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Commentary: Phoning it in vs. self-plagiarism

Jonah Lehrer is a science writer who at age 30 is at the top of his game. He has written three books, two of them bestsellers, his articles and columns run in the country’s best newspapers and magazines and he has parlayed his publishing success into online celebrity and star billing on the speaking circuit.

But two weeks ago, just after he moved from Wired magazine to the New Yorker, the most desirable billet in literary journalism, Lehrer got a sour dose of notoriety: He was drawn into a fierce dispute over, for lack of a better word, the originality of his work.

The originality of his ideas wasn’t the problem. After all, he’s a science writer, not a scientist. Like his New Yorker colleague, the fabulously successful Malcolm Gladwell, Lehrer’s shtick consists of breaking down and spelling out provocative insights from theoreticians and lab wizards. The ideas aren’t supposed to be his.

Nor was he accused of helping himself to other people’s words. Instead, what put the crosshairs on Lehrer was evidence that his current writings make excessive use of his own previous work.

The flap started when an anonymous tipster alerted Jim Romenesko, whose blog is closely followed by journalists, that Lehrer’s June 12 New Yorker post, titled Why Smart People Are Stupid, opened with the same three paragraphs he’d used in a Wall Street Journal column last fall.

Before long, other commentators found more instances. There was no agreement on what to call this practice. An early favorite, “self-plagiarism,” made no sense: You can’t steal from yourself. “Self-borrowing” has a similar problem. “Recycling” and “unacknowledged duplication” came closer to unvarnished descriptions, but neither reflects the ire the practice has raised.

Notably, the people who seem angriest about this aren’t readers or even Lehrer’s publishers, but other journalists.

His own boss, New Yorker editor David Remnick, noted that Lehrer had neither stolen nor fabricated. “. . . [I]f he were making things up or appropriating other people’s words,” Remnick suggested, that would be another matter. Although an editor’s note attached to five of the New Yorker posts concluded, “We regret the duplication of material,” it’s not self-evident what exactly was regrettable.

At first blush, reusing worthwhile work seems not only permissible but beneficial. Plus, it’s common. Often it’s a way for expression that appeared in perishable form to live longer and reach more people. Lecturers, raconteurs, standup comics — and politicians — routinely deliver the same material to different crowds, and academics repurpose their work, suitably updated, for different journals. Although Edward Champion, an indefatigable researcher, offered a nearly 8,000-word expose hammering Lehrer for drawing promiscuously from his articles in writing his books, that’s long been customary among newspaper columnists hoping to make an extra buck by giving their words longer shelf life than fish wrap.

Still, rank-and-file journalists were outraged. Curtis Brainard, of the Columbia Journalism Review’s website, suggested “ the principles of honest and transparent reporting” were defied, and Jack Shafer, Reuters columnist, said Lehrer was “was an onanist, playing self-abuse games with his copy.” Lehrer “plagiarizes himself repeatedly,” declared the headline on Joe Coscarelli’s New York magazine column.

The core of their criticism was that the practice was covert and hence fraudulent. Readers who paid for a top-tier publication who were unknowingly served warmed-over prose were being deceived. And the publishers who bought what they thought was custom work had a right to know they were getting pre-owned goods.

All true. But I think the emphasis on deception misstates the real problem. The more serious wrong is, I think, thornier — and what makes this affair noteworthy is that it’s seldom considered ethically problematic. Lehrer is really being nailed for coasting, for intellectual sloth, for what on Broadway would be an actor “phoning it in.” He conceded as much when he told The New York Times that what he did was “incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.”

His critics, to their credit, are doing something unusual in the realm of professional standard-setting — insisting that the quality of one’s work really matters. Their criticism reaffirms an idea of professionalism that obligates writers — especially ones as obviously gifted as Lehrer — to strive, to push themselves to do ever better stuff, to produce fresh and rewarding expression, to refine and build upon previous insights, not just to dust them off because of relentless production pressures and because they can get away with it.

It’s a powerful admonition, and it gives the tired old notion of quality a ranking in the hierarchy of journalistic values that it deserves and rarely gets.