SciWriteLabs 8.1: The Lehrer affair, consequence-free plagiarism, and rules for blogging

Last week, Jim Romenesko revealed that Jonah Lehrer had recycled work from a 2011 Wall Street Journal column for a recent blog post on NewYorker.com. As anyone who has been following this knows, plenty more revelations followed, including accusations that Lehrer had plagiarized from New Yorker colleague Malcolm Gladwell.

Earlier today, I pivoted off of the discussion about Lehrer in a piece on Salon.com that attempted to codify some sort of judgment system — I called it the Blair scale, named after Jayson Blair — that could be used for journalistic transgressors. Several people also asked me to talk about this in a larger context, so I decided to round up some folks and do a new SciWriteLabs. I’m lucky these four pros agreed to participate; I think you’ll agree that the conversation that follows goes off in some interesting directions. (Today’s entry will be the first of three that I’ll run over the next several days.)

Without further ado, our esteemed panel:

Deborah Blum – Author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, among many other books; Wired Science blogger; professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

David Quammen – Author of Song of the Dodo, among many other books, including the upcoming Spillover, about zoonotic diseases; three time National Magazine Award winner.

Jack Shafer – Press and politics columnist for Reuters.com; longtime media critic; former editor of Washington City Paper.

Carl Zimmer – Author of A Planet of Viruses, among many other books; frequent contributor to The New York Times and National Geographic, among other publications; Discover Magazine blogger.

Seth: Let’s start by getting a sense of people’s opinions about Lehrer’s main transgression: Recycling his own work across multiple platforms, including print outlets, blog posts, and books. I find myself agreeing with Ed Yong here, who noted on Twitter that “high-falutin ethical talk aside, I think [the issue is] ‘Should you treat an employer like that? No.’” It’s hard for me to work up too much of a head of steam about Lehrer betraying me as a reader. Compared to the plagiarist, who, as Jack wrote, “defrauds readers by leading them to believe that he has come by the facts of his story first-hand — that he vouches for the accuracy of the facts and interpretations under his byline,” this sin feels pretty minor: Lehrer gave people the impression that he was coming to old conclusions for the first time. (Don’t worry: I’m bring up the actual accusations of plagiarism, vis a vis Gladwell, before this is done.)

I also found the equating of Lehrer using bits of his periodical work in his books with his recycling material from Wired for The New Yorker to be a bit silly — and I thought crying foul because he repeated himself in public speeches is ridiculous. Public talks are as much performance gigs as anything; just as nobody expects a band to play a unique setlist at every show, nobody expects a lecturer to give a unique talk at every venue. Am I being overly generous here?

David: I hope this roundtable doesn’t go flat-tire from too much agreement among us, but I’m going to start by agreeing: with you, Seth, and with Ed Yong: that the main offense here is against the employer, the publishing entity, the editor, and not against readers. Truthfulness about what you’re selling as a writer, and how many times you’ve previously sold it, is the first issue.  I also agree with Jack’s point, made in his column, that “self-plagiarism” is the wrong term for what Lehrer has done (in the re-use of his own sentences and paragraphs).  Unacknowledged recycling, I’d call it.  (Yes, the Gladwell problem is distinct, but I’ll hold my thoughts on that til we get to it.)  Having been thus far agreeable, I’ll disagree with you, Seth, to the point of saying that I think the reader (let’s think as though there’s one reader, as a party to this dispute) is harmed too.  The reader has been implicitly lied to, in being led to understand that the material in each case was fresh.  Or fibbed to, anyway.  That’s always bad.  It’s especially bad when you consider how often, amid the currently prevailing protocols and practices of what we loosely call “nonfiction,” readers do get lied to.

Of course this concern about recycling and deceit is easily avoided in the case of a writer folding his or her own sentences, paragraphs, or pages from an article into a subsequent book.  You just level with the reader.  You put a small sentence on the copyright page: “Some parts of this book have appeared previously, in different form, in the magazines….” End of issue.  I’ve just done that myself, in a forthcoming book.  Of course we sometimes re-use our own passages, building them into larger structures.  Just have to be candid. Say, hey, this is what I’ve done.

But article-to-article recycling is different. No footnotes in The New Yorker, as Gladwell has noted.  No prefatory disclaimers about recycling–unless the editors are forced to that move, as currently The New Yorker has been forced with Lehrer’s blog.  It’s an offense against your editors and your readers.  But not a capital offense.  Lehrer will survive and, if he’s as good a writer and thinker as he seems to be, it would be a great waste to lose him forever over this unacknowledged recycling business.

Deborah: There’s definitely a chance that we’re going to have one congenial exchange here because I think David’s points are very close to my own. I thought, after Romenesko started the domino fall on this one, that here was a young (sigh, 30 looks young to me now) writer who was probably in over his head, trying to pull off too many national class acts at once.

