What’s wrong with Jonah Lehrer plagiarizing himself (at least 13 times)

Here’s why Jonah Lehrer was wrong to recycle his words and ideas in at least 13 instances uncovered by three different people (make that four) and then by The New Yorker, which is adding Editor’s Notes to stories with duplication, including the ones listed below:

Lehrer is an idea-guy, a writer whose talent is taking a complicated concept — like choking (the failure-to-perform kind) or how intellectual ability undermines rational thought — and making it accessible and interesting, even intriguing to us mere mortals. His work makes us smarter.

As a reader, when you approach his writing, whether it’s in The New Yorker or Wired or The Wall Street Journal, you do so with an unspoken contract: You devote some of your precious time, he’ll take you and a few thousand others to a new intellectual space.

Only it turns out that new space isn’t so new at all. Like a boyfriend who recycles the same seemingly spontaneous romantic moments on a succession of dates, Lehrer has already taken some other audience to this same place, for that same experience.

Some of you may say, “I’m OK with that, it was a good experience for me.” But if he’d just told you upfront, “Hey, I went here with this other audience and now I’d like to take you on the same trip” it all might have been fine.

But he didn’t say that. Not to his readers and not to his bosses either. Instead he let us believe this was new territory, a fresh idea. Now instead of feeling smarter, we feel duped.

This cheating is a form of infidelity, a minor one. If he’d done it once, we his audience could simply give him the benefit of the doubt. But his pattern suggests a deliberate disrespect or even a contempt for the reader’s desire to experience something unique and genuine. The more instances of duplicity we discover, the more it seems Lehrer devalues originality – the very thing we turn to him for. Had he stolen words from someone else – plagiarized-plagiarized rather than self-plagiarized — we’d all be calling it quits.

Instead, we readers are disappointed. Our enthusiasm wilts ever-so-slightly. It  takes the shine off. Does it doom our relationship? Not immediately. But what happens in the coming hours, days, weeks, months takes on great weight. If we discover more indiscretions, then our trust withers. Perhaps beyond redemption.

So, when is it OK to recycle your own content? What are the ethical issues surrounding this practice? And how should news organizations respond when they learn that a reporter has “self-plagiarized”? We answered these questions in a live chat with Jack Shafer, Craig Silverman and Kelly McBride .

You can replay the chat here:

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=660501021 Leila Marshy

    What a load of crock.

    This article is a load of crock.
    One man’s crock……. oops!So sue me.

  • Clayton Burns

    I am going to buy this week’s New Yorker and make an assessment. 

    Probably there would be little point in reintroducing On Language at The NYT Magazine because it is getting more lightweight by the week.

    The New Yorker could introduce new English, Cognition, and Education columns since there is not a single column in major outlets on these subjects that is of consistently high quality. 

    I will not make any comments about Language Log because it is too weak to be worth talking about. 

    Unless a writer has the patience to study texts such as “Cognition” by Mark Ashcraft in detail, there is no point in producing a column. 

    What should have emerged from close study of experiments in cognitive science related to memory and language is that we do not have the content to be the basis of advanced teaching experiments. 

    If we were to ask how to create Thoth’s tablet, the Memory Tablet Metaphor so to speak, we would observe a paradox. Until you have created the memory “space,” you will struggle to retain carefully engineered and subtle information such as the structure of the past. But until you have mastered the information, you will struggle to create the memory “space.”

    Humans can be extremely good at penetrating such paradoxes. If we have the right hermeneutic insights to begin with, and the right material. (A character who is quite fascinating for her cognitive skills is Katniss Everdeen). 

    When I saw that Asian students often had trouble with the past system(s) of English, I designed a 60 verb elements of the past four-page memory template.

    Absurdly, teachers will tell students to write literary criticism in the present.

    When on page 10 of the official illustrated movie companion, “The Hunger Games” was mistakenly characterized as written in the present, there was a failure of orientation to that issue. 

    It should have been easy to see that much of Collins’s novel is in fluid historical present, but much of it is in cleverly composed past tenses.

    If you try to discuss such language issues at Language Log, the owner of the blog gets angry and deletes your comments. 

    The entire project of cognitive science, including its work on language, is exhibiting arrested development. Lehrer is just a symptom of that. 

  • Anonymous

    plagiarism is stealing someone else’s work and presenting it as your own. in order to plagiarise yourself, you have to steal from yourself. exactly how do you do that?

  • Anonymous

    Problem is easy to fix.  Before publishing next article, demand originality or no pay.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Egg-Man/681171228 Egg Man

    clayton at claytonburns@gmail.com, so true, Jonah never once returned any of my emails discussing his essays in the past 5 years, not once. so all this does not surprise me: danbloom@gmail.com

  • Anonymous

    Since Jonah can easily be found on/with something called Google publicly condemning his own behavior, it is a bit silly for people to offer justifications.

