A place for crossword solvers and constructors to share, create, and discuss American (NYT-style) crossword puzzles.
I just completed the 1/25/2021 WSJ puzzle. The original version on Crossword Fiend is completely different, other than three of the four theme answers. Does anyone know why the puzzle was changed?
This particular puzzle-related drama is far more high-profile than most other puzzle-related dramas, as it's been featured in major news outlets. The drama is very public, so there's not very much personal information to be redacted.
TL;DR: World's most-syndicated crossword editor (who already has a reputation for bad puzzles) is found to have plagiarised many puzzles between the two publications they edit for. He's eventually replaced with better editors and everyone is happy.
If you somehow don't know what crosswords are, crosswords are a type of word puzzle where you're given a bunch of clues and they have to write letters in the spaces to form words that give the answers to those clues. These words are written in two directions, Across and Down, which results in the words crossing, as you would expect. Many newspapers have one or two crosswords every day or every week.
There are various different types of layouts for crosswords, but here we concern ourselves only with the American layout of crosswords. In these layouts, every letter is part of both an Across and Down entry. Further, American crosswords generally have a theme
, which is generally (but not always) some clever bit of wordplay present in some of the longer answers. For instance, the April 7 2021 New York Times crossword had the clue for 34A be "Video game franchise with characters found at the ends of 17-, 20-, 53- and 58-Across". The answer to this clue was MARIO BROS., and the four long answers referenced were HORNED TOAD
, GEORGIA PEACH
, MURIEL BOWSER
, and OOPSY-DAISY
. Four otherwise-unrelated things, but all tied together by the theme. (This particular crossword is itself the subject of a minor squabble that certainly doesn't merit a full post, but essentially, some solvers argue over whether Mario is well-known enough to be used in a crossword, while ignoring all the opera, Shakespeare, geography, and old dead people that are present in many crosswords.)
A good theme is often difficult to come up with, and it's generally not acceptable to copy someone else's theme. Here
is an article where one constructor, Matt Gaffney, apologises and explains how his duplication of a theme was in fact entirely coincidental, after people accused him of plagiarising someone else's theme.
Crosswords published in newspapers are generally written by independent constructors, but are edited by a crossword editor employed by the newspaper. The editor's job consists of, among other things, checking that the clues and fill don't contain offensive words, that the clues and answers are correct and not too difficult or too easy for the readers, that the answers do not appear in the clues, and editing the clues/grid to facilitate this. If an editor accepts a puzzle, they generally buy all rights to the puzzle, though it's generally informally understood that the constructor will be attributed alongside each reprinting of the puzzle.
Who is Timothy Parker?
Prior to 2016, Timothy Parker was employed at Universal Uclick as the editor of both the Universal Crossword and the USA Today Crossword. As I understand it, at least, the former is syndicated to many newspapers worldwide, as well as various other websites like Dictionary.com; while the latter is licensed from Universal Uclick to the USA Today.
Even before this drama, though, the crossword community's opinion of his puzzles was generally "not that good". Tyler Hinman, 7-time American Crossword Puzzle Tournament winner, has a series of tweets
of bad clues in the Universal/USA Today:
The USA Today puzzle screws it up again. "Crayon color: burnt ___" = SIENA. Sorry; it's "sienna". Inexcusable. #badpuzzles
Universal clue: "Attempted to no avail". In the same puzzle: "'...but to no ___'" = AVAIL. Freebie! #badpuzzles
Kudos to the USA Today crossword. Nothing jazzes up a 3x4 corner like crossing RYA and AYAH at the Y. #badpuzzles
Eric Berlin explained his own beef with Parker in a now-inaccessible blog post
(note: a disconnected grid is an absolute no-no in crosswords), and also stated on Twitter
that Parker had threatened to sue him at one point for investigating some exaggerated claims his Twitter bio. A former friend of mine, reviewing Parker's book Brain Teasers for Dummies
, questioned why MOUE, IAMBS, and OMPHALOS were in "an "easy" crossword in a "for Dummies" book". Needless to say, Parker was not a popular editor.
The Plagiarism Perhaps his mediocrity was why people didn't notice his plagiarism until 2016.
Near the start of 2016, a software engineer and crossword amateur called Saul Pwanson had embarked upon a project to analyse a bunch of crossword puzzle data, in order for him to improve his own crossword-writing skills. But this first entailed finding archives of a lot of crosswords and getting all that data into a single format that could be easily analysed, which was difficult because every publication, if they had
a digital copy of their crossword that went back years that he could access (since there may be copyright restrictions at play here), would be using a different format.
Anyway, Pwanson managed to do all that (here
is his talk on the incident), and then looked to see if there were any identical sections or rows. And lo and behold, he found that a bunch of themes are often duplicated (though you'd certainly expect that to be the case over 25 years of crosswords from multiple outlets, especially with the same crossword occasionally being reprinted by the same source).
