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Jonah Lehrer's self-borrowing
June 19, 2012 4:21 PM   Subscribe

Jonah Lehrer repeats himself in his articles for popular publications. Laura Hazard Owen argues that, unlike in public speeches, where writers often recycle material, the expectations of writing for paid publication are different.
posted by BibiRose (44 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's true that writers tends to make money from reprints, but this is the first time I have heard of a writer reprinting his own material without alerting the magazine to the fact that they were printing a reprint, and doing so just by cutting and pasting paragraphs from an old story into a new one.

It's odd. Certainly editors should know if they are publishing new or recycled material.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 4:28 PM on June 19, 2012


I'm on the fence about this — one of the good bits of advice that my magazine writing prof gave me is that every story you write, you should be able to sell essentially the same thing to three different places by shifting the lede and re-editing the article. You do make editors aware if the same piece has appeared somewhere else — usually, that's actually in the pitch, like, "Hey, I wrote about this photographer in MadeUpExampleMagazine, so I'm clearly an expert."

On the other hand, the extent seems kinda egregious here. But if editors and readers keep buying him, it's only his reputation with writers that will suffer.
posted by klangklangston at 4:36 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I had wondered about that: After reading the New Yorker article the other day, I knew I had read it somewhere else. At the time, I just assumed that it was just a family of publications reprinting the same article, and not an individual author plagiarizing himself to generate income.
posted by moonbiter at 4:38 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Can a mod fix the typo in the post?

Not telling an editor you're sending them a reprint or a reworked version of a story that was previously published is at best a jerk move, as klangklangston says.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:43 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


OK, so the behavior is not OK; it violates the assumption (in scientific publishing and journalism) that you don't republish material verbatim without acknowledgement. But the fact that someone would do that, seemingly oblivious to the error or to the fact that it would be discovered, raises questions about how he handles everything else. Clearly, he also gets a lot of facts wrong (and previously).
posted by cogneuro at 4:43 PM on June 19, 2012


I remember in a documentary about (British) writers who write weekly columns one (I think it was Alexi Sayle) admitted to submitting an identical piece he had written previous as a joke, claimed nobody noticed.

I remember in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell as well as the epoynomous reason for his column not appearing there was also something like 'submitted column seemed remarkably similar to one previously published'
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:44 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


My experience is only with academic publishing. So, I'd like to know who owns the copyright to those essays? Wouldn't at least a few of the magazines want to retain copyright? And, if so, isn't this an outright violation of their legal rights?
posted by oddman at 4:53 PM on June 19, 2012


where writers often recycle material, the expectations of writing for paid publication are different.

Uh, says who? I come from a family of professional writers, and this practice is at least as old as my grandmother.
posted by Miko at 4:55 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's what she said. No really. That's what she said.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:59 PM on June 19, 2012


this is the first time I have heard of a writer reprinting his own material without alerting the magazine to the fact that they were printing a reprint

OK, I see - but this just has to do with the rights you've agreed to sign over. At least in journalism, you're only signing over limited rights, usually first printing. If you aren't specifying that the outlet is getting first printing, it's on them to assume it's not. The contract the author makes then is one-time, nonexclusive. But changing the form of the article leaves you plenty of wiggle room - people often add or remove sections or rewrite headers and get essentially a different work customized for a different outlet.
posted by Miko at 4:59 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Recycling your material is one of the first things I was taught when getting a creative writing degree, and I still do this as a copywriter (mostly because writing pays so little so I have to scale any way I can).

From what I read, Lehrer rewrote the copy in the Journal and the New Yorker. It's not much different, but it's not exactly copying either (although if I was the New Yorker I would not be pleased).

I kind of wonder what Lehrer did to irritate the bubbleheaded-busybodies at New York Magazine, though. There's no bootlicking in this piece, and this is pretty tame compared the usual scandals they specialize in.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:06 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


violates the assumption (in scientific publishing and journalism) that you don't republish material verbatim without acknowledgement

That isn't an assumption in journalism. There's no assumption that the material in a newspaper, for instance, originated there and can only appear there. The only acknowledgement that a story needs is that of the person who authored the material and can grant the rights to print it. You don't need to acknowledge that it's been reprinted from elsewhere. In most papers you'll see something like an Associated Press credit, a Christian Science Monitor or Reuters credit, but that's because of the license the newspaper has purchased from those sources, not because of an expectation that any reprinted material be labelled as such. Similarly for things like a book review, which might be labelled "reprinted from the Minneapolis Star Tribune." That was part of the agreement between your paper and the Star Tribune when your paper purchased reprint rights (or was reciprocally entitled to them through a consortium of some kind).

Wouldn't at least a few of the magazines want to retain copyright?

