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:
- This June 13, 2012 New Yorker story shares language with this April 26, 2011 Wired story (New Yorker)
- This June 12, 2012 New Yorker story shares language with this Oct. 15, 2011 Wall Street Journal story (New Yorker/JimRomenesko.com)
- This June 7, 2012 New Yorker story shares language with this Dec. 21, 2009 Wired story (New Yorker)
- This June 5, 2012 New Yorker story shares language with this April 3, 2010 Wall Street Journal story and this July 25, 2009 book excerpt in The Guardian (New Yorker/New York magazine)
- This June 5, 2012 New Yorker story shares language with this Oct. 25, 2011 Wired story and this Aug. 31, 2008 Boston Globe story (New Yorker/New York magazine)
- This March 27, 2012 Wired story shares language with this December 17, 2010 New York Times Magazine story (Jacob Silverman)
- This Oct. 7, 2011 New Yorker story shares language with this June 22, 2011 Wired UK story (New Yorker)
- This May 9, 2011 Wired story shares language with this Feb. 25, 2010 New York Times magazine story (Jacob Silverman via New York magazine) and also with pages 78-79 in Lehrer’s book “Imagine” (Edward Champion)
- Five additional passages from Wired stories also appear in Lehrer’s latest book, “Imagine” (Edward Champion)
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: