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Major Crossword Publisher Confirms Its Puzzles Were Plagiarized

Universal Uclick, a syndicator of puzzles to newspapers and other publications, says it has confirmed some of the allegations of plagiarism that have been leveled against the editor of its popular Universal Crossword puzzle and were raised in a FiveThirtyEight investigation last month.

According to a company statement, the editor, Timothy Parker, will take a three-month leave of absence but will be allowed to return to his job as editor of the Universal Crossword puzzle. The syndicate said it will institute a series of unspecified new procedures to ensure that all its puzzles are original.

Parker is also the editor of the USA Today Crossword puzzle, which is provided to the newspaper by Universal. The FiveThirtyEight investigation, based on a database analysis, showed that both crossword series had repeatedly copied themes from The New York Times. After the article was published, Parker stepped aside while both USA Today and Universal conducted internal investigations.

Here is the text of the syndicate’s statement, which was signed by John Glynn, president and editorial director of Universal Uclick, and sent this week to editors of newspapers that run the Universal puzzle (a version of the statement was posted on the company’s website on April 18):

In response to recent media reports, Universal Uclick launched an internal investigation into allegations concerning duplication of prior work in crossword puzzles edited by Timothy Parker. Our findings confirmed some of the allegations.

As a result, Mr. Parker will take a three-month leave of absence as editor of the Universal Crossword puzzle. During his leave, Mr. Parker will confirm that his process for constructing puzzles uses the best available technology to ensure that everything he edits is original. We will work with Mr. Parker on this effort and redouble our editorial process so that there is a stronger second level of review.

We regret any inconvenience this situation has created for you. We are committed to providing the highest quality features in the industry.

The FiveThirtyEight investigation found that Parker edited 65 puzzles that copied earlier themes from Times puzzles and hundreds more that were nearly verbatim copies of puzzles he’d edited previously, sometimes years earlier. Those puzzles were often re-published under fake bylines.

Fred Piscop, a former editor of the Washington Post Sunday crossword, had taken over for Parker as interim editor of both the Universal Crossword and USA Today puzzles. Piscop and New York Times puzzle contributors Victor Fleming, Elizabeth Gorski and Frank Longo have been authoring the replacement puzzles.

A call to Glynn went unreturned, as did a call to USA Today. A call to Universal’s chief marketing officer, Susan Johnson, was returned with an email in which she pointed to the published statement.

Several questions remain unanswered: What allegations were confirmed by Universal’s investigation? Were any explicitly not confirmed? Will the past two months count toward Parker’s three-month leave of absence? And how exactly will Parker’s editorial role change from what it was before the investigation?

FiveThirtyEight: The aftermath of the crossword scandal

Oliver Roeder was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied game theory and political competition.