Hence what David calls unacknowledged recycling. Agreed this is mostly an offense against the employer – who is paying for and publishing material being misrepresented as original and fresh. Secondarily, perhaps, an offense against readers who believe they are paying for a subscription to a publication such as, say, The New Yorker, because it offers them said first-reported insights.

I think what he did most offended journalists who put a premium on such obligations and strongly consider them part of a kind of professional ethics: Let me quote here from a comment that Lee Hotz, from The Wall Street Journal, made about this at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker: “ He resold work that he already had sold to somebody else — Wired, The Wall Street Journal, etc. — who retain possession of that intellectual property. To me that is more like renting the same apartment to two or three different tenants at the same time.” [Note: I’m fairly certain that at some point, Lehrer said that he had retained copyright for all of the pieces in question -- although that’s really a secondary issue. -- Seth]

Is this an overreaction? After the first rush to judgment, there was a real sense that people were way over-reacting; this is a writer just re-using his own material after all. And we aren’t talking Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair or some other crime of fabulism.  So the second rush to judgment was to criticize the criticizers as it were. And that I think obscures the genuine concern raised by people like Lee Hotz over whether this was an indication of decline in professional standards.

Because – returning to my original agreement with David – this is about the importance of professional standards. I’ve no doubt that all this serves as a reminder to Jonah Lehrer of how important those standards are – not just to employers but to other writers. I actually think he knew them anyway and just, as I said, got overwhelmed. I also think it’s a good exercise for the rest of us – we’re mostly working so hard that we don’t think about these issues and all the genuine feeling that went into this reminds us too that it matters.

Carl: Let me start with my own disclaimers. Science writing is a pretty small world, and when you write a lot about the brain, as Lehrer and I both do, the world shrinks further still. I’ve met Lehrer once at a conference, where we chatted about books, magazines, and blogs. He gave a blurb for one of my books. We’ve fired messages to each other across the Twitter sky from time to time. I think he’s done a lot of wonderful work, in all the formats he’s explored.

My responses to your questions, Seth, are short and not so short. First the short:

This swirl of concern and comments about Jonah Lehrer seems to me to be a mix of several different issues, which are getting blurred together too much. Here’s how I would break down the swirl, with my own judgments:

1. Lifting paragraphs from one magazine article and putting them in another: uncool, both as an officially contractual matter with one’s editors, and as an implicitly contractual matter with one’s readers.

2. Reprinting old blog posts on a new blog: If readers haven’t read them before, the harm seems minor. But it seems a lost opportunity.

3. Including a passage in a book in a magazine article that someone else quotes in another article: Too Talmudic a distinction for me to judge, or, honestly, to care much about.

4. Adapting magazine or blog posts for a book: Totally legitimate. Anyone who gets worked up about this seems to me to not understand how writers build nonfiction books, or to simply be hunting for something to be outraged about.

5. Grabbing material from a blog and inserting into a magazine article: Shouldn’t be done–but I can’t get to righteous about this, because I’ve made the same mistake.

And that last point brings me to my not-so-short comment.

Jonah Lehrer started blogging in 2006 (Here’s his first post–read it while you can, before his original host, scienceblogs, erases it.) I started blogging in 2003. In the world of science-related blogs, we’re dinosaurs (even if Lehrer is just 31).

When we started, we had no elaborate ethics guide to flip through to make sure what we were doing conformed to a well-established code. Each blogger had to effectively draft his or her own code of conduct. Some bloggers banned commenters with the same indifference as gangsters carelessly firing bullets into the heads of victims. Others felt compelled to type out the reference to every paper they discussed in full-blown Chicago Manual of Style style. They had only themselves to answer to.

Out of that anarchy, a lot of people came to see their blogs in a similar way. We were not writing news articles. After all, nobody was paying us bupkus for our work, and when we said we were bloggers, a lot of traditional journalists would get nervous and make lame jokes about blogging in pajamas. We had no editors. We only had ourselves, and our own sense of satisfaction with what we wrote. We made mistakes online, and that was okay–we thanks the people who corrected us without being jerks, and we then revised our posts. We revisited themes and developed them–for years and years. I can’t decide what’s quite the right metaphor here. It’s as if we were caretakers for topiaries, revisited them to trim them and continue to shape them as they grew.

Blogging gave us a continuity to our work that conventional journalism could not. Our writing was no longer a disconnected chain of articles, each isolated in a separate issue of a separate magazine or newspaper. Instead, it became a flow of thought. I wrote books about fossils or about parasites, but the science did not stop when my books came out. So I blogged the subsequent developments, linking back to my books or to a relevant article, or to a string of blog posts, in order to give the latest news the deep context it deserved, and to give myself the feeling of unity in what I wrote. A couple of my books have been reissued as new editions; I added material to them that I first developed in the blogs that were intended to extend the ideas in the books. Only blogging could deliver us that feeling of seamless flow.