Well, OK, what about identical non-theme rows? Seems like a bunch of those happen too. Then he found two almost-identical grids that had only a few rows changed, both of which had been edited by this Timothy Parker guy he'd never heard of. One was written by a well-known constructor, Elizabeth Gorski, but the earlier one was written by this obvious pseudonym Tim Burr. Huh, that's weird...
One thing led to another and eventually he compiled a list of pairs of crosswords that had identical or near-identical grids, and posted it to a crossword mailing list. Ben Tausig, another crossword writer and editor for American Values Club Crosswords, and who was in the mailing list, then tweeted this
instance of plagiarism of his crossword. The only change in the grid here
is in the top left corner, where SAMBA and WOTAN have been changed to TAE BO and JONAS (so only six letters have changed), and many of the clues have been wholesale copied. The later crossword was attributed to a pseudonym instead of Tausig.
At this point (March 4, 2016), Oliver Roeder of the politics site FiveThirtyEight noticed the tweet, got in touch, and then ran an article reporting on the situation
(well worth a read), with some damning statistics:
- About one in six Universal crosswords and about one in twelve USA Today crosswords were at least a 75% match with a previous puzzle in the database.
- Almost every other publication had a less-than-1% rate of 25%-similar matches.
- A lot of the plagiarism went from Universal to USA Today or vice versa. Next-most-common was plagiarism of themes from the New York Times to Universal or USA Today.
In the article, Will Shortz, the crossword editor for the New York Times, said:
I have never heard of something like this happening before. This would never have come to light except in the electronic age, where you can track these things. To me, it’s an obvious case of plagiarism. It’s unethical, and I would never publish a person who plagiarizes another person’s work.
Roeder also interviewed Parker for the article. Parker denied all allegations, as well as making some baffling other claims. For instance, he said that:
- he had an in-house team of 60 people at Universal, but wouldn't put Roeder in touch with any of them, and said that whether they existed "has nothing to do with the crosswords"
- he couldn't say which bylines were pseudonymous and which were real people (you'd think that a crossword compiler who's paying people for their contributions would at least have a spreadsheet or something keeping track of this stuff?)
Obviously, crossword constructors are now very angry, specifically because Parker has published their puzzles, edited, under a different name (thus scrubbing their authorship); because Parker has wholesale copied theme entries and theme clues from the New York Times (which is plagiarism, even if it's not enough to be legally actionable), so they may have been affected even if they'd never sent anything to Universal or USA Today; and because he's been doing this for years. Three days later
, Universal Uclick announced that they would be investigating the allegations and that Parker would "temporarily step back from any editorial role". USA Today announced similarly that it would be investigating the allegations, and would be publishing other contributors' crosswords in the interim. Constructor Fred Piscop wound up being the acting editor.
(Around this time, the plagiarism allegation was added to Timothy Parker's Wikipedia page, with a citation to the original FiveThirtyEight article. It was then removed from Wikipedia. Repeatedly. By various IP editors, and a user named Arcenter. It was shortly after found that Arcenter was, you guessed it, Timothy Parker himself. He was subsequently blocked
from Wikipedia indefinitely
Just in case there was still any doubt, Matt Gaffney, who you will recall wrote an article about his own theme-duplication, wrote this article
debunking Parker's defense that his plagiarism was actually innocent coincidence, arguing that even in the case of innocent coincidence, theme answers, theme answer placement, and black cell placement should normally still be quite different, and that any such "coincidences" certainly shouldn't be happening to a single editor repeatedly, over a long period of time.
Then, radio silence from USA Today and Universal Uclick. During this time, American Values Club Crosswords (who you will recall is ran by Ben Tausig, the guy who first broke the news on Twitter), ran a fantastic pair of bonus puzzles on April 2nd, written by Francis Heaney. A writeup of them (well worth a read!) can be found here
, though as the AVCX requires a paid subscription, the clues are not given in the writeup.
The Boycott And The Conclusion
Almost two months went by before Universal Uclick announced that, despite investigating the findings and finding that some of the allegations were true, Timothy Parker would return to being a crossword editor after a three-month leave.
In response, Lone Shark Games, a publisher of board games and puzzle books, announced a boycott
of USA Today and Universal Uclick. That went viral on Twitter among fans of Lone Shark Games, and was reported on by Forbes
. Within a week, Parker was also boycotted
by USA Today; they would refuse to publish any crossword from Universal Uclick edited by Parker. Disappointingly, although Universal Uclick must surely have silently obliged and only sent USA Today crosswords edited by Piscop, this failed to elicit any other response from Universal Uclick.
One and a half years later, at the end of 2018, Universal Uclick declined to renew Parker's contract, replacing him with David Steinberg. USA Today replaced Piscop with by Erik Agard at the end of 2019. Both of these have been welcomed as good decisions that have since vastly improved the quality and diversity of their respective crosswords:
David Steinberg is the editor of the widely syndicated Universal Crossword. Under his leadership, that puzzle has gone from a "no thanks" to a very tight, professional, respectable daily.
