Jonah Lehrer and the Debate Over Self-Plagiarism

On 19 June journalist and media blogger Jim Romenesko posted a short piece on his website detailing how writer and author Jonah Lehrer had apparently recycled portions of a recent article for The New Yorker from an essay that had he had previously written for the The Wall Street Journal. Comparisons between “Why Smart People Are Stupid” and “The Science of Irrationality”, revealed that both pieces begin with three essentially identical opening paragraphs.

Following the revelation, other blogs and websites were able to uncover multiple examples of Lehrer replicating his own previously published content – often with only minor alterations – and the bestselling author of Imagine: How Creativity Works found himself caught in a storm of bad publicity which quickly prompted an apology. In an interview with The New York Times, he stated that, “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.” The offending pieces from The New Yorker have since been updated to acknowledge the portions that had been recycled from other works Lehrer had written and the publishers of his books have stated that new editions of the texts will make similar augmentations.

While it’s clear from his editor at The New Yorker that Lehrer has committed a “serious mistake”, according to an article on The Daily Beast, critics have been divided on what exactly he is actually guilty of. Following the thread of the discussion from news articles, blog posts, and comment’s sections, Lehrer has been accused by some of the worst kinds of intellectual dishonesty, while more sympathetic readers echo Lehrer’s own mea culpa and say that he was simply lazy.

Others have contended that Lehrer has actually done nothing wrong and that reusing former content is not a crime or even an ethically gray area. The debate has subsequently raised questions concerning the responsibilities of the publisher, the reader’s expectations for original content, and the legal vagaries of two separate news organizations publishing the same content by the same author. This event seems most likely to be an embarrassing blip on Lehrer’s otherwise impressive career, and The New Yorker does not appear to be taking any further punitive actions, but there are still lingering issues.

The severity and consequences of Lehrer’s misdeed – assuming you believe one was actually committed – is an issue to be litigated by his employers and his readers who may choose to abandon him or continue to follow his work. Yet a potentially disturbing issue has been raised in both the discussion and coverage surrounding the event, one that asks important questions about ethics and writer’s responsibilities: Did Lehrer commit self-plagiarism?

While certainly not a new phenomenon, Lehrer’s recycling of old work has brought new attention to the question over whether it is possible to plagiarize yourself. According to an article on Plagiarism Today – which provides a good overview of the issue – self plagiarism is, “when an author or other content creator uses portions of an earlier work in a new one without citing the original content.” Under that definition, Lehrer is essentially guilty. But others have pointed out that the imprecision of the terminology. Many of Lehrer’s defenders have noted that according to the definition of the word, plagiarism requires the appropriation of someone else’s work without the author’s consent, and so therefore it is essentially impossible to meet that standard, even if you modify the concept of plagiarism with the prefix “self”.

Moreover, it further raises the issue of what exactly is meant by “original content” and is there harm in creators “recycling” previous material? A recent viral video, created by a fan of Aaron Sorkin, shows multiple times in which lines and phrases reappear in various projects written by the acclaimed creator of The West Wing. Does that mean Sorkin is guilty of self plagiarism? As fans of the late Christopher Hitchens can no doubt confirm, the noted contrarian repeated anecdotes and stories several times in his various works. Had he committed some offense? These issues are only further confounded if the content in question is presented as distinct from prior content.

Lehrer’s case of my extreme, and thereby more eye-catching, because in his case the information was taken almost verbatim from other sources. This has led some to contend that after divorcing the concept from the person responsible, it’s plagiarism, regardless of whether Lehrer did it to himself: he took something from another source, without attribution, and published it as original work. According to this line of argumentation, readers of the offending article were under the impression that the content was new, and the violation of that belief misrepresents and undermines the integrity of the work. Slate’s Josh Levin, for example, described Lehrer’s actions as “stealing” and argued that, “Lehrer’s readers deserve to know whether the stuff he’s representing as new material was first published in Wired in 2009.”

