Seattle software developer Saul Pwanson has a hobby of developing crossword puzzles, but another related hobby, too: analyzing the way that existing puzzles have been constructed. He created a database that aggregates puzzles that have appeared in various publications, including, crucially, the New York Times and USA Today, and sorts them based on similarities. Puzzles that have a greater percentage of the same black squares, or the same letters in identical positions, are ranked as more similar. Crosswords often re-use answers; puzzle-solvers are used to encountering some of the usual glue words that connect parts of the grid. As 538 reports, though, Pwanson noticed something odd in the data: Many of the puzzles that appeared in USA Today and affiliated publications, listed under various creators' names but all published under Timothy Parker as editor, were highly similar to each other, differing in as little as four answer words
. These Pwanson classifies as "shoddy" -- they seem to be about as different as test responses based on a passed-around answer sheet. These seem to shortchange readers expecting original works, but may represent no real copyright problem, since Universal Uclick holds the copyright to them all. Perhaps puzzle enthusiasts aren't surprised that a publishing syndicate economizes on crosswords with slight variations, or that horoscopes are sometimes recycled.
However, another tranche of puzzles Pwanson calls "shady": these are puzzles that bear such strong resemblance in their central clues and answers to puzzles that have appeared in the New York Times that it's very hard to accept Parker's claim that the overlap is coincidental. In one example given, for instance, the answers "Drive Up the Wall," "Get On One's Nerves," and "Rub the Wrong Way" appeared in the same order and the same position in a Parker-edited puzzle that appeared in USA Today in June 2010 as they had in a Will Shortz-edited puzzle published nine years before in the New York Times.