    The entire project of writing about linguistics and cognitive science, for example, for the media is increasingly entering into a twilight warp.

    It is sort of like the foolish tunnel between Delta and Richmond.

    Can we account for the silliness of minor notes about usage as a substitute for a genuine On English column at The NYT or The WSJ?

    No. (There is a corner somewhere where someone mutters about minor points concerning language.) Is it worth my time? No.

    Am I making an illusion to CJR? Don’t expect me to leak the truth. A gentleman does not tell.

    If it is not an illusion, perhaps it is an allusion.

  • Anonymous

     In academic life, you can’t recycle your writing in such a way. It is clearly cheating.

    There are many reasons. For one, you need to challenge yourself to come up with new ideas.

    When I buy The Wall Street Journal for its weekend Review, I do not want recycled ideas. I do a lot of reading. If I am going to invest my time, I expect high quality writing.

    The major writers who work the terrains among language, cognition, and the media are not doing well. (The On Language column at The New York Times Magazine deserved to fail.)

    The WSJ’s Review cognitive science pieces are not interesting. They do not meet my standards.

    Lehrer does not respect himself enough to read deeply and challenge his limited understanding of the potential of cognitive science.

    That means he is breaking his implicit contract with the reader. To generalize, Sunday papers such as The New York Times are expensive. I do not want to read reflexive bourgeois blather in them. I have better things to do with my time.

    I do not like derivative work. If I am interested, I will find the original.

    Lehrer has irritated me for a long time as being one “sharp” cookie who just can’t grow up.

    Your explanation of self-plagiarism is not convincing. The key issue is intent.

  • David Weisman

    He was never that great.  He gave the appearance of making us seem smarter, but most of this was a mish mash of pop psychology and self help that he tried ot root into deep neuroscience.  The problem with his breathless writing is that he isn’t a neuroscientist or a scientist.  Instead, he needs to sell books with the ideas of other people.  And that’s the main problem.  Next to that, this is a minor scandal.

  • Yael Grauer

    If writers aren’t on staff, they often retain rights to their work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Peter-Clark/100000896693218 Roy Peter Clark

    I would like to politely disagree with my colleague and friend Kelly McBride.  After years of scratching my head on this one, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is impossible to plagiarize yourself.  Plagiarize comes from the Latin word “to kidnap.”  Try kidnapping yourself.  Or stealing from yourself.  If the stuff belongs to you, share it widely and often in both the public and private interest.  Letting your editor in on it is crucial, and she has a right to object. The second issue is that plagiarism is a word that describes a mortal sin or a felony, not a venial sin or misdemeanor.  We too often, I think, judge an act within the realm of ethics and morals when it belongs in standards and practices.  Just my take. 

  • Anonymous

    Jonah, just in case you have any questions:

    claytonburns@gmail.com
     

  • Anonymous

    Jonah, just in case you have any questions:

    claytonburns@gmail.com
     

  • Anonymous

    I am not OK with Jonah Lehrer, at all. 

    Nor am I OK with the cognitive science offerings at The WSJ weekend Review.

    It is partially because of the mediocrity of the Lehrers of the media that neither the potential of the corpus revolution in linguistics over the past 20 years nor the potential of current cognitive science will ever be reached for the general public.

    Lehrer, by the way, is a know-it-all who does not respond to challenging e-mail.

    Reductionist insincerity. That is his trade.

    If he were alert, he would recommend a text in cognition for several key uses. He should already have chosen Mark Ashcraft’s “Cognition” as the official text for his WSJ musings, and he should have encouraged the lazy editors at WSJ Review to accept this book as official for the paper.

    It is embarrassing and ridiculous that journalists do not understand what to do with texts such as “Cognition” and the COBUILD English Grammar.

    Lehrer himself is lazy and smug.

    Given the mammoth problems in US education, Lehrer should have noted that close study of Ashcraft’s “Cognition” will allow you to design cognitive experiments so as to test systems for teaching English and other subjects.

    You may as well talk to a dog as talk to Lehrer about it.

    He is just not intelligent.

    Plagiarists are not smart.

  • Anonymous

    You’re thinking of copyright infringement. That’s very different than plagiarism.

  • Mark Horowitz

    Not true. In most magazines I ever worked, freelancers and even contract writers usually retain copyright. The publication only licenses their work for limited uses. You’te mainly talking about fully-employed staff writers, i.e. employees on full salary, which doesn’t apply to Lehrer in these cases.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    They’ll keep missing that point, too. Wait and see how long this goes.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    They’ll keep missing that point, too. Wait and see how long this goes.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    As has been pointed out, the original work was likely the property of the place where he submitted it originally. Like it or not, you can’t just take previous work and shop it to other outlets.