It was this powerful feeling of flow that got me into trouble last year. An article of mine came out in a big magazine. I had some nice material from a visit with a scientist that got cut out along the way–as often happens. Rather than let it go to waste, I didn’t think twice about posting some of that cut material on my blog.

Then an editor at another magazine asked if I’d write a second article on the same topic, with a slightly different twist.

This seemed a bit odd to me, but I figured that the magazines had different enough readerships that the readers of Magazine 2 wouldn’t write cranky letters to the editor. Who was I to turn down a decent-paying assignment on a subject about which I’d already done lots of research? For one section of the new article, the material I had posted on my blog worked perfectly, so I inserted it–with some revising–into the new story.

A couple weeks later, the editor at Magazine 2 sent a curt email to me, to inform me they were killing the story. Their reason: I was recycling material from my blog. Readers would immediately spot what I had done.

In hindsight, I can see that what I did was wrong. But when I was actually doing it, I didn’t think so. I was simply being carried along in the flow of a subject, creating something new out of elements I had gathered along the way. I still looked at my blog as a digital sketchbook, from which I could draw material and inspiration for “real” journalism.

And there was the catch. My blog might well have been a digital sketchbook in 2003, but by 2011 blogs had changed. Or, rather, the world around blogs had changed. Every single newspaper and magazine I know of has blogs. In some cases, they convert their reporting on breaking news, such as election night results, into live-blogging. Major outlets like Wired and the Guardian scooped up entire platoons of science bloggers. My own blog had gone from my own web site to hosted sites and finally to Discover Magazine, which pays me modestly for it. My posts would get cited by magazines and newspapers as being the voice of Discover, rather than the ramblings of a some guy in pajamas. Most absurd of all, I found myself addressing students at journalism schools, and being asked to define the rules of blogging. I felt like an impostor.

In such a world, it’s no wonder that an editor would be furious that I was repurposing a blog post for a magazine article. They now are, in some ways, equivalent. Blogging’s place in the world has changed dramatically since I had become a blogger, but I was slow to realize it.

When contacted by The New York Times (or, to be clear, a Times staff reporter writing a post for their arts blog), Lehrer declared that his recycling was “a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.” There’s no point in my scolding Lehrer further than he has done so himself. But when I see the trouble he’s now in, I feel a little nostalgic for the days when we bloggers were left to ourselves, to make up a new set of rules.

Jack:  That Jonah Lehrer did something wrong by double-dribbling identical copy to different publication has been acknowledged by Jonah Lehrer and his New Yorker editors. New Yorker Editor David Remnick told Jon Friedman that what Lehrer did was “wrong and foolish.” Remnick then added, “I think he thought that it was OK to do this in the blogging context—and he is obviously wrong to think so.” New Yorker web editor Nicholas Thompson said, “This is wrong. He knows it’s a mistake. It’s not going to happen again.”

Lehrer, as Carl noted, took a similar line when he told the Times, “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.”

The unequivocal unanimity expressed by these three professionals should really put the ball back into Lehrer’s court. Did Lehrer have to be persuaded by his New Yorker editors that the standard operating procedure he had practiced so long was wrong? If so, was his original defense that his conduct was merely stupid and lazy and only later, while listening to his editors yell at him, did he come to believe it was “wrong”? Does Lehrer really believe it was wrong, or is he just throwing the barking dogs a bone?

If it’s settled business that what Lehrer did was wrong—I don’t see any of my colleagues exonerating Lehrer—then why are we here? What’s our topic? That Lehrer isn’t Glass or Blair? That Lehrer, like admitted plagiarist Johann Hari, made a mistake and just needs a time-out to pursue remedial journalism training? That we shouldn’t be too hard on Lehrer because, as Carl puts it, “[t]here’s no point in my scolding Lehrer further than he has done so himself” or we “shouldn’t make quick judgments on the death of careers” as David writes?

The ungainly fact about textual transgressors laboring in fields of journalism is that when they get caught doing naughty things, the price is almost never the death of their career, no matter how loud the scolding. Even Stephen Glass got a second chance after getting busted. Simon & Shuster paid $190,000 for his 2003 book, The Fabulist, a fictionalized version of the lies he sold to the New Republic. That same year, Rolling Stone assigned Glass a story about the marijuana business. I know many writers who would gladly accept punishment like this.

The professional forgiveness granted to Glass was no anomaly, as Trudy Lieberman proved in her July/August 1995 Columbia Journalism Review article about journalists who get busted for plagiarism. The standard punishment ranges from “severe to virtually nothing even for major offenses,” she wrote, and most live to write and report another day, sometimes at the publication where they committed the act of plagiarism!

So, what’s the subject here? I need a little help.