Yet the lack of unanimity in identifying exactly what to call what Lehrer did has been reflected in the coverage following Romenesko’s revelation. Some have chosen to use the term in quotations marks, showing that they are unwilling to fulfill commit to its application. The Daily Beast’s Jabob Silverman was less willing to pass full judgment, writing that, “Is it plagiarism when you’re copying from yourself? Can’t a journalist repurpose material from a long-form print article into a blog post?” Although Silverman goes on to argue that the angry reaction from The New Yorker’s Editor may be the answer to the question, the very fact that it has been raised is emblematic of the difficulties in labeling the supposed misdeed.

One of the principle issues that cloud this discussion is that the very word “plagiarism” is a provocative term that represents a serious failing for an author. Next to outright fabrication and lying, plagiarism is perhaps the most damning of all charges that can be made against a writer. It has both legal and ethical consequences depending on the severity of the offense. It has destroyed careers of writers such as Q.R. Markham, whose spy novel was pulled before release when it was revealed that portions of the book were stolen from other writers, including James Bond author Ian Fleming.

Charges of plagiarism have also tarnished credibility and marred reputations that have previously been considered sacrosanct. Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late Stephen Ambrose both suffered significant embarrassment and criticism when it was revealed that sections of their histories were taken from previously published works. (Both claimed that these were failings in their research and of editing, but an important part of plagiarism is that intent is ultimately irrelevant). Even augmented with “self” the very use of the term “plagiarism” evokes an emotional response that now links the writer to one of the most reprehensible offenses a journalist can commit. In a world where ethical systems, religions, and legal codes identify both gradations and scales between various crimes, is it fair to use the word “plagiarism” in association with what Lehrer did?

According to a blog post from The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple titled “Jonah Lehrer’s misdeeds require a new phrase”, “Lehrer took his own work and presented it as his own (fresh) work. That’s bad, but it’s not so bad that it should be described with any variant of the term ‘plagiarism.’” Perhaps, as Wemple argues, plagiarism is simply too loaded a term to be used in this situation. This sympathetic view has been echoed by journalists such Malcolm Gladwell and David Remnick, who note the difficulties and potential pitfalls raised by contemporary demands on writers.

Regardless of where a person falls in this debate, it’s clear that reusing old work in as explicit terms as Lehrer did is probably not in the best interest of a writer. But what happens if a person wants to reuse an anecdote or story or turn a blog post into an article? Levin’s article quotes a post from Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan that suggests considering what your editor would think might be a good ethical compass when determining if you are reusing too much content. Plagiarism Today’s piece argues that understanding the expectations of the audience is necessary to knowing if you are crossing an ethical threshold. Yet attempting to ascertain those expectations, particularly when a writer’s intentions are also intermeshed with those questions, or leaving it up to the subjectivity of an editor, does not necessarily provide the clarity that might be needed before the charge of plagiarism can be made. PT concludes that “…the best thing you can do is avoid it completely, both by being careful not to self-plagiarize unless clearly appropriate to do so and make it clear your expectations of others not to do so.”

Yet avoiding doing it in the future does not necessarily help those dealing with what has already happened. While both sides of the Lehrer discussion and the larger issue of self-plagiarism make compelling arguments, perhaps the debate’s very existence is emblematic of the imprecise nature of the language being used. Matters of professional and ethical boundaries are often difficult and subject to intensive evaluation, particularly when examining issues of plagiarism, and these difficulties have only been compounded by the fact that both the offender and the victim are the same person. Yet it seems that “self-plagiarism” may be too imperfect a word to be used to describe what Lehrer did, and its use is only muddying the waters of the debate instead of adding clarity to it.

By his own admission, Lehrer was lazy and is responsible for “recycling”, “repurposing”, “replicating”, and myriad other verbs that indicate reusing something, but is it fair to apply the term plagiarism to his deeds and — even with the modification of “self” — forever link him to some pretty disreputable acts? Until such time as this term has a more established ethical framework that has achieved a greater degree of professional consensus, it may need to be shelved from futures discussions, lest it unfairly mar a writer’s career.