August 9, 2006

More Fake Sources at Wired News

An internal Wired News investigation exposes fakery by writer Philip Chien. Gelf talks to one of the sources who was "quoted" by Chien and explains why this whole episode doesn't reflect badly on journalism.

David Goldenberg

Wired News reports that, according to an internal investigation, one of the tech news site's writers faked info about some of his sources. A look into IP addresses and message-board postings showed that Philip Chien had manufactured contact information (and perhaps emails and entire identities) for some of his sources, according to Wired News. Following the investigation, Wired News removed three of Chien's articles from its website.

None of this would have been revealed had Wired News not tightened its requirements for article sourcing following reports (starting here on Gelf) that writer Michelle Delio had produced large numbers of articles quoting sources that could not be located. (Gelf also followed up our investigation with a piece explaining what lessons could be learned from this episode.) As a result, Wired News writers are now required to turn in contact information for their sources, and it was this measure that led to Chien's unmasking. (Disclosure: Wired News is now owned by Wired Magazine, for which I once interned and still contribute articles.)

According to the information Chien provided Wired News, Robert Ash, quoted several times by Chien, is a professor of aeronautical engineering at Old Dominion University. Gelf talked to Ash to find out if he had talked to Chien—the Wired News account reported that Ash said he hadn't—and to see if Ash knew Robert Stevens, another oft-used Chien source who has not been located and who was listed as Ash's contact person.

Ash tells Gelf that he never talked to Chien and that when he talked to Wired News investigators last week, they told him that the reason Chien said he didn't reveal Ash's affiliation with Old Dominion is because Ash had specifically requested him not to, lest he embarrass himself or the university. "I never spoke with him," Ash said in a phone interview. "And if he's claiming that I didn't want anyone to know I was at ODU, that's ludicrous." (In the Wired News piece, Chien claims that "Ash was upset with him and had recently cut off communications." Gelf did not try to contact Chien.)

Robert Ash was quoted in three Wired News stories which have now been removed. In what may be the most suspect piece, Ash is the only person who provides supporting evidence about a supposed curse placed by an angry Native American group on a launch pad (Google cache). When Gelf asks if he knows anything about this curse, Ash laughs. "Oh, good gosh," he says. "I know nothing about Indian curses. I am not in any way considered to be a historian. I've never heard of any of this."

In another article, Ash gives a long and detailed quote about NASA's Oxygen Generation System (Google cache). Though Ash denies knowledge of a few specific things he is quoted as describing, he tells Gelf that this particular subject is within his field of expertise. "I worked on in situ resource utilization," he says. "I was on the panel that wrote a book on recovering useful products from waste." (You can read the full text of the book here).

(Weirdly, in the other piece that mentions him, Ash only serves to provide numbers about certain spacewalks (Google cache).)

Ash also says that he has never met Robert Stevens. Chien tells Wired News that naming Stevens as a contact for Ash was inadvertent. The Wired News piece states that "Chien has used Robert Stevens as a source in at least three articles published in two newspapers, which we have contacted privately. In each case he used a different description, variously calling him a retired engineer, a NASA engineer and an amateur astronomer." Robert Stevens hasn't been located.

Here are the three instances that Gelf found:

The Washington Times, September 20, 2005
NASA 'vision' sees man on moon, Mars

"As NASA continues to use the solid boosters and external tank there will be more aging problems—there's no way to avoid it," NASA engineer Robert Stevens said.

The Washington Times, March 25, 2006 Saturday
Rocket fails on maiden launch

However, aerospace observers noted that just because a rocket is reliable on paper does not mean it will work. "On paper the Delta III, Ariane 5, and Lockheed Launch Vehicle should have all been extremely reliable launch vehicles, but each one also failed on its maiden flight," said retired engineer Robert Stevens.

Another Chien article quoting a Robert Stevens appeared on the websites of several West Coast newspapers, including the Nevada Appeal, The East Oregonian, The East Valley News (Google cache), and Longview, Washington's The Daily News. Here's the relevant bit:

"The best choice is to find a dark area away from city lights with a clear view of the horizon," said amateur astronomer Robert Stevens. "Pick your viewing site in advance and check the weather forecast that night. If there's a light overcast then the re-entry will be bright enough to light up the clouds. Stardust will look like a giant meteor as it enters the atmosphere—it's going to be impressive."

While it is likely that many people will describe this latest revelation about Wired News as the latest evidence of journalism's downfall, Gelf has a different theory. Since it is unlikely that Wired News has a higher percentage of unethical writers than other publications (after all, why should it?), the fact that two of its contributors have been found to produce bogus work in the last two years suggests it is better than other publications at rooting out cheaters. Why is that? Because it has put into place provisions that make it less likely for these guys to slip through the cracks. (Though as far as Gelf is concerned, the publication would serve its readers better by leaving the articles online, with explanatory notes about the sourcing problems, so people can see exactly what happened.)

Gelf is hard-pressed to believe that journalists are less ethical than other people. If there were fact checkers and random searches for cheaters in other professions, Gelf thinks that a similar number (or higher) would be found wanting. Cheating journalists are caught more often because their work is so easily available and its practitioners are held to such high standards. Gelf congratulates Wired News for describing the problem in such transparent terms, and hopes that its thoroughness will encourage journalists of all stripes to think twice before submitting unethical pieces in the future.

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Article by David Goldenberg

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