June 19, 2012

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:

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:

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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