Jonah Lehrer got in piles of trouble on Tuesday when it was revealed he has a history of recycling his own material, and now he's apologized and ended any ethics debate you were already bored of hearing about.
It all started when Jim Romenesko noticed this piece Lehrer did for The New Yorker last week starts off similarly (read: almost identically) to a piece Lehrer wrote for the Wall Street Journal in October. Daily Intel's Joe Coscarelli found a bunch of other examples of Lehrer cribbing from his own work, and it was off from there. Jacob Silverman found even more examples of Lehrer lifting his own stuff. Edward Champion discovered Lehrer did it repeatedly in his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. The New Yorker put editor's notes on all of Lehrer's posts he wrote for them explaining that some of the content was lifted.
PaidContent's Laura Hazard Owen and Slate's Josh Levin both suggested essentially the same justification for Lehrer's lifting: he makes his living off having big ideas, and once you cease being a writer and make the transition to Idea Man, then you're bound to borrow a little from yourself. There are only so many, and you can only explain the same big idea in an easy way so many times before it gets a little repetitive. A blog, then, is the worst place for Lehrer. Gawker's Hamilton Nolan says Lehrer just doesn't know how to journalism.
The scandal isn't flattering for The New Yorker. Learning one of your star writers has been submitting reused material isn't a great way to start the week. So it makes sense that their comments to the New York Times' Arts Beat's Jennifer Schuessler are pretty cold. Nicholas Thompson, editor of NewYorker.com, confirmed Lehrer wasn't going to be fired. His other comments are fun, though. "This is wrong. He knows it’s a mistake. It’s not going to happen again," Thompson said. He sounds like a mom explaining her kid's bad behaviour to the principal. The publisher of Imagine said they would acknowledge the listed passages in future printings.
Lehrer, to his credit, has seen the error of his ways. "It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong," he told Schuessler. Taking from your own work is okay if you're copying an old essay for a new English paper in college (not that we've ever done it), but when you're getting paid by a publication like The New Yorker, it's in your best interest to keep things fresh. And now Lehrer knows it, too.
[Image via Big Think]