Wired.com investigator on latest Jonah Lehrer plagiarism: ‘I think the safety net has eroded’

Longtime science journalist Charles Seife was vaguely familiar with Jonah Lehrer’s work before Wired.com asked him two weeks ago to investigate a sample of blog posts for plagiarism, fabrication and other shortcuts.

“I didn’t have any pre-existing thoughts that this was a bad journalist,” Seife said by phone Friday night. “You go in really trying to prove innocence rather than guilt.”

But Seife found problems in 17 of the 18 blog posts he reviewed. In three of those posts, Lehrer plagiarized from other writers, in five he used verbatim portions of press releases, and in 14 posts he recycled his own writing from previously published pieces. It was this recycling, first reported by Jim Romenesko on June 19, that started the cascade of investigations and revelations about Lehrer’s books and his work for The New Yorker and Wired.

Seife’s investigation was not published on Wired.com, though. Instead, his findings were published on Slate at virtually the same time that Wired.com Editor-in-Chief Evan Hansen published a statement acknowledging the problems with Lehrer’s work and the end of Wired’s relationship with the writer.

Why Slate?

Seife said he does not know why Wired decided against running a report on the investigation they commissioned.

“I think that the industry doesn’t really have a standard for dealing with incidents like this,” he said. “It’s always handled on a case by case basis, and it depends on how beloved the person is and how serious the sins are and what the editor happens to think at the time. … There’s a reflex sometimes to cover up. I’m not accusing Wired.com of this, of course. Sometimes there’s an incredible desire to muck out the stables and sometimes there’s a desire to minimize the damage. And these are contradictions sometimes.”

Whatever Wired’s reasoning, the NYU journalism professor felt strongly that the information he uncovered should be shared.

“The work that I did for Wired.com is pretty much public domain. It didn’t depend on the internal investigation, and so I felt I should publish it,” he said.

He chose Slate because he “wanted a site that could react quickly … and I have an existing relationship with Slate. I had written something for them not so long ago, and in fact I know the new editor there who’s a science journalist, who I knew when she worked at Science Magazine.”

Seife, who was a writer for Science Magazine, pitched the piece to Laura Helmuth, science and health editor at Slate, and “on the order of a few hours” it was being edited and published.

Lehrer’s problems

Before the scandal that led to Seife’s investigation, he was “dimly aware” of Lehrer’s “reputation next to [Malcolm] Gladwell, with the good and the bad that entails. I think there’s a little bit of glibness that comes with packaging big ideas and distilling them into very, very consumable chunks. But there’s some value to it too,” he said.

“When I started reading his work more seriously in the wake of the scandal, from a science journalist point of view, I noticed that he was getting things wrong in a way that was disturbing,” Seife said. “What I particularly noticed was a credulousness when it came to studies — that every new study that supported one of his theses was great, even when there were clear methodological problems. And he cherry-picked.”

Then Seife read Michael Moynihan’s account of how Lehrer tried to cover up fabrication of Bob Dylan quotes in his book “Imagine.” “It really did remind me of the Stephen Glass affair,” Seife said by phone, echoing a tweet he sent at the time. “So I went in suspecting that there might be something.”

Still, Seife approached the process scientifically:

The first thing you do is you look for suspicious things, and you play devil’s advocate and find everything you can that looks like it could be … and then you narrow it down to solid-looking examples. And then you turn around and you try to disprove those. And you spend a lot of time trying to disprove it so that you’re left with no other conclusion. … In fact, I did clear him on a couple things I thought were fabricated quotations.

Overall, though, Seife said, “I did see a pattern, unfortunately.”

“Generally speaking, I think there was a food chain, and I think that his first-run articles for major outlets were where he was most careful. And I think that in his blog posts and in his books, there was a little bit more sloppiness. But even so I wouldn’t be surprised if you take a large enough sample of first run magazine articles, there’d be issues like this,” he said.

“I looked at 18 out of 250-some odd. I think there’s got to be a lot more examples there.”

During our conversation, Seife several times expressed empathy for Lehrer.

You go on an emotional roller coaster when you do something like this. When you see examples, you think, ‘Aha, this guy is no good,’ but at the same time you speak to the person and you try to get into their head and you feel a little empathy. So it goes up and down.

