Last month a wave of stories crested about Imagine: How Creativity Works, a new third book by Jonah Lehrer. It is a non-fiction book on creativity that mixes brain science and the creative and social aspects of that process.
But then it was revealed that parts of the book had been plagiarized or just made up. The book was recalled by its publisher and Jonah Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker.
It’s a story that gets a lot of attention from media and journalism types and may be of interest to educators because they have to deal with plagiarism in their jobs. I don’t know if the average reader cares. In fact, I know that friends of mine not in those two lines of work were a bit incredulous when I told them that another charge against Lehrer was that he had plagiarized himself. This is where I got interested.
Everyone who went through high school and wrote a research paper got the lecture about plagiarism, quotes, citations and works cited pages. The typical definition of plagiarism is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source.” So, if it is the work “of another” that is plagiarism, how can you plagiarize yourself? I’m guessing that Lehrer gave himself permission to reuse some of his earlier writing.
Simple answer: it’s dishonest to reuse things you wrote and were paid for by one employer in a new context for pay, especially if you don’t acknowledge the original. Like with those young students, the whole point is to at least acknowledge the source. Then the worst the teacher can say is that you were lazy or not very original.
Why this really interested me was because it got me thinking about all my own writing online. Many of the posts I put online (and I blog in 6 different places) are inspired by reading other posts, reading books, listening to radio programs or watching movies and TV. I almost always look online for supporting materials and I know that I sometimes copy from other sites.
I know enough about academic writing to know that you don’t have to worry about reusing facts. I try to link to sources internally or at the end of posts. Still, I’m probably guilty of a few copy/pastes along the way.
And I self-plagiarize, although to me it is a “cross-post.” For example, I have been slowly moving posts from the Evenings in Paradelle to this blog. Of course, no one pays me to do any of this blogging, so I’m not sure the self-plagiarizing matters.
Do people notice or care? Well, Michael Moynihan (who describes himself as a “Bob Dylan nerd”) discovered and reported some fabricated quotes attributed to Dylan by Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer has acknowledged that he did make up some quotes.
This latest incident introduced a new word to me: fabulism. In literature, fabulism is a form of magic realism in which fantastical elements are placed into an everyday setting. But when you’re supposed to be writing non-fiction, it is making things up.
Some people commenting on the Lehrer situation have blamed this little wave of examples to the current appetite for “idea man” journalism in the style of writers like Malcolm Gladwell. These writers need new ideas and make a good living not only from their books but from making speeches and running workshops.
Take an earlier Lehrer book – Proust Was a Neuroscientist – just the title tells you that it is an idea man book. The Amazon summary says that it is about a group of artists – a painter, a poet, a chef, a composer, and a handful of novelists – and how each one discovered an essential truth about the mind that science is only now rediscovering.: Proust first revealed the fallibility of memory; George Eliot discovered the brain’s malleability; French chef Escoffier identified umami (the fifth taste); Cézanne worked out the subtleties of vision; and Gertrude Stein exposed the deep structure of language.
Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter who resigned after the discovery of his own fabrication and plagiarism, wrote a piece for The Daily Beast on Jonah Lehrer’s Journalistic Sins—And His Own.
Since Lehrer’s exposure, a copy of his pulled book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, online goes for a lot of money. Collectible. I wonder how Jonah Lehrer’s other already books are selling?
He also wrote a book called How We Decide. That book looks at how our decision-making process is either rational, emotional or when we “blink” and go with our gut. How do writers “decide” to plagiarize, fabulize or just borrow other writing?