The author of a recent book about how creativity works is finding out the hard way that the answer is more elusive than he imagined.
Jonah Lehrer, one of science journalism’s brightest young stars, was accused of self-plagiarism on Tuesday after critics revealed that he had reused parts of old stories he wrote for other publications in blog posts for The New Yorker. So far, the magazine has appended an editors’ note to the top of six of Lehrer’s eight posts for its website, noting where else the copy had appeared and expressing “regret [for] the duplication of material.”
Lehrer, 31, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment, but “he understands he made a mistake, he’s apologetic, and it won’t happen again,” said The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson, who made a splash when he left features editing in March to manage and expand the magazine’s website.
New Yorker editors other than Thompson declined to comment on the matter. But so far, it seems that Lehrer’s status there hasn’t changed. “We’re not happy. It won’t happen again,” Thompson told Jim Romenesko who first spotted the problem and broke the story.
It was only two weeks ago that Lehrer, who has been writing for The New Yorker’s print edition since 2008, announced that he had accepted a staff writer position there and that he was bringing along his blog, Frontal Cortex, from fellow Condé Nast title Wired. All five of the posts that he’s written since then, and one that he wrote for NewYorker.com in 2011, contain recycled text.
Romenesko pointed out that three paragraphs in Lehrer’s most recent New Yorker post came, practically verbatim, from a piece he’d written for The Wall Street Journal last October. New York Magazine’s Joe Coscarelli and freelancer Jacob Silverman dug up other instances of alleged self-plagiarism at The New Yorker as well as Wired, where Lehrer reused parts of work he’d done for The New York Times Magazine.
A Wired spokesperson said that, like The New Yorker, it plans to review Lehrer’s work and append editors’ note flagging posts that contain duplicated materials and indicating their origins. “Jonah’s insights, ideas, and research have always been of great interest to Wired readers,” said the spokesperson. “While this recent disclosure may be embarrassing for him, it does not diminish his work as a valued contributor to the magazine and website.”
Valued or not, a media onslaught ensued in response to the allegations.
Reactions at Slate and PaidContent.org argued that Lehrer’s mistake was the result of his busy schedule on the lecture circuit, where presentations promoting his books and ideas are often basically the same. They also pointed out that Lehrer has been compared to his New Yorker colleague Malcolm Gladwell, another popular “idea man,” but one who’s been more cautious. In 2004, Gladwell published a lengthy disclosure statement on his blog discussing why the fact that he “wears two hats”—as a writer for the magazine and as a paid speaker promoting his work—can, but usually doesn’t, lead to conflicts of interest.
Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with branching out into speaking and a variety of media platforms. Journalists have always done this, and most would if they got the chance. But the practice is becoming more common, necessary, and fraught in today’s fragmented media world, in which young reporters have to promote their “brands” to survive.
Perhaps Lehrer got caught up in the general loosening of attribution standards, or maybe it’s just better media monitoring. Whatever the case, the rules against all manner of journalistic recycling, from sloppy attribution, to self-plagiarism, to plagiarism, are part of the basic dos-and-don’ts of the craft. Lehrer’s many fans deserve an explanation, and hopefully they’ll get one.
Update: Reached by phone, Lehrer told The New York Times, “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.”