The German Wikipedia and German newswires have been buzzing recently about the suspected plagiarism of a Wikipedia article by a Brockhaus freelancer. The article in question, about Pope Benedict XVI, is quite similar to one submitted to Brockhaus Online on April 27 by a freelance writer. The similarities increase if one compares the Brockhaus article to a version of the German article from April 26. In this case, one can observe long identical passages, and entire paragraphs that are changed only minimally.
Discovery and complaint timeline
The initial discovery of the similarities, by de:Benutzer:Mathias Schindler on April 28, led to a polite letter to Brockhaus Online, informing them of the similarities and asking them how they wished to proceed. The first response from Brockhaus was "we'll check with our contributor;" the freelancer denied copying material from Wikipedia. Early efforts to compare the two articles yielded a suggestive copyscape diff. Wikipedians then checked the version of the Wikipedia article that existed at the time of the submission to Brockhaus Online, producing this diff via MediaWiki, clearly highlighting lengthy identical passages.
The obvious response to these claims is that both articles may have used the same underlying sources. Rather than checking their respective bibliographies, Schindler identified individual sentences which were the product of edits and modifications by multiple users, which were identical in both essays. For a few days after this was discovered, Brockhaus exchanged private correspondence with Wikipedia editors about the matter; but took no action. On May 3, a discussion about the matter was initiated on the German Wikipedia mailing list. Unfortunately, despite strong requests that the discussion not be repeated beyond the boundaries of the list, a journalist for PC Welt discovered that thread and leaked the potential scandal in a four-page news item on May 5, referencing discussions about the matter on the public list.
According to PC Welt, Klaus Holoch, head of the Brockhaus PR department, claimed that the Ratzinger article was ready even before the result of the papal election. According to a colleague at Brockhaus, however, Holoch denies this; saying only that the freelancer was working on the article on the 21st of April.
On Friday, May 6, Holoch commented publicly that "mistakes had probably been made," and that "in the coming week we will have a discussion with the author of the article," in the hopes of clarifying the matter. Brockhaus removed the controversial article from their site. However, the article text remained available for purchase from elsewhere on brockhaus.de for 2.5 Euros. According to Schindler, Brockhaus changed the content of the purchasable article on May 9th, upon being informed that it also contained the suspect text.
Blog coverage and comparison with similar complaints about Wikipedia
Comments on German weblogs about this event included complaints that this was a case of "man bites dog," which would hardly be newsworthy the other way around, as Wikipedia contributors plagiarize from other sources all the time; not knowing or not caring enough to properly reference their research, or engaging in wholesale copyright violation which is only caught with great vigilance (or, worse yet, only when the original author complains).
On the other hand, Wikipedia takes every claim of copyright violation extremely seriously, and acts immediately to take down alleged copyvios while investigating their copyright status. The OTRS ticket system and a newly created legal mailing list, exist for processing such requests quickly, even when submitted by apparent trolls. In contrast, it took Brockhaus eight days to respond to this complaint.
Blogs reporting on the event include industrial technology and witchcraft, an A-list German tech-blog, heise.de, and Schindler's own Recentchanges. Heise contributor Hal Faber commented at the end of his weekly news column on Friday, that this exchange between Brockhaus and Wikipedia is becoming exciting. "Currently it stands 1:0 for Wikipedia. Which brings up the question: Why can't Brockhaus just use Wikipedia, with full acknowledgment of its license?"