Jeff Fraser rounds up the controversy over Jonah Lehrer's reuse of his own work that has grown throughout the week, raising questions about journalistic ethics surrounding plagiarism and recycling one's own words (without telling your bosses).

By Jeff Fraser

The controversy over Jonah Lehrer's reuse of his own work has grown throughout the week, raising questions about journalistic ethics surrounding plagiarism and threatening to do serious damage to Lehrer's reputation.

So, what happened?

The story broke Tuesday morning when Jim Romenesko, on a reader tip, remarked on similarities between Lehrer's New Yorker blog post, "Why Smart People Are Stupid," and a Wall Street Journal article published last year. 

Within several hours, concerned readers and journalists dug up other incidences of Lehrer recycling his own work. The Poynter Institute has compiled an extensive list of Lehrer's alleged infractions. Investigators also discovered that unoriginal material made up large sections of Lehrer's recent book, Imagine: How Creativity Workswhich is currently the New York Times’ #1 nonfiction bestseller. Eric Champion also accuses Lehrer of plagiarizing Malcolm Gladwell, though Gladwell has denied that Lehrer's reuse of a historical quote constitutes plagiarism.

The issue has touched off a debate over whether Lehrer's actions constituted plagiarism. Jack Shafer at Reuters argues that while Lehrer could not steal his own work, he transgressed against his publishers by not telling them that his work was duplicated, but Alexendra Petri at the Washington Post argues that Lehrer's primary victim is himself. 


Others have speculated about the causes for Lehrer's recycling: Josh Levin at Slate takes a different approach, saying Lehrer's lapse occurred because he has become an "idea man," rather than a journalist, and is more concerned with spreading his ideas than writing original articles. Felix Salmon, also at Reuters, argues that Lehrer misconstrued his blog as a series of feature articles, and took to recycling his leads because he couldn't escape his own formula, and Michelle Dean at Salon claims Lehrer's actions were a result of a male-dominated journalism industry that rewards "confidence that masks a lazy arrogance." 

But is he solely to blame? In “a (partial) defense” of Lehrer, Robert Wright, a senior editor at The Atlantic places some blame on the shoulders of a journalistic environment that encourages recycling by putting an emphasis on quantity of content.

According to the Daily Beast, Lehrer has only been at the New Yorker for two weeks, having left Wired Magazine on June 5. Jennifer Schuessler at the New York Times reached Lehrer Wednesday, and quoted him saying that "It was a stupid thing to do and incredible lazy and absolutely wrong."

In the same article Nicholas Thompson, editor of the New Yorker's website, told Schuessler that "He knows it's a mistake. It's not going to happen again." The New Yorker has added editorial notes concerning duplication of material to all five of Lehrer's blog posts at the New Yorker, as well as clarifications about source material on some of his other New Yorker articles.

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorkertold Jon Friedman at the Wall Street Journal that he intends to keep Lehrer on staff. "There are all kinds of crimes and misdemeanors in this business… I think he thought that it was OK to do this in a blogging context — and he is obviously wrong to think so," Remnick said.

For some further reading: An article from 2011 by Jonathan Bailey at Plagiarism Today defines and discusses the concept of self-plagiarism; an academic paper by Dr. Miguel Roig of St. John's University on ethical writing practices also deals with self-plagiarism and its consequences.