It’s not easy to damage someone’s career, whether a fellow journalist or doing investigative reporting, there’s always some level of empathy and some level of guilt, even if you know for sure the person has done wrong.

While Seife made no excuses for Lehrer, he also expressed concern about a journalism industry that missed the signs for so long and whose evolving culture may be enabling future Lehrers.

Industry issues

“The recycling went way back to 2007-2008, something like that, so when you think about how many people have seen the work and the fact that nobody said something. … It means there wasn’t enough attention paid on some level,” said Seife. “The media as a whole is cutting it kind of close when it comes to plagiarism.”

“I think the safety net has eroded,” he said. “Fact-checkers are disappearing, the editorial staff is getting threadbare. The mantra of do more with less is taking its toll.”

In his statement, Wired editor Hansen noted that Lehrer’s blog posts for Frontal Cortex were not edited or fact checked.

Seife worried that this sort of instant publishing “is a double-edged sword.” Editors might have slowed you down as a writer and robbed you of some freedom, but “at the same time they protected you,” he said.

“They made sure they challenged you. They forced you to think harder about your work, and if you screwed up, they kicked your ass. Lehrer, I think it’s really sad because I do think he’s a very clear writer, he’s able to distill ideas very well.

“And I think that if he had a bit more oversight early on in his career, if he had a good editor or two to kick his butt, I think he might have become a star that would never have fallen.”

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  • http://twitter.com/andybechtel Andy Bechtel

    “Wired editor Hansen noted that Lehrer’s blog posts for Frontal Cortex were not edited or fact checked.” Why not? Why treat his articles for the magazine differently from his blog, which carried the Wired name? This is why blogs at newspapers and magazines need editing too.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwYig2CP66Q&feature=related Phaerisee

    You think that is crazy, check this out!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGFAph3lWqw

  • Clayton Burns

    This is a sharp piece by Julie Moos.
    The strange miscommunication about the Lehrer interview seems to echo the odd miscommunication in the Harvard cheating story, well explained in The NYT today.
    There is something that does not quite add up here.
    –“And I think that if he had a bit more oversight early on in his career, if he had a good editor or two to kick his butt, I think he might have become a star that would never have fallen.”
    This is a broken counterfactual. It should have read “had had” and “had had,” then “might have become.”
    Lehrer should not give up. He should master “Cognition” by Mark Ashcraft. He should write an essay on the limitations of experimental cognitive science in relation to language, memory, and thinking. There is a very good story there.
    NYU should change its approach to admissions. I have a student there who likes the teaching, but the admissions process was a waste of time. NYU should offer online and on site summer courses for high school students, spending three intensive summers on Ashcraft’s book.
    The language issues remain just about completely undefined.
    Twenty years ago, the corpus revolution in linguistics began producing great texts such as the COBUILD English Grammar. NYU should declare it official, along with the app for the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.
    Nobody has managed to explore the warm relationship between Lehrer and Eric Kandel. There is a tacit understanding that you just give it a wave.

  • Anonymous

    These is a prime-minister of a country in Europe who had just been called out by Nature on his plagiarizing of his doctoral thesis. Many have said that he should resign from his function, however I don’t agree… the two are separate things.
    Alaine from http://www.squidoo.com/flower-arranging-courses

  • Anonymous

    This article could have been a lot shorter. Seife sold his piece to Slate because he wanted to maximize his time in the spotlight.

    I’m tired of these journalists who spend weeks searching for errors on a personal blog and then profess empathy for the person they’ve just torn down. You can’t have it both ways.

  • Wow Poynter

    Why did you not ask him about how he did a 90 minute interview with Mr. Lehrer where the ground-rules were not clearly defined? That strikes me as a fairly bizarre situation for a journalism professor to find himself in. Something about this whole situation seems off – Wired.com won’t publish his accusations so he sells them elsewhere and he manages to conduct an interview that he can’t cite other than to use it a way to defame Mr. Lehrer’s character. Odd.

    I would also add that the whole self-plagiarism thing is baffling to me. If self-plagiarism is a crime not against readers but against editors, as I’ve heard many self-righteous journalists and pundits note, how is it an issue when you have a blog that is un-edited (and probably unpaid), as the Wired.com admittedly one was? Someone will have to explain that one to me.