Jonah Lehrer and the Perils of “Self-Plagiarism”

Lehrer: Career in serious limbo

By Chez Pazienza: So, shooting star journalist celebrity Jonah Lehrer’s very short stint at The New Yorker is officially over, quite possibly along with his entire career. Since accepting a staff writing position at the magazine back in June, Lehrer’s been the subject of quite a bit of controversy, most of it stemming from the fact that he’s revealed himself to be one hell of a self-plagiarist; several online watchdogs have documented his tendency to rip off quotes or entire paragraphs from earlier pieces written for other outlets and recycle them in new columns. That, according to standard protocol, was bad. What’s worse, though — and what put him in a position where he had no choice but to resign — was fabricating quotes out of thin air for his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer got busted when he lied to a reporter who asked for references for a series of quotes attributed to Bob Dylan. That eventually led to a statement given to The New Yorker yesterday:

Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book ‘Imagine.’ The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said. The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.

Obviously, making up quotes out of whole cloth is not only unforgivable from a journalistic standpoint, it’s spectacularly stupid in the internet age; there’s little easier than tracing information to its point of origin or figuring out whether there even is a point of origin when all you’ve got to do is type in a few words on a keyboard. With that in mind, it was right for Lehrer to step down from his prestigious position. But there’s a far more interesting digital-age question that the curious case of Jonah Lehrer raises: Is plagiarizing yourself really plagiarism?

Lehrer’s been under fire almost since the beginning of his New Yorker tenure for ripping himself off without giving what some believe is necessary attribution to the earlier pieces he’s cribbing from. There’s certainly an argument to be made that if someone is paying you to write, that person or outlet expects all new material from you and therefore digging back and taking entire paragraphs, word for word, from material that’s proprietary to another source is unethical. But considering the kind of output that’s expected from writers and columnists who attempt to thrive in the 24/7 news cycle that social and internet media feed and perpetuate, is a certain amount of self-plagiarism not only inevitable but also the cost of doing business?

I write for three separate outlets these days — though some of what I do is cross-posted — and I’ve run smack into the journalistic hurdle of my obligation to be consistently original more times than I care to remember. I’ve even made the difficulty of coming up with new ways of essentially saying the same thing fodder for my columns. What interests us as bloggers and writers and inspires us to sit down and crank out an entire piece often leaves us offering up slightly different arguments for the same basic point. When I’m repeating myself almost word-for-word I generally cop to it and reference the original source, but the question still remains whether it’s always necessary to “quote yourself.”

I’m left wondering whether the system itself bears at least some responsibility for the situation a lot of writers are finding themselves in these days. We’ve come to expect everything to be delivered to us quickly and en masse, with quality never suffering; our appetite for information in the digital age is voracious to the point of being insatiable. It feels like it’s almost impossible for a columnist, even one as prolific as a Jonah Lehrer, to keep up. This of course doesn’t excuse unethical behavior, but it may make us think twice about what we consider unscrupulous and what’s merely the way things are in our changing media landscape.

Jonah Lehrer shouldn’t have taken the chance of recycling his material without so much as a nod to the audience, and he definitely shouldn’t have pulled quotes completely out of his ass. But the way we practice journalism and writing professionally for the public isn’t what it used to be — and it might be time to once again reassess the rules that have been in place for years and see what still works and what’s become obsolete in the era of the internet.

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