and to know the New York Times’ policy on quoting from pages with such licenses.

  • http://www.stevendaly.com Steve Daly

    Geez, plagiarism is a big word. It assumes willful intent, which is counter-logical because why would someone plagiarize something that would be easily discovered inside of, oh, 72 hours? Unless a pattern is found, which I presume the NYT is engaged in due diligence discovering, it’s probably more likely a mistake, or a coincidal product of the Google feedback loop. Beware them smoking guns.

  • Daniel Larkin

    Ok so here’s the thing. Piero di Cosimo was the most incredible planner of parties, carnivals, and masquerades. Vasari hit upon this point extensively. But the wikipedia page does not.

    “Nor will I refrain from saying that Piero, in his youth, being fanciful
    and extravagant in invention, was much employed for the masquerades
    that are held during the Carnival; and he became very dear to the young
    noblemen of Florence, having improved their festivals much in invention,
    adornment, grandeur, and pomp. As to that kind of pastime, it is said
    that he was one of the first to contrive to marshal them in the form of
    triumphal processions…”

    http://members.efn.org/~acd/vite/VasariPierodiCosimo.html

    Given how much the themes of triumphal procession, pomp and circumstance, and the masquerade appears in his work, it’s actually the key aspect to bear in mind. It’s very clumsy that Wikipedia left it out.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      On the plus side, you can add it with citation.

    • Andrea Duffie

      Very true, and this echoes my point about people treating Wikipedia as the “go-to” site for research: it leaves out a lot, and is not capable of thoroughly exploring each of its subjects with appropriate context and supporting information. If Vogel had thought to do more intensive research on Piero (even by using the source suggested by Wikipedia) she would have had some interesting, relevant and far more flattering supporting content than that which Wikipedia provided her.

  • Philip Hartigan

    I’m going to chime in here, as a contributor to Hyperallergic and a part-time college teacher: I use Wikipedia all the time for quick reference when I’m writing articles, mainly to remind myself of dates, etc. I would never quote a wikipedia article even indirectly — and if I need any deeper information, I always go to the main secondary sources (most of which are available on the internet anyway). For students, I tell them they can use wikipedia in the same way — as a first call — but they are not allowed to cite from it. They can use internet research for essays or presentations, but I insist that the majority of things they cite must be from actual books, which they have to borrow from actual libraries, and some of which they must bring to class in order to prove that they have done so. I slightly sympathise with the NYT writer if she’s under deadline pressure, but really it’s not an excuse.

  • tmh

    Is Wikipedia even a reliable source for information? I thought just about anybody could contribute to it, Please correct me if I am wrong. Nonetheless, building a reputation as a writer using Wikipedia as your source material seems a bit lazy, like most young people today.

  • A. Larson

    The Wikipedia article itself is rather similar to the artist’s entry in the Grove Dictionary of Art (which I find is often lifted verbatim in Wikipedia entries):
    “According to Vasari, he was a peculiar and absent-minded genius who preferred to live and work by himself, eating only the hard-boiled eggs that he prepared 50 at a time while boiling the glue he used for making size. Irritated by flies, church music, screaming children and the coughing of old men, frightened of thunderstorms and intent on allowing his property to fall into disrepair, he died in self-imposed solitude, afflicted by a partial paralysis that had prevented him from working for some time.” (The original author, in this case, was William Griswold)

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