    I know today’s journalists and Internet commenters think just getting indignant makes them right. But it doesn’t. That’s why journalism is getting exposed as a pretend profession. In other lines of work, to claim you are right, you actually have to be right, with proof.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    As has been pointed out, the original work was likely the property of the place where he submitted it originally. Like it or not, you can’t just take previous work and shop it to other outlets.

    I know today’s journalists and Internet commenters think just getting indignant makes them right. But it doesn’t. That’s why journalism is getting exposed as a pretend profession. In other lines of work, to claim you are right, you actually have to be right, with proof.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Yeah, Newcastle, you nailed it. Once a subject is covered, it can’t EVER be covered again.

    Take some chips out of the Hyperbole as Logic chest. You’ve earned them.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Yeah, Newcastle, you nailed it. Once a subject is covered, it can’t EVER be covered again.

    Take some chips out of the Hyperbole as Logic chest. You’ve earned them.

  • Anonymous

    Concerts are typically a combination of new and replayed material, and a songwriter like Hiatt sometimes changes how he arranges and performs his old works.

    Most news reports are also a mix of new and old or simply a rehash of an evergreen or seasonal story. In every audience there will be people for whom the old material is “news,” and news stories are structured to accommodate them.

    My point is simply that audiences are not static and a writer doesn’t have much power over a reader’s expectations of his or her work.

    The standard of meeting “the
    reader’s desire to experience something unique and genuine” seems awfully high for these short inflight-magazine-level think pieces. Rather than “a deliberate disrespect or even a contempt” I see a writer trying to make a living the way freelancers have always done.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Egg-Man/681171228 Egg Man

    curious does anyone know WHO first spotted this lapse of judgment and when and where and did this person report the smoking gun to Romenesko first? I mean, WHO started this story and How did he or she STUMBLE upon this? anyone know the person and will he she come forward one day?

  • Anonymous

    Unbelievable that everyone is missing the point: Wherever the piece first appeared, they have copyright (most likely, unless there was another arrangement.) Every time it appeared elsewhere (albeit with minor changes), that new publication would be infringing on the first publication’s copyright.

  • Anonymous

    Plagiarism is when you take credit for somebody else’s work.  

  • Newcastle

    I just read one pair of the articles, “The Virtues of Daydreaming” and “The Importance of Mind-Wandering”. I’m not paying for the privilege of reading version 3.0. So we have two different articles on the same exact same subject. He references some common studies because he has to if he is going to cover that rather narrow subject area. 

    So the complaint is that he wrote two stories on the same narrowly focused subject? Is that the standard now, if you write about one subject you can never write about it again? So if I miss a blog on Wired I will never learn about that subject from any other magazine or other source because it was already in some blog somewhere on the web? 

    These articles are not original scientific studies, they are reviews of the current state of a field of science. Two reviews on the same subject should read pretty much the same. That isn’t plagiarism it is a fact of life.

    Those two reviews are not plagiarized they are just two versions of the same tale. The New Yorker clearly got the worse version. It is lazy to be sure and the New Yorker has the right to be pissed that they got a dumbed down version of the review but doesn’t make it plagiarism in my book. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    the Hiatt example is wrong. Concerts are replays of songs. A news article or essay is suppsoed to be new an original, no?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    He was dishonest to his editors who should have factchecked and edited his stuff better. He got away with it for too long. I always sensed he was a cheater. Why? Because he never once in 5 years replied to my polite emails to him asking questions about this very thing in his “work” [and yes that is a SCARE QUOTE in quotes there....whatever a scare quote is and for whatever reason it is called a SCARE qyote?]

  • Terry Collmann

    “a deliberate disrespect or even a contempt for the reader’s desire to experience something unique and genuine”

    What are you on about? NO reader has any such desire. The reader has a desire to be informed and entertained, that’s all. The disrespect here is to the publication, which has a right to expect that’s it’s getting something original, and for THAT he deserves to be sacked.

  • Anonymous

    I suppose there are readers of Wired who also read the WSJ and New Yorker who months or years later might read another piece & think, oh yeah, I read something like this before.

    Lazy? Perhaps. But calling this an ethical lapse strikes me as a stretch.

    Should John Hiatt sing different songs each night on tour or remember what he played in Memphis in 2008 when he returns to town?

  • Anonymous

    this is utter nonsense. its’ splitting hairs when there aren’t any hairs to split. if there’s any validity to this argument – and there’s not — then at least 95 percent of everything written and said is an act of plagiarism because virtually nothing is “new” and “original.” virtually nothing. the bible even says it somewhere: “there is nothing new under the sun.”