Jonah Lehrer is the latest target of Google Game, crowdsourced investigation

Timothy Goeglein.

Does that name ring a bell? I imagine most folks have forgotten about him, but at one time he worked in the White House for President George W. Bush as a special assistant and public liaison deputy director. Goeglein was the Bush administration’s primary contact with the evangelical community and religious conservatives.

In 2008 he resigned from his post after admitting he repeatedly plagiarized columns he wrote for The News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Ind.

It was quite the scandal for a few days. Goeglein faded from the public eye, though last year he published a book about his plagiarism and time in the White House. He’s now a vice president at Focus on the Family.

Goeglein’s sin, as he describes his plagiarism, is less interesting (at the moment) than how he was exposed. His case was one of the early and most notable examples of how plagiarists, once first exposed, become subject to a form of crowdsourced investigation.

It turns into a game, The Google Game. Let’s see what else this guy stole, people think. So they plug a few sentences or entire paragraphs into the search box and see what turns up. Anybody can do it.

Jonah Lehrer is the latest unwitting target of the Google Game. It began after Jim Romenesko first reported that the writer self-plagiarized in a New Yorker blog post. From there, journalists and others began grabbing chunks of Lehrer’s copy and seeing if it had popped up elsewhere. They kept getting hits.

Journalist Jacob Silverman turned up an example of Lehrer self-plagiarizing in a story he published in Wired. How did he come up with it?

“I mostly Googled passages from his articles, and I focused on distinctive anecdotes, quotations, and the like,” he told me.

Well played.

Watching it all unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of Goeglein.

As with this latest example, back in 2008, Goeglein’s theft was first exposed by a journalist. In fact, Nancy Derringer previously worked for The News-Sentinel. She plugged one passage of a Goeglein column into Google and hit pay dirt. Her subsequent blog post about the plagiarist in the White House was linked from Romenesko’s blog on Poynter and off it took.

Derringer went looking for more examples, but, as she later explained in a piece for Slate, others were already on the case. Things moved incredibly fast :

By day’s end, the official count of cut-and-paste columns was 20 out of 38 submitted since 2000, but the paper’s reporters continued to check, and on Monday the total was revised to 27. Goeglein submitted his resignation on the way out the door Friday, less than 12 hours after my first posting.

That was a little more than four years ago. Today, the Google Game pile-on is standard operating procedure when anyone with a medium-to-high profile is accused of plagiarism, self or otherwise.

A version of it kicked off after a small culinary magazine called Cooks Source was revealed to have regularly published the work of writers without permission, or compensation. In that example, people collaborated on a Google Docs spreadsheet to list examples of theft.

Derringer’s description of how her discovery inspired a hunt for other examples remains one of my favorite expressions of how the Google Game works:

Reporting in one minute, writing in one hour, a whole career undone in one day. Reading the comments piling up on the original post was a surreal experience, as one reader after another checked in with evidence, with links. It was journalism as hive mind. “Everyone wants to play now,” someone wrote after posting a link.

That line has always stayed with me: “Everybody wants to play now.” It’s the gamification of plagiarism detection. (A good thing, as news organizations don’t utilize plagiarism detection services.)

Here we sit, roughly 24 hours since Romenesko’s post and Lehrer’s reputation is in shambles. (I emailed Romenesko to ask how he discovered Lehrer’s self-plagiarism and he kindly replied to say it was thanks to a reader tip. I wonder if that person played The Google Game?)

The tally of Lehrer’s offenses now stands at 13. Seven of his blog posts for the New Yorker included previously published material. Edward Champion revealed Lehrer’s book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” included recycled material. Books that grow out of magazine work often do…

This crowdsourced forensic examination, as my colleague Andrew Beaujon called it this morning, also turned up an accusation that Lehrer plagiarized from kindred counter-intuitive writer Malcolm Gladwell:

By the time I publish this post, someone else, somewhere may have dug up another example of self-theft, or the taking of someone else’s words.

As games go, this one is easy to play.

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’ll answer these questions in a live chat with Jack Shafer, Craig Silverman and Kelly McBride today at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Twitter users can ask questions ahead of time using the hashtag #poynterchats. You can revisit this page at any time to replay the chat once it has ended.

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