Stop me if I’m repeating myself…
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Josh Levin has an interesting post at Slate on the trouble writer Jonah Lehrer got into for reusing chucks of text from his 2011 Wall Street Journal article for a recent post on his New Yorker blog, and other acts of self-plagiarism.
Self-plagiarism is not the same as plagiarism—for one thing, Lehrer is unlikely to demand that The New Yorker retract his own stories. Still, it’s not a victimless crime. Lehrer’s readers deserve to know whether the stuff he’s representing as new material was first published in Wired in 2009. And his New Yorker editors surely won’t appreciate that he’s been passing off old copy as brand new. As Hamilton Nolan wrote on Gawker, “A good rule of thumb for writers who are concerned about whether they’re reusing too much old material is to simply ask themselves, ‘Would my editor be okay if I told him how much of this is reused?’ The answer will be ‘no,’ so then you can stop reusing things, you lazy bum.” (Also, self-plagiarism might not be Lehrer’s only problem—an editors’ note on a January New Yorker piece says he passed off a quote given to another writer as his own.)
For a writer as prolific as Lehrer, reusing a phrase every so often may be unavoidable. But why would a writer as accomplished as Lehrer become this much of a copy/paste addict? Because he has ceased to be a writer. With the success of his recent books How We Decide and Imagine: How Creativity Works, Lehrer has moved into the idea business. This is the world of TED talks and corporate lectures, a realm in which your thoughts are your product. For the idea man, the written word is just one of many mediums for conveying your message and building your brand.
Levin muses rather thoughtfully on how writers have moved into the idea business. Rather than cranking out new articles and new books, where one would never dream of repeating the same thoughts in the same words, modern writers are producing articles, books, blog posts, interviews, speeches, and all manner of other products containing their insights. But we don’t have enough original material to come up with something new for each medium. In fact, the prime motivation for all this extra activity is to drive an audience to the original work.
On a much, much smaller scale, I’m run into the same problem. We find some interesting data, or a good story, and write it up. It might be a report from the Josiah Bartlett Center, or a story on New Hampshire Watchdog, like December’s Fleet Week series. I spent a lot of time going over spreadsheets and conducting a lot of interviews to produce those stories, but I wasn’t done with I hit the “Publish” button on Word Press. I had to take all the information that I put into the series and repurpose it. I went on the radio to talk about it. I wrote a column for the Concord Monitor. I testified to the House and Senate Committees working on a fleet management reform bill.
It’s inescapable that I was going to repeat the same points over and over again. But where Lehrer slipped up is in failing to take the time to repackage his ideas in each new box. Quoting earlier work is fine. But readers, or listeners, should know when a writer is referencing something he already wrote, and when he’s delivering fresh copy.
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