It's quite rare. Mostly they only want first US publication and that's all most freelancers usually sign off on, leaving them free to rework the content later.
posted by Miko at 5:08 PM on June 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


New Yorker staffer Jonah Lehrer, who was just hired,

Christ, the more I think about this smear job, the madder I get. What a bunch of bums.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:10 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not telling an editor you're sending them a reprint or a reworked version of a story that was previously published is at best a jerk move

All that said about what it's reasonable to expect, I do think when you're pulling down the kind of cash you get for a New Yorker piece, you certainly should either significantly rework the piece or start by acknowledging that the draft you're submitting has been submitted (or run) elsewhere. Because had they known, the New Yorker would almost certainly have passed on it without a significant reworking.

On the other hand, he's a staff writer writing online content, not a contributing writer or a freelancer, which I don't think carries the centrality the magazine does. They hired him for his writing, he has the rights, why not populate the NYer site with material that will now be associated with both his name and ideas and the venerable magazine? I don't know that in the end, it's all that uncool. I think the objections are hyperbolic because, in the end, it's his work.
posted by Miko at 5:13 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it's important to remember here that we're talking about blog posts, and New Yorker blog posts are pretty light stuff. And it's pretty common to rewrite blog posts for different sites. Once again, I'm mystified about why this is an issue.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:17 PM on June 19, 2012


And it's pretty common to rewrite blog posts for different sites.

Yeah, all of my comments here are comments I wrote first at MetaFilterBoing Boing.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:19 PM on June 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


I like Lehrer's work but I find him wordy, so I usually click through from my RSS feeds when I see his byline even if it's something I might not otherwise be interested in, but on several occasions I have said to myself, "Wait, didn't I already read this article?" and quit a few paragraphs in because they're so. wordy. A couple of times I have said to myself, "I know I already saw this in Wired, he must be out of things to write about." So at least now I know I'm not going crazy.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:26 PM on June 19, 2012


Lehrer is a good writer with compelling story ideas who can submit articles on time. He makes his living from doing so, and like many freelancers, he ends up rehashing the same story in a couple different forums. I'm not seeing much of a scandal; as mentioned above, if the publications involved wanted first-run stories, they should have made it a contractual obligation.

It may be of note that Lehrer recently wrote a book, which he's been promoting. It's not uncommon for a small deluge of articles to accompany a book's release, be they excerpts, or related stories and interviews. Said book is why the quoted repetitions involve MIT's Building 20, and Pixar, and brainstorming. It's also why editors should have been aware that they weren't getting a unique pitch involving MIT's Building 20, and Pixar, and brainstorming.

(Disclaimer: I worked at a publication where Lehrer was a staff writer, and I currently work at a magazine that's run pieces by him.)
posted by evidenceofabsence at 6:00 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh god. Sorry about the typo.

My first reaction was that it's not so bad; a lot of people with books write articles in a bunch of publications basically to pump the book up and those articles are often just stuff from the book, maybe with a bit of a recast. But it's usually clear what they are doing, and they usually spread them out over a bunch of different venues.

Also as someone pointed out in the comments in New York Magazine, some of it could be multiple submissions and time lag before acceptance/publication but again, he's doing this within the same publication. If nothing else, as Bunny pointed out, the New Yorker should have spotted it.
posted by BibiRose at 6:02 PM on June 19, 2012


I still think it's a jerk move. For $80K or whatever staff writers get now, he should do a better job of freshening his retreads and not sandbag Editorial like that.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:12 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Chomsky quotes-that-weren't are reminiscent of Johann Hari's modus operandi and worse than the repeats to my mind; latter is shabby, former actively dishonest.
posted by Abiezer at 6:44 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hunh.

I edit freelancers for an out of the way blog and we pass everything we get through copyscape.

We don't have a problem with freelancers reusing story ideas. We do have a problem with copypasta. We're paying for original work and, more importantly, we don't want the site to get dinged for duplicate content.
posted by notyou at 6:51 PM on June 19, 2012


"My experience is only with academic publishing. So, I'd like to know who owns the copyright to those essays? Wouldn't at least a few of the magazines want to retain copyright? And, if so, isn't this an outright violation of their legal rights?"

Only if it was a work for hire, and only if it was not deemed a significant enough reworking, and even then it's very unlikely to be the sort of thing that gets pursued. The idea of copyright vesting with the publication is pretty much nonexistent, as all contracts are pretty clear about first publication limited rights. The only places I've seen take that stuff really seriously are fiction magazines, where things will often note where something ran first.

"We don't have a problem with freelancers reusing story ideas. We do have a problem with copypasta. We're paying for original work and, more importantly, we don't want the site to get dinged for duplicate content."

