Jonah Lehrer is sorry for whatever you call what he did

The New York Times | Oscillatory Thoughts | Ars Technica | Reuters

Jennifer Schuessler got Jonah Lehrer, who's maintained silence as controversy swirls about his work, to pick up the phone: “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong,” he told The New York Times reporter, without saying more. That's fewer words (13) than incidences of Lehrer's self-plagiarism, or recycling, or whatever we should call it, that Edward Champion has unearthed so far (18) in his Beowulf-length account of Lehrer's journalistic sins.

Genuine neuroscientist Bradley Voytek wrote an elegant post defending Lehrer. Well, if you can call a piece in which he calls the pop-science writer "just a neuroscience roadie" a defense. Voytek says Lehrer's work, which he says is "loose with language and exaggerates or adds flourish," reflects a bigger problem in the field itself.

It's not just popular writers who make these kinds of subtle scientific errors; we cognitive neuroscientists do it all the time as well. It turns out some of our strongest neuroscientific results could very well be wrong. Or, at the very least, they're not nearly as cut and dry as they're often made out to be.

Then he talks about some science stuff, and I don't think it's in my best interest to attempt to aggregate it.

Ars Technica's Jonathan M. Gitlin says Lehrer could have avoided all this with a little new-media transparency:

It's the one thing that separates scholarship from plagiarism: reference your quotes!

Throw in a few "as I said last year" lines, sprinkle some links back to the old content, and congratulations, you're making use of hypertext. It would clear who said what to whom, and when they said it, and everyone would be happy.

"I couldn’t figure out whether his offense was a felony, a misdemeanor or a violation of journalistic taboo," Reuters' Jack Shafer writes about Lehrer. Shafer comes to a similar conclusion as Gitlin (though Shafer's preferred term is "onanist."). His piece ends with a little pop psych and a good joke:

When forced to play the armchair psychiatrist, I usually conclude by saying that onanists, plagiarists and fabulists break the rules of journalism because they either disdain the discipline or feel inadequate to its demands. But let me warn you: I’ve written something like that before.

The winner of the "what do we call it" contest is Poynter Online commenter Philip Eagle:

In science it's called "salami slicing", when a research group unethically repeatedly publishes slightly different reports on the same basic experiments to increase their publication rate.

Related: Wired to review 300 of Lehrer's posts ( || Earlier: What’s wrong with Jonah Lehrer plagiarizing himselfJonah Lehrer is the latest target of Google Game

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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