And… Repeat

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[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

I’ve had repetition on the brain lately. Repeatedly. How apropos.

I was talking about plagiarism with a friend of mine recently — a teacher who has dealt with her fair share of plagiarized essays from students — and I quickly summarized the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal from 2016 for her.

She was understandably surprised that plagiarism was a thing in the crossword world — a thankfully rare one — and it got me thinking about intentional repetition vs. unintentional repetition.

When it comes to the Uclick scandal, it was pretty obviously intentional repetition.

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But unintentional repetition happens more often than you’d think. The very rules for creating a traditional themed crossword lend themselves toward duplication, unintentional and otherwise.

Grid layouts, for instance, get reused all the time. When I started constructing, I actually assembled a stack of different grid patterns for 13x and 15x puzzles that I could use, organized by how the theme entries were arranged on the page: 9-13-9, 11-15-11, etc.

Despite the virtually infinite number of ways you could build a 15x grid, you see, when it comes to theme entries — particularly grids with diagonal symmetry and theme entries of matching length — there’s a finite number of ways to build a functioning grid.

So, we know that grids can easily be similar, but what about themes?

There are all sorts of ways that wordplay can inspire crossword themes — anagrams, sound-alike puns, entries reading backwards or being mixed up in a grid, portmanteaus, letters being removed from common phrases (and sometimes placed elsewhere in the grid), etc. — and if more than one constructor comes up with the same idea, you could have repeated entries with no malice or plagiarism involved.

Let’s say multiple constructors are working on puzzles with a similar theme, as they would for some of the tournaments hosted throughout the year, like Lollapuzzoola or the Indie 500. If the tournament had a time theme, it’s reasonable that more than one constructor could come up with a hook like “Time Flies” and look for entries that combine travel and time, coming up with NONSTOPWATCH or LAYOVERDUE.

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[Image courtesy of DnD Beyond.]

Constructor Matt Gaffney actually wrote about a case of unintentional theme repetition for Slate years ago, discussing how he and Mike Shenk independently came up with puzzles where the word RAVEN was hidden in longer entries, and four of the five theme entries in the puzzles were the same AND placed similarly in the grid.

It’s a fascinating read that reveals a lot about grid construction, theme design, and puzzle mechanics. It’s the ultimate puzzly example of “great minds think alike.”

So, how do you avoid repeating a theme? Well, a little due diligence can go a long way. Sites like Xwordinfo and Crossword Fiend are great resources for searching theme answers to see if they’ve been done before.

Constructor Patrick Blindauer also offered some advice for coming up with new themes: solve more puzzles. He said, “Solving other puzzles is a good source of theme ideas for me. I try to guess the theme early, sometimes based only on the title; if I turn out to be wrong, I’ve got a new idea to play with.”

In this case, he avoids repetition through imagination. It’s a cool idea, one that will no doubt lead to some terrific new puzzles.


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Puzzle Plagiarism: One Year Later

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This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest stories in puzzles: the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal, aka #gridgate.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can click here for more detail, but here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

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The story originally broke on data analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com thanks to Oliver Roeder, but the real credit belongs to Tausig and Pwanson. The article sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Roeder reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

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The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and president of Lone Shark Games, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken:

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles. After all, plagiarism isn’t tolerated in publishing or college term papers, so why should the efforts of crossword constructors be considered any less sacrosanct?

And except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it. As far as anyone knew, Parker was still employed by Uclick, and they wouldn’t confirm or deny his involvement in any non-USA Today and Gannett-published puzzles in the future.

So naturally, as the one-year anniversary of the story loomed in the distance, I got curious. What had become of Parker? Was he still involved with Universal Uclick?

Sadly, I have no new answers for you. I reached out to Universal Uclick for comment, and they declined to reply. Parker was similarly difficult to reach.

But even without new threads to follow, this is an important story to revisit. It represents the solidarity, pride, and support of the puzzle community. It represents the rights of creators to be respected and to have their hard work respected. It represents the power of concerned citizens speaking up.

It reminded people that crosswords represent much more than a way to pass an idle Sunday morning.


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