While I doubt that you have any control over this, one thing that helps get rid of copypasta is actually paying writers well. You can even pitch your publisher on the idea that the money is made back by not wasting your time checking for bullshit.
posted by klangklangston at 7:03 PM on June 19, 2012


one thing that helps get rid of copypasta is actually paying writers well

But not in this case, alas. (Agree on the general principle, though, quite strongly!)
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:09 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


A couple of interesting notes about this:

Jonah Lehrer has been doing blog posts for The New Yorker since of October of last year, even though he apparently wasn't hired as a staff writer until very recently.

The New Yorker has put disclaimers on the blog posts which contain writing from previous works by him at other publications.
posted by hippybear at 7:44 PM on June 19, 2012


Academics do this all the time leading to the oft-written phrase "least publishable unit". One tidbit of new information is wrapped around 3-4-5-6 times previously published boilerplate and submitted and reviewed and published and another line is added to their C.V. The income from this is not accurately traceable so you couldn't accuse them of fraud, exactly. But a lot of people do this. Cynical people I have known say almost everybody does this.
posted by bukvich at 8:34 PM on June 19, 2012


Wouldn't at least a few of the magazines want to retain copyright?

The amount I would demand for the copyright to my writing is staggering. They can pay me to publish it, but the writing remains my possession.

Some places do demand the copyright in exchange for a normal writer's fee. These places are either ignorant or crooked, and should be avoided like the plague.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:22 PM on June 19, 2012


There's usually a limited grant of copyright — like, reprints, other formats, etc. Part of that was because of the NY Times decision, and part of that is ostensibly to cover the technical details of electronic reproduction. There's also usually a right to use it as promotional copy for the magazine. Notably, this is generally less onerous than what Facebook asks for.

But you've definitely seen more contracts than I have, though you're likely to see more high-end publications.
posted by klangklangston at 9:45 PM on June 19, 2012


That's true. I meant full ownership of my text. Most places get something like right of first publish, right to be the exclusive publisher for a limited amount of time, right to maintain a copy on archives and online, and sometimes (although rarely) reprint rights.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:56 PM on June 19, 2012


I'm on the fence about this — one of the good bits of advice that my magazine writing prof gave me is that every story you write, you should be able to sell essentially the same thing to three different places by shifting the lede and re-editing the article.

Like how Zelanzy managed to sell the same story to three different themed anthologies, about unicorns, chess and bars by writing The Unicorn Variations. Not even changed the story between publications.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:54 PM on June 19, 2012


As someone who writes for newspapers, I don't think there's any grey area here at all. There's a pretty much universal expectation that if you're commissioned to write an article are doing it for that person only and that, within reason, it is an original piece. If you're asked to write a piece and you have done something virtually identical for another publication two months earlier, you should say so. You may still be asked to write the piece - and even then, you shouldn't turn in something that is word for word identical unless it is understood that you are doing so.

The comparison with public speaking is not one I have ever heard made before, and nor would it be regarded as valid by anyone I know.

As for all the first rights stuff. Yes, you often sell first rights. But - and this is a really big but - the person who gets the piece the second time round always knows that it has been published elsewhere first. This is also syndication. UK newspaper x later sell the piece to Indian newspaper y and the writer will receive some of the proceeds. But Indian newspaper y is under no illusion that it was written for them first and they will usually pay less than the original fee for it. Similarly a big magazine piece may appear in a newspaper before its publication in an abbreviated form as a kind of trailer, but everyone knows what is going on.

Also, high end publications still pay pretty well and expect their writers not to behave in this way. Anyone who works in this field and claims not to know this is, to put it charitably, being disingenuous.
posted by rhymer at 4:11 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's a pretty much universal expectation that if you're commissioned to write an article are doing it for that person only and that, within reason, it is an original piece.

Again, it's important to note, the only pieces that Lehrer has done this for are blog posts, not anything he's actually had published in the print magazine.

I'm not sure what kind of commissioning goes on for blog posts at The New Yorker, but I'm certain it is something entirely different from what published articles receive.
posted by hippybear at 5:06 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Again, it's important to note, the only pieces that Lehrer has done this for are blog posts

I think you're right that blog posts are often held to looser standards than articles. But, even so, duplicating significant chunks of blog posts for different publications' websites feels wrong in exactly the same way.
posted by rhymer at 6:23 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure what kind of commissioning goes on for blog posts at The New Yorker,

He's not writing "on commission." He's now a staff writer. He has the rights to publish this stuff. I do think it was uncool not to acknowledge that to the New Yorker, because if anyone is finicky about their copy, it's the New Yorker. But I don't think it's a big ethical violation.

As far as writing on commission: Do you mean on freelance assignment - where you made a pitch to the paper or magazine and they accepted? Or are you speaking of some other arrangement? In the US the term "commission" for writing is not one you usually hear, unless, rarely, an editor really does set forth the premise and offers it to a writer. Sometimes nonprofits commission pieces and sometimes long-form magazines do - but it's not all that common a term here and seems the exception rather than the rule.

