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The world of crossword puzzles was all in a Jumble (a game that competitive tournament crossword puzzlers would never stoop to play) after one of the nation's most prominent crossword editors was benched Monday over allegations that he's plagiarized clues from The New York Times' vaunted puzzles.
The statistical analysis website fivethirtyeight.com published an investigation Friday claiming that Timothy Parker — who edits puzzles for USA Today and for Universal UClick's hundreds of newspaper and web clients — had edited dozens of puzzles over more than 15 years that copied elements from Times puzzles, which are widely considered the crème de la crème (n.: "best in the business").
"The puzzles in question repeated themes, answers, grids and clues from Times puzzles published years earlier," 538 reported based on what it described as a database of tens of thousands of puzzles published by 11 outlets, including The Times.
"Hundreds more of the puzzles edited by Parker are nearly verbatim copies of previous puzzles that Parker also edited," the site reported. "Most of those have been republished under fake author names."
USA Today — the nation's third-largest newspaper, with a circulation of almost 1.7 million, according to the Alliance for Audited Media — said in a brief statement Monday that pending its investigation, "we will publish crosswords edited by other contributors."
Universal UClick said that while it holds Parker's work in high regard, "we are taking the allegations very seriously, and will explore them thoroughly and quickly."
"Until then, Tim has agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords," the syndicate said.
538 reported that Parker called the repetitions "mere coincidence" and denied that he copied The Times on purpose.
"When the same answers appear in the same order with the same clues, then you really suspect something is wrong. And when it happens repeatedly, then you know it's plagiarism."
The Times said it's looking into the report. In its own story on the scandal, the newspaper quoted its crossword editor, Will Shortz, as saying it's "clear it's plagiarism."
While crosswording might appear a genteel pursuit, anyone who's seen the 2006 documentary "Wordplay" already knows that it's a highly competitive, sometimes cutthroat world, one in which the top puzzle constructors, editors and enthusiasts memorize hundreds of thousands of words and their definitions and agonize over how to decode the often cryptic ways editors try to obscure them.
In an interview on NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday," Shortz — who also serves as the program's "puzzlemaster," creating word games for weekly callers — called the contretemps the first of its kind.
"You know, great minds think alike," Shortz told host Rachel Martin. "But when the same theme answers appear in the same order, then you want to look closely. When the same answers appear in the same order with the same clues, then you really suspect something is wrong. And when it happens repeatedly, then you know it's plagiarism."