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:
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?