Under the microscope, Lehrer’s work shows bigger problems than self-plagiarism

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New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer’s in hot water for repeating himself repeatedly, or, if you prefer, self-plagiarizing repeatedly. The issue, Josh Levin writes in Slate, isn’t so much the repetition: It’s that it shows he’s out of ideas. And that’s important because Lehrer “has ceased to be a writer,” Levin writes. “With the success of his recent books ‘How We Decide’ and ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works,’ Lehrer has moved into the idea business.”

By recycling ideas and passages from earlier works, Levin writes, Lehrer’s lifted a veil on an uncomfortable fact of life for popular intellectuals such as himself and Malcolm Gladwell:

Most of us journalists have one great idea every few months, maybe two if we drink industrial levels of caffeine. For professional thinkers like Gladwell and Lehrer, the key to maintaining a remunerative career is to milk your best ideas until there’s no liquid left and pray you’ve bought yourself enough time to conjure up new ones.

Lehrer, he writes, has “unscrewed the cap on his brain, revealing that it’s currently running on the fumes emitted by back issues of Wired.”

Laura Hazard Owen hammers home the Problem of the Empty Larder:

It is tough to come up with new, fresh material that advances a counterintuitive thesis. It’s even tougher to repeatedly come up with those new “wow, I never looked at it that way” ideas. And when you do come up with those ideas, it’s probably more tempting to recycle them.

That’s not such a big deal in public speaking — another arena in which Lehrer has excelled and repeated himself — she writes, “but it’s problematic for a journalist.”

And Lehrer may have bigger problems now that his entire oeuvre is under scrutiny. Edward Champion, for instance, has compiled a dossier showing just how much recycled material made its way into “Imagine.” An editor’s note at the foot of his excellent New Yorker piece on brainstorming says some Noam Chomsky quotes within it “were not made directly to Jonah Lehrer” and that “Chomsky and his colleague were interviewed by Peter Dizikes for his article in the November/December issue of Technology Review.” Gulp.

The Daily Beast’s Jacob Silverman spoke with NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson Tuesday night.

“We’ve been on the phone back and forth throughout the day,” Thompson said. “He understands he made a serious mistake. He understands the rules. It’s definitely not going to happen again.”

In a review of “Imagine” published earlier this month, Isaac Chotiner ripped Lehrer for a “worshipful” attitude toward science, for using “slippery language” to make often contradictory points and for getting things wrong: “almost everything” in a chapter about Bob Dylan, Chotiner writes, “is inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic.”

If the crowd-sourced forensic examination of his work keeps up — surely there’s someone with the time to listen to 16 episodes of Radiolab — I’d imagine Lehrer will soon pine for the day people zinged him for reusing material he published elsewhere. At least that points to merely a deficit in work ethic, or his ability to come up with ideas. “A pattern of self-plagiarism can only mean A) a wanton disregard for the rules, or B) outright stupidity,” Hamilton Nolan writes in Gawker. “I don’t think Jonah Lehrer is stupid.”

Related: Book review: “I never was quite sure about the line that separated his reporting from other people’s work.” (Columbia) || In a live chat, Jack Shafer, Kelly McBride and Craig Silverman explored what’s wrong with Jonah Lehrer plagiarizing himself.

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  • Anonymous

    i suppose the resolution of this alleged problem that some people see is for a writer/columnist to note that he is quoting himself from an earlier work. i myself have always thought it incredibly pompous and arrogant for someone to note in their own writing that they are quoting themselves.

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

    JTF, well said. and yes, just like music concerts and poety readings and even college lectures, public speakers are allowed to repeat themselves of course, it’s a NEW audience every time, and they all recycle their speeches of course, Tom Friedman too. But an essayist cannot repeat his or her earlier essay — ideas yes — but not entire paragraphs from earlier opeds unless cited as quotations. In this case, Jonah the Whale did not play-giarize himself, but he was dishonest with his readers and more importantly his EDITORS. what i want to know adn Jim Romeneski refuses to tell me is this: who reported this case to Jim first? who found the smoking gun and how and why and why did Jim get it first? Will that person come forweard one day? JR refuses to answer my emeals and FB messages on this. WHY?

  • Anonymous

    everybody — literally everybody – who gives speeches regularly repeats themselves. indeed, martin luther king jr. used parts of his “i have a dream speech” any number of times before he famously gave it at the march on washington. politicians have been giving their basic, same, stump speach for years. the nytimes has even routinely published “the speech” of various presidential candidates to show what they basically are saying. so exactly what is the problem? i would like to hear the argument that someone can actually plagiarize himself. ludicrous. impossible.

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

    by the way..WHO was the person who first STUMBLED UPON Jonah the Whale’s self copying and turned in the smoking gun to Jim Romenesko? Does anyone know who it was?

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

    I have read TOM freidman’s opeds that parrot the same words and setnenfes on his older YOTUUBe speeches onlihne. the evidence is there. they ALL do it….rich people getting richer…..75K a speech and it is not even a new speech. i wish i had that job

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

    That’s not such a big deal in public speaking — another arena in which Lehrer has excelled and repeated himself — she writes, “but it’s problematic for a journalist.”  ALERT: most famous people who do college lecture circuit and speakers breau speechs worldwide for huge fees, frm Tom Friedman to others, ALWAYS repeat the same stump speech in Boston or SF, and even some of Tom’s oped pieces int he Times use the same paragraphs and complete sentences as his speeches and Yotuube apperances and Tom evern repeats the same vergiage in so called NEW opeds…i have seen in actuion. I like TOm, but someone should look into this….PUBLIS SPEAJKErs baslvaily give the same speech to different audiecneas for US$75 K a pop, omigodf!