Two years ago, I posted a piece here calling Jonah Lehrer the next Malcolm Gladwell. I understand that people have differing views of Gladwell, but I intended that as high praise. Like Gladwell, Lehrer had distinguished himself as a writer who could extract sometimes abstruse findings from neuroscience and show, with grace and wit, how they changed the way we think about ourselves.
Sadly, we now know that Lehrer has been keeping secrets. He hid at least two kinds of offenses: He has been recycling his old work, cutting and pasting into what are supposed to be new articles, without telling his editors or readers. And he has recycled the work of other writers, likewise cutting and pasting it into his own work.
The revelations come a mere two weeks after Lehrer announced that he was moving his blog, Frontal Cortex, to The New Yorker from Wired, where he had established himself a few years ago and burnished his reputation. "I’ve got some news to share," he wrote on June 5th. "I’ve decided to accept a staff writer position at the New Yorker. Needless to say, I’m very excited." He included the link to Frontal Cortex at The New Yorker, where, he wrote, readers could find "all my new posts." As it happens, they are not so new.
Lehrer has five posts up at The New Yorker, and every one of them now begins with an editor's note saying that portions of this post "appeared in similar form" at either Wired.com, or in Wired magazine, The Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, The Boston Globe, or his own books, Imagine: How Creativity Works and How We Decide.
The trouble began on Tuesday morning. The media watcher Jim Romenesko noted that sections of a June 12 post by Lehrer entitled "Why Smart People Are Stupid" were essentially the same as parts of a Wall Street Journal piece Lehrer published last October. Lehrer didn't do much to hide this: The copied sections were the opening grafs of both pieces. Romenesko reproduced the copied sections without comment, except to say he had called NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson (a former senior editor at Wired) for comment. He updated the post with Thomspon's reply: “It’s a mistake. We’re not happy. It won’t happen again.”
Once Romenesko had sprinkled blood in the water, others quickly reported additional Lehrer misdeeds. Joe Coscarelli noted in The Daily Intel at New York magazine that in his book Imagine, Lehrer had copied a paragraph from a Malcolm Gladwell story in The New Yorker. Lehrer also used quotes from Noam Chomsky without noting that they were said to another reporter--not to Lehrer. And reviews of Lehrer's books in Columbia Magazine and The New Republic noted that he had borrowed heavily from others.
Jennifer Schuessler wrote on Arts Beat at The New York Times that Lehrer is a popular speaker but has "drawn less enthusiastic reviews" for his books. She quoted one reviewer who wrote that his book Imagine "displayed some 'elementary' scientific errors." She reached Lehrer by phone, and quotes him as saying, "It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.”
The irony of all this comes at us like a blast from a firehose. This is the author of "Why Smart People Are Stupid" and a book about how creativity works. One might argue that Lehrer brings more personal experience to those issues than we would like.
It's a safe bet that more revelations will follow. But the present revelations give us more than enough material to examine the journalistic questions raised by Lehrer's offenses. (For a comprehensive catalogue of Lehrer offenses, see Edward Champion's post at Reluctant Habits.)
First--the question of plagiarizing oneself. I can't see any objection to Lehrer recycling his own work--if he's transparent about it. And that was the problem here: He wasn't. It's customary for journalists to cross post entire pieces from one outlet to another, and it's customary for writers to quote from their past work. It's perfectly fine to write several articles on the same or similar subjects for different outlets, provided the editors at those outlets are aware of the situation and don't object.
What is not fine is to do this without telling anyone. If anyone tells you the Lehrer situation is complicated, don't believe it. The journalism issues are simple, and clear: Don't deceive editors. And, far more importantly, don't deceive readers. Notice how Scientific American Mind handled this three years ago, when a Lehrer post was expanded into a magazine story:
Editors' note, 7/8/09: This article was adapted for Scientific American Mind magazine from the Mind Matters article, "Do Parents Matter?", which was published online at ScientificAmerican.com on April 9, 2009.
No problem there. That's full disclosure.
Second--the question of using the work of others without attribution. Again, the analysis is simple: It's theft, and it's wrong. Lehrer is making money off of other people's work. It shows terrible disrespect for readers. And it undermines the credibility of other writers.
Some of the criticism of Lehrer rests on fuzzy notions of what it means to be a writer, versus what it means to be "an idea man." Josh Levin at Slate says that Lehrer has ceased to be a writer and has instead become an idea man. Because ideas are hard to come by, he's mostly forced to recycle the ones he's had. This muddies a simple picture. He blogs, he writes articles, and he writes books. I don't find it useful or accurate to say he is no longer a writer. (Although the current revelations and any more to come could put an end to his writing career.) Nor do I find it helpful to apply some different standard to "an idea man." Copying words that have already been written is wrong unless that copying is clearly disclosed.
Giving a stump speech, as politicians do, is less objectionable, although at times when I have hired speakers for the annual science writers' meeting, I have been distressed to recognize that they're giving the stump speech, not an original talk. I've been less offended when speakers have told me outright that they would give me the scientist-at-work speech, say, rather than the ethics-of-research talk. I appreciated the disclosure. It allowed me to extend an invitation knowing what I would be getting.
As I said, I expect we'll be hearing more about Lehrer. Whether his career is over is not for me to judge. If editors continue to want to pay him to write, and if readers want to hear what he has to say, his career will continue. If editors or readers abandon him, he might do better to give it up and hang out a different shingle: "J. Lehrer, Idea Man."
- Paul Raeburn