Let’s Not Confuse Morality with Quality: Jonah Lehrer and Plagiarism

Jonah Lehrer at PopTech 2009

Jonah Lehrer

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I’ve been deeply bothered for the last few days by the uproar over Jonah Lehrer’s reuse of his writing in various publications. I know almost nothing about Lehrer other than what I’ve read in the many stories about his so-called “self-plagiarism,” and have no position on his work to defend. I also agree with the idea that reusing bits of your previously published work in new articles is pretty lame. But the suggestion many writers have made that his practice is akin to plagiarism is simply wrong. It confuses quality standards with moral ones.

The controversy began with the Romenesko story last week that in a number of blog posts for the New Yorker, Lehrer had reused some paragraphs he had written for an earlier article in the Wall Street Journal. Subsequently several more instances of similar recycling from other publications were uncovered. (Steve Buttry, in the course of reflecting on his own (transparent) habits of repetition, provides a good summary of the matter.)

These are interesting findings, well worth public discussion. But they are more the material of literary criticism than of ethical analysis. They tell us that Lehrer’s range as a writer is less broad than we thought, perhaps, and that he doesn’t always have fresh insights. But they don’t tell us he’s a thief.

And possibly no one is saying that, quite. In his Slate piece on Lehrer, for instance, Josh Levin uses the phrase “self-plagiarism” somewhat jokingly. “Writing the same words twice” may not be a moral offense, he seems to say, but “it will piss off your editors” and “disappoint your customers.” Such “self-plagiarism is bad for the brand,” he concludes—not, as we might expect from real plagiarism, bad for the soul.

Similarly, while using the P-word liberally, Poynter‘s Kelly McBride suggests that Lehrer’s sin is less than mortal: “Had he stolen words from someone else—plagiarized-plagiarized rather than self-plagiarized—we’d all be calling it quits.” Instead, his readers are merely disappointed; their “enthusiasm wilts.”

Fine. If I’d been a Lehrer reader, I might be disappointed too. But to use the word plagiarism even jokingly or ironically in connection with what he did veers perilously close to character assassination. The damage it does exceeds any done by Lehrer’s recycling.

When this careless or invidious habit spreads to the New York Times, which wrote that Lehrer “has become the latest high-profile journalist to be caught up in a plagiarism scandal,” you know it’s excessive. It doesn’t matter that Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler immediately added that the scandal included “a counterintuitive twist that could come right out of his own books: The journalist he has been accused of borrowing from is himself.” What many readers will take away from this overly clever sentence is the false notion that Lehrer is a plagiarist.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is how many of the commenters on these critics’ posts reject the association with plagiarism. Some don’t even object to Lehrer’s reuse of his writing. In contrast to the critics’ high dudgeon, their attitude seems to be, “big deal.”

Is the critical reaction to Lehrer possibly influenced by the fact that he is very young, very smart, and very successful? Well, consider this. If a journalist we’d never heard of, like Paresh Jha, accused of fabricating sources and quotes, had instead been accused of recycling his own sentences, would we be reading about it now on Poynter? I think not.

I’m leaving open the possibility that I just don’t get it. Maybe there is a portentous ethical and moral issue in repeating yourself. But even if there is, its magnitude surely falls well short of plagiarism, and the term shouldn’t be used even humorously or ironically to describe Lehrer. It’s reasonable, given what he did, to call him a bad writer. But that’s no basis for calling him a bad person.

Photo credit: Kris Krüg/Pop!Tech

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