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From AJR,   June/July 2012  issue

Jonah Lehrer's Echo Chamber   

Just how serious an offense is the bestselling author and New Yorker blogger’s penchant for recycling his own material? Thurs., June 21, 2012.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

It's hard to get your arms around the journalism sins of science writing and speechmaking wunderkind Jonah Lehrer.

While it seems like the Lehrer contretemps has been with us forever, it actually was just on Tuesday that media blogger to the stars Jim Romenesko reported that Lehrer had included three paragraphs from his Wall Street Journal piece last October in a blog he wrote for The New Yorker earlier this month.

Almost instantaneously, the Internet's literary detectives started unearthing numerous examples of similar recycling by Lehrer, the author of the bestselling "Imagine: How Creativity Works." Rather than being an aberration, the echo effect seems to be the dude's MO.

But just how egregious a sin is this?

While some have called the practice "self-plagiarism," that's really a misnomer. According to Merriam-Webster, to plagiarize is "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own: use (another's production) without crediting the source...to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source."

While technically, I guess, Lehrer was guilty of the last part of the definition--he was presenting as new something derived from an existing source – he himself was the source. The thrust of the definition indicates plagiarism means taking the work of somebody else.

So let's stipulate that recycling your own work is not in the same league as those cardinal sins of journalism, actual plagiarism and fabrication. We're not in Jayson Blair country here.

And yet there's something really disturbing about what Lehrer was doing. It was very misleading. It was awfully Icky Woods.

The book publishers and publications that Lehrer has written for had every right to expect they were getting original material. So did the readers.  And the sheer scope of the recycling makes it much more serious. This is far different from a one-off, a panic-induced act of desperation on deadline. This is apparently a way of life.

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, told MarketWatch's Jon Friedman that he doesn't plan to banish the embattled Lehrer from the pages of the esteemed magazine Remnick runs. He rightly points out that journalistic bad behavior comes in many flavors, and they are not equally reprehensible.

"There are all kinds of crimes and misdemeanors in this business," Remnick said, "and if he were making things up or appropriating other people's work that's one level of crime."

Remnick added, "This was wrong and foolish, and I think he thought that it was OK to do this in the blogging context – and he is obviously wrong to think so."

(I'm not sure the blogging defense will wash, though, since there are so many examples of Lehrer doing the same thing in the old-school book and magazine formats.)

Even in cases of plagiarism, the death penalty is by no means automatic. There are numerous examples of nailed plagiarists returning to their jobs after various punishments.

Still, there's something awfully off-putting about Lehrer's recycling factory. The sheer cynicism of it is staggering.

Lehrer has pretty much stayed quiet as the controversy has exploded, although he did emerge from his bunker to tell the New York Times' Jennifer Schuessler, "It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong."

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of "Imagine" says, like the publications Lehrer wrote for, it will add a mention that material in the book had first appeared somewhere else, but otherwise seems cool with the author.  His agent doesn't have a problem with Lehrer's behavior. And everyone knows that big hitters on the speechifying circuit repeat themselves as a matter of course.

But forgive me if I never read a word by Mr. Lehrer

Ever.