The USA Today puzzle, previously regarded as too easy and too boring -- not to mention plagued by a plagiarism scandal known as “Gridgate” -- was not a popular choice, [Stella Zawistowski] says. But since Agard took over, that’s changed. It’s still relatively easy to solve -- words are generally short, clues have context that enable good guesses even if something is unfamiliar -- but there’s no predicting what will be in it.
As for Parker, he never apologised for what he did, or admitted that he had plagiarised. He did resurface once to criticise his detractors
(oh yeah, I guess I forgot to mention that time he used a rape joke in the Universal Crossword, though this was after the plagiarism scandal) after he was let go from Universal Uclick, and he still has his own website where he still sells his own puzzle books, but at this point no newspaper will touch him. Nowadays, his name is mud.
And, other than the occasional joke that references this incident
(Who's Adrian Powell, you ask? That's a story for another time.), that pretty much wraps it all up.
Lots of people solve crosswords. At its peak popularity, over 60 million people penciled in the grids every week. Fewer people know about the construction of crosswords, besides maybe the name "Will Shortz" (editor of the NYT crossword) or the occasional glance at that day's byline.
This mismatch means that smaller, less reputable crossword publishers can sometimes slip under the radar, so much so that the USA Today Crossword editor blatantly copied hundreds of puzzles answer-for-answer and changed the clues without anybody noticing for years.
But this drama is not about that, nor is it about the time that the editor of the LA Times used a pseudonym to publish his own tribute puzzle to films by Woody "Possibly a Sex Offender" Allen,
though both of those would probably make for good write-ups. This is about the drama surrounding the nation's flagship crossword publisher, the New York Times, which has significantly more eyes on it than any other puzzle publisher. Edit: Both USA Today and the LA Times have since gotten new editors who have both greatly increased the diversity and quality of their puzzles.
The first editor of the NYT crossword coined the "Breakfast Test," saying everything in the crossword should be able to be read aloud at the Sunday breakfast table. Sometimes this is used for good, like "Hitler" as an answer being phased out. Other times it's used as justification for grumbling by people who "don't want politics in my crossword."
Fortunately, crossword constructors tend to be a pretty tolerant crowd, so despite Will Shortz's complaints that some diverse clues and answers won't appeal to the (supposed) primary solving base of old people, wonderful puzzles like this one with a "Gender Fluid" theme where some boxes could either be an M for "male" or an F for "female" (for example "___ sex" was either "saMe" or "saFe")
are still published.
Unfortunately, Will Shortz is old and had almost complete control over the puzzle, which has led to a few slip-ups. Thugs was clued as "Gangsta rap characters." Men was clued as "Exasperated comment from a feminist." The Times also didn't let constructors see the final, edited version of the grid before publication. One constructor made a puzzle for President's Day that celebrated the First Ladies and intentionally had no men mentioned anywhere in the clues or answers . . . until the Times changed her clue for Dee to "Billy ___ Williams."
In 2019, arguably the biggest scandal rocked the puzzles section. The Times included a Mexican slur as 2-down in the grid.
Will Shortz was even warned by his friend Jeff Chen that the word (Beaner
) had a second meaning outside of being a niche baseball term. And that should have meant something coming from Jeff; he is not an uber-progressive constructor by any means, having previously questioned whether putting "white privilege" in the grid was going too far. There are still ongoing debates on whether words like "chink (in one's armor)" are acceptable, but the general consensus is it's better to be safe than sorry, and the Mexican slur was clearly too far by everyone's standards. Edit: For a more in depth essay about Jeff Chen, you can read the constructor notes by Kameron Austin Collins here: https://www.xwordinfo.com/Crossword?date=2/6/2021
What's worse, a female test solver who already felt she was being tokenized was told not to offer any advice outside of removing things that could be offensive to women when she tried to fix mistakes like this one. All this culminated in an exposé by Natan Last entitled "The Hidden Bigotry of Crosswords."
Natan detailed all of the issues I've talked about, along with some additional ones like Will Shortz rejecting many answers with the names of minorities like Marie Kondo, bell hooks, and Lizzo.
Natan's essay spawned a petition (that links some great additional articles you should read if you're interested)
which called for diversity on the test-solving and editorial staff and allowing constructors to preview their puzzle before it's published. The petition was signed by over 50 big-name constructors, and the Times eventually ceded to its demands.
What happened since? Well the Times got an editorial director named Everdeen Mason who has mostly been keeping Shortz in line (and also made the controversial decision to stop releasing the files of each puzzle, preventing people from solving outside of the official website
). There was apparently a great effort made by the editorial team to ensure that "model minority
" had a clue that respected the constructor's wishes. And I can pretty reliably count on something that appeals to people that are not old, white males being featured in my Friday and Saturday grids. OK Boomer, Gay Mecca and Awkwafina were all fun to see, and Marie Kondo and Lizzo finally made their appearance.
It seems crosswords are slowly moving in the right direction. Edit: If you want to see a wider variety of crosswords, try scrolling through here: https://crosswordlinks.substack.com/
I have heard some good things about the USA Today crossword, but it seems conspicuously absent from crosswordfiend.com?