Seth: I knew we could count on Jack to throw some firecrackers into our orgy of agreement. You don’t need to bite off one mega-subject; you can chew on any of the other things we’ve brought up: my question about whether it’s appropriate to use passages you’ve posted on publicly accessible sites, whether those be comments in someone else’s blog or on your Facebook page or on your personal blog as opposed to an institutional one; the issue of how this type of self-recycling should be considered — is it on the same scale as plagiarism with the difference being simply one of degrees?

Maybe I’m reading into this too much, but it seems like you doubt Lehrer’s claim that he didn’t know this was wrong previously; if that’s correct, do you think his not realizing that shows anything larger about his ability to practice journalism, an industry that is more or less self-policing? And put aside the fact that plagiarists and other media miscreants are oftentimes welcomed back into the fold; do you think they should be? Are there any situations in which you would give an assignment to someone like who’d plagiarized — or even fabricated? We can get into more of all of that in our next round.

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15 Responses to SciWriteLabs 8.1: The Lehrer affair, consequence-free plagiarism, and rules for blogging

  1. Maryn says:

    A nuanced and interesting discussion; thanks, all. Carl’s point about blog posts being now functionally equivalent to magazine articles resonates with me. (Would that the pay were equivalent, also.)

    As another of the Wired bloggers, I wanted to respond to Seth’s implicit question: All of us at Wired retain copyright to our work there. NB, I don’t think that defuses the intellectual-property question that Lee Hotz raised, except in a narrow legal sense.

  2. Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

    Fantastic and fascinating discussion.

    Just wondering if you could share your thoughts on what this means for the majority of us science bloggers (and non-science bloggers for that matter) who are not professional writers, and who still are not being paid for our blogging – nor likely to ever be. Those that I’ve spoken to seem to view blogging the way that Carl described it in the mid-2000′s (which is in stark contrast to the way that we view academic writing, which has very clear rules on reusing old content). Do these issues really matter for us too, or are they only important for those of you who make your living as a writer?

    I ask because on most of the major blog networks you can find journalists and researchers blogging side by side, but my guess is that our views of the seriousness of Lehrer’s transgressions would differ greatly among those two groups.

  3. Ed Yong says:

    Carl wrote, “In hindsight, I can see that what I did was wrong. But when I was actually doing it, I didn’t think so.”

    This exactly mirrors one of (in my opinion) the more insightful things said about the Lehrer incident. It’s also one of the most humane things – that may be a coincidence… Anyhoo, Amos Zeeberg: “I think this is a kind of goof that seems so easy to avoid, until you do it, and then suddenly you just did it.”

  4. Oliver says:

    I’ll second the thanks for the discussion. About whether we ought to have faith in Lehrer’s intention and capacity to report correctly per the principle he may or may not just have learned: Why not? He’s going to be watched like a hawk for a repeat offense. Also I find it hard to imagine that he wouldn’t feel scorched if not ashamed by the responses he’s gotten to his behavior. He must have learned he violated a norm (or two). To want him to believe he’s done a “wrong” is to want your norm loved, not just obeyed. Anyway I think these lessons the hard way often get you both, especially regarding the rights and wrongs of public conduct, which I think the violations pretty much all belong to.

  5. Pingback: SciWriteLabs 8.2: Is it kosher to re-use wording from Facebook updates in your journalism? And: do we need a Son of Sam law for media miscreants? | The Panic Virus

  6. Richa says:

    Makes for an interesting read. Liked the idea of a round table. I have quoted your interview with Zimmer on my blog: http://bit.ly/N38fmM , adding my perspective.

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  10. Pingback: SciWriteLabs 8.3: Adjudicating the Lehrer plagiarism accusations. Plus: Do Arianna and Oprah deserve lifelong bans? | The Panic Virus

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  14. Barbara Bellalta McAlpine says:

    I’m reading and actively listening to everything that is being written about Jonah Lehrer and it’s impact on us, the readers, and to us, the seekers of ‘responsible ethics and the truth’. I agree with much of what has been discussed thus far. I believe we learn from our mistakes and any overwhelming situation makes us creative, and yes, lazy in putting forth a consistent effort.
    I enjoy Lehrer’s writing! He has made reading science poetic and full of wonder. I hope real learning and self reflection about ourselves, the human creature/element, and how we cope in this high tech globalized world is gleaned from all this. Trust is the basis for everything. As a reader I do not feel that Lehrer himself has broken that trust. In my opinion, part the process needs more sophistication. I am more focused on why the ethical standard doesn’t kick in when it’s supposed to. Lehrer’s behaviour is teaching me, the reader, yet again, to be acutely observant of self and others.
    I thank the panel for their time and effort. It is greatly appreciated. I believe in your honesty of heart during these discussions.

  15. A nuanced and interesting discussion; thanks, all. Carl’s point about blog posts being now functionally equivalent to magazine articles resonates with me.

    mlevi2538@gmail.com

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