Can you plagiairize…yourself?

UPDATE: Jonah Lehrer has officially resigned from the New Yorker. Turns out that he has apologized for outright lying. Copies of his book “Imagine” are being recalled by the publisher as we speak (very expensive and arduous process). Perhaps a follow-up blog post is due to be written. In the meantime, here is a link to a NYTimes article which discusses the current updates on the situation.

His name is Jonah Lehrer. He is thirty years old – and he’s somewhat of a celebrity in the world of science writing. As former undergraduate researcher in Eric Kandel’s lab at Columbia University, he began first researching and reading – then writing about science. His blog The Frontal Cortex quickly gained popularity and it was only a matter of time before it grew to be a regular section at the popular science magazine Wired. You may have also heard him on the radio, as he is a regular contributor to the well-known science show: WNYC – RadioLab. In addition to blogging, he has three published books to his name (his most recent one entitled “Imagine: How Creativity Works”) and to top off his list of achievements, he was recently hired as a staff writer for The New Yorker (yes, THE New Yorker). At the rate he’s going, it seems there is nothing that can stand in the way of this young, ambitious science writer.

Unless, of course, the thing standing in his way happens to be himself. Just last month, Romensko published an entry on his site alerting everyone that Jonah’s pieces over at The New Yorker seemed to be reeking of self-plagiarism. Since that day, the Internet has been abuzz over the controversy, with several individuals citing numerous other instances of Jonah’s self-plagiarism. As academics, we are all too familiar with the term “plagiarism” – but what, you may be asking, is self-plagiarism? According to the website “Plagiarism Today” self-plagiarism is “when an author or other content creator uses portions of an earlier work in a new one without citing the original content.”

By that definition, the verdict for Jonah seems pretty unambiguous: guilty as charged. However, many (including myself) are not entirely convinced the story is quite so straightforward. For one thing: there’s something strange about the term “self-plagiarism”. It seems mildly…oxymoronic. If you write something – do you need to request permission from yourself in order to re-use, recycle, or “repurpose” the material? Is it just me…or does this sound like a bad joke? Jonah’s publisher points out that “he [Jonah Lehrer] owns the rights to the relevant articles, so no permission was needed. He will add language to the acknowledgments noting his prior work.” Indeed, even the post on Plagiarism Today bears the following admission: “To further complicate things, most of the definition of what is and is not self-plagiarism, as with regular plagiarism, depends heavily on the arena the accusation is being made in and the expectations that come with it.”

Well. To be fair, we can only assume that the expectation of his editor at The New Yorker was that he would be writing fresh material. Not to mention: what responsibility does he bear to his readers (especially his most loyal followers) to generate new material? Before moving from the Wired to The New Yorker, Jonah himself wrote directly to his readers, saying: I’ve got some news to share: I’ve decided to accept a staff writer position at the New Yorker. Needless to say, I’m very excited. […] This also means that my blog, Frontal Cortex, will be moving to the newyorker.com. You can find all my new posts hereExcept, it turned out that his posts weren’t really all that new after all. There’s no doubt that there will be some measure of overlap in Jonah’s ideas and his writing – but what really is the point of writing literally the same thing over and over again? Did he really think no one would notice? In the words of Rohan Maitzen “Even if it’s not a strictly illegitimate practice, it’s not very impressive for a writer to be so repetitive.”

Curious as to what Jonah’s response has been to all of this, I scoured the Internet only to find this statement: “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.” Alright then, so is this really just a case of (self-proclaimed) laziness? In reading through all the criticisms of Jonah, one point that I did read in his favor was his willingness to accept and acknowledge when he’s made a mistake. His openness on this front will help any offended readers and fans, I’m sure, move past his infraction (at this point I am dropping the term self-plagiarism altogether). And his editor at The New Yorker, Nicholas Thompson, has decided to keep Jonah on staff (though all of Jonah’s pieces now appear with an Editor’s Note that acknowledges and regrets the duplication of material).

Still, some readers are scratching their heads wondering what all this fuss is about. In response to the most recent article posted on the NYTimes, one reader writes: Yeah, you should never borrow from yourself! Hard to be upset about this. I myself haven’t written an original word since my first New York Times comment in 2004! and reader,  Margaret, comments: I don’t see what the issue is. This seems like much ado about nothing (credit: Shakespeare).

Well, there is certainly nothing like a bit of humor to bring us back to the real issue at hand, to remind us when we may have taken things a bit too far – and there’s no doubt, the situation has gotten a bit out of hand. Yet, as I read through the various articles and posts about the Jonah Brouhaha (my shorthand for this controversy) – I realized it’s going to be awfully difficult for me to completely align myself with the: “what’s the big deal?” sentiment. It would be nice, as a fan of Jonah’s writing and as an ambitious writer myself, to throw my hands up and say: “Oh well – it’s not such a big deal. What’s all this fuss about?” I almost wish I could say it’s much ado about nothing. Is it really nothing though? I’m not entirely convinced.

Not only is it not entirely unimpressive to be so repetitive as a writer, but it also sends the wrong message to readers. At best, it comes across as disingenuous. At worst, it’s like trying to get credit (or in this case: money) for the same work twice. That latter point – the fact that Jonah is getting paid twice for essentially the same material is itself enough to make him culpable of something even if it doesn’t go by the ugly label of plagiarism. Indeed, many have suggested a different label. Erik Wemple over at The Washington Post “Lehrer took his own work and presented it as his own (fresh) work. That’s bad, but it’s not so bad that it should be described with any variant of the term ‘plagiarism.’ It becomes an interestingly hairy situation when you don’t even have a name to give to the crime. Which brings me to this point: perhaps this issue is bigger than Jonah himself. Perhaps this is about our inability to be clear in our language. Or in the words of Shawn O’Rouke over at Poptech: “While both sides of the Lehrer discussion and the larger issue of self-plagiarism make compelling arguments, perhaps the debate’s very existence is emblematic of the imprecise nature of the language being used.”

So, perhaps to answer the question of this post: Is it possible to plagiarize yourself? I say: yes and no. That’s the problem with this term – it is entirely dependent on expectations and on context. And with regards to the Jonah brouhaha, I argue that this term is entirely unhelpful. It seems that many have used this loaded term, in part, to criticize Jonah for other issues they have been secretly harboring against him (he cherry picks research results, he simplifies scientific findings, he has made scientific errors in his writing, he’s too young to be this successful, etc) and I think that this detracts from the conversation at hand. The point is that Jonah (someone who recently wrote an entire book about creativity) has cheated himself and his readers somewhat by repeating himself in his writing. I agree with Wemple on this one – that’s bad, but it’s not so bad as plagiarism.

In an interview with Colbert back in April (prior to this controversy) – you can witness a sad twist of irony and a bit of eerie foreshadowing: “You’re one of the contributing editors of Wired, you write for The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal – you’re coming up with material all the time, so you’re one of the creative types, right?” To which Jonah replied, “well, I try.” Indeed he does – and he usually succeeds. So much so that he has become the target of a disproportionate amount of fury. Let it go, people. He’s a talented writer who makes neuroscience accessible and engaging for many. He made a mistake and he apologized. Let’s move on.

Colbert Interviews Jonah on his book “Imagine”

P.S. Thank you to our very own, Ling Wong, for the tip-off/idea to blog about this! I had great fun reading all sides and exploring a pretty complex issue! Would love to hear thoughts/feedback.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON UCDNEUROSCIENCE BLOG

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