I do agree that when you offer things for reprint you usually disclose the previous publications - which are kind of an asset anyway.
posted by Miko at 6:55 AM on June 20, 2012


I remember in a documentary about (British) writers who write weekly columns one (I think it was Alexi Sayle) admitted to submitting an identical piece he had written previous as a joke, claimed nobody noticed.

KAthy Lette has been recycling the same puns for years. Or as she would call it, tongue-fu (see interviews passim & ad nauseum)
posted by mippy at 7:42 AM on June 20, 2012




I really don't like the application of the word "plagiarize" that keeps appearing in the critiques. I don't believe you can plagiarize yourself, and I think it confuses the question of what actual plagiarism is. This may be about publication rights or copyright or acknowledgement, but it's not about plagiarism.

I see there's a whole beanplating section on Wikipedia about whether there's such a thing as self-plagiarizing. Horse out of the barn on that concept, I guess.
posted by Miko at 12:42 PM on June 20, 2012


It's about lazism, apparently:
Mr. Lehrer, reached by telephone, expressed remorse about the self-borrowings but declined to comment further. “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong,” he said.
posted by notyou at 2:09 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Lazism," perfect.
posted by Miko at 2:13 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lazy. Fare. Economy.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:19 PM on June 20, 2012


He's not writing "on commission." He's now a staff writer.

Well, he WAS writing on commission, in fact, he's not had a single piece in the magazine since being made a staff writer, although he has made 5 blog posts since that day, and all of them are things he was reproducing from other places. So it seems like he was trying to take an easy way out with a new position and get material on the blog quickly without much effort on his part.

Before being hired as a staff writer, he had 6 articles published in the magazine, and 3 blog posts, 1 of which was also recycled.

As I said, I don't know what the difference is between New Yorker's pay for print publication and contributing to a blog, but he had a good number of pieces accepted and put into the magazine before he became a staff writer. If those pieces were not paid commission, I'm not sure how they were paid.

I'm sure, once you're a staff writer, there is no pay-per-piece no matter whether the writing ends up in print or only on the web.

Really, the crime here was that he got this position and then was too lazy to create new things for his new employer. I don't give a shit that he was recycling material, but I do think that's a terrible way to treat one of the oldest magazines in the country when they've just taken you onto their staff in times of horrible monetary hardship for such a publication.

And seriously... EVERY ONE of his things since being hired as New Yorker staff has been done before elsewhere. That's really crappy.
posted by hippybear at 3:56 PM on June 20, 2012


he WAS writing on commission

Yeah, I'm not sure we agree about the meaning of "commission." Commission, to me, in the US context, means somebody told you what they wanted you to write about, and probably roughly what length and what kinds of conclusions they were interested in you arriving at. They paid you to write a certain story, sometimes even a certain specific kind of story, for a cetain outlet or purpose, just as an artist might be commissioned to paint a portrait of a certain person.

That's not how professional magazine writers (at least in the US) normally work, though (sometimes but not normally). Normally, they develop relationships with editors, and they pitch those editors ideas for stories they are working on. There is some back and forth, but in this scenario the author maintains a lot more control over the work than there would be in a commission.

IT's probably a semantic/jargon difference, but because the term means something specific I think it makes sense to be precise. Writing for the New Yorker and getting paid for it, on a piece-by-piece basis that he negotiated separately each time, doesn't mean he was writing "on commission." In the US at least, that's something different and the expectations for content would, yes, definitely be different. And because he's now a staff writer and responsible for populating a blog, I can understand that the standards of originality of work might be different. I mean, every time I read the extra material online for an article in the print magazine, it essentially rehashes elements of the print story. I expect that - it's extra hey-look-this stuff, it's not the magazine itself.

Again, this doesn't all mean he wasn't lazy and that it wasn't lousy of him to retread so very glaringly. But again, writers repurpose and rework content regularly, and that's not the problematic behavior. The problematic behavior is the lack of acknowledgement.
posted by Miko at 8:41 PM on June 20, 2012


I mean, every time I read the extra material online for an article in the print magazine, it essentially rehashes elements of the print story. I expect that - it's extra hey-look-this stuff, it's not the magazine itself.

If what he did were simply doing an expanded version of a print article he had or the equivalent of DVD extras or whatever, I'd be okay with that.

But this was stuff he wrote for an entirely different publication. None of it has anything to do with rehashing or expanding on something he wrote at The New Yorker.

And yes, without any indication about it originating elsewhere at all.
posted by hippybear at 7:11 AM on June 21, 2012


Yeah, I still have a different expectation. Same with Gladwell, Gawande, any of their writers. I'm utterly unsurprised to see rehashed content from these guys, because they do it all the time. The mistake was just in not rehashing it enough, and not letting the editors know.
posted by Miko at 7:12 AM on June 21, 2012


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