Does “self-plagiarism” exist? On Jonah Lehrer and my own blogging / writing

I've been reading the back and forth about claims that Jonah Lehrer jump-started his New Yorker blog (and can we just take a minute to recognize how the world has changed when being hired as a blogger for the New Yorker is seen as a plum job?) by copying material from his old blogs. Edward Champion, RomeneskoNew York Magazine, and Poynter all have criticized him for several things: recycling his old work without making clear to readers that he was doing so; crafting quotes that sounded like they'd been given directly to him, when they were re-quoted from other publications (and doing so with Noam Chomsky, who isn't exactly the shyest person around); and plagiarizing Malcolm Gladwell.

The argument about recycling doesn't seem to be that recirculating your old words isn't out of bounds, so long as you're clear when you do so. So it's one thing if Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis republish their magazine articles together as a book (The Tipping Point and Boomerang, respectively), and it's clear to the read that that's what they're buying; it's only a problem if they're not up front about this.

The problem in this case is that Lehrer is selling the same cow twice. At the very least, not referring to your previous work makes it look suspiciously like you might be trying to pull one over on readers and your publisher, by passing old work off as new, and getting paid twice for the same words.

Of course, one reason I've been thinking about this is that some of my book draws on posts from this blog. Certainly there are a bunch of things I've written about here that I also talk about in the book. In a few instances, I used blog posts as the foundation for sections of the book (I have a discussion of photography as a form of seeing versus a distraction that started as a blog post). Other posts are early attempts to work though subjects (like Zenware and Digital Sabbaths). In many other cases, I started chapters by rereading posts that link to interesting articles; the blog served as a commonplace book, where I could take note of things that I knew I'd want to be able to easily find later.

The differences between what I've done here and in the book, and what Lehrer appears to have done, are twofold.

First, the blog hasn't generated any income (alas); nothing in the book has been paid for and published elsewhere. So there's no possibility of my getting paid twice for the same words, or of Little, Brown being sold a used car with the odometer turned back to zero.

Second and more important, the book is a lot better than this blog.

For me, blog posts are somewhere between notes on things I read, and first drafts of my own attempt to make sense of a new subject. I think it's safe to say if I started thinking about an idea here, and also write about in the book, the book's discussion is smarter, sharper, and stronger. I'm not just republishing, but revising and improving.

Indeed, in the course of writing the book, I was surprised at how much stuff didn't make the jump from blog to book. For example, there's a bunch of stuff about HCI that I thought would be more prominent in the book, but which kind of fell out. People like Liam Bannon, Yvonne Rogers, and my former colleague/patron Richard Harper, have written some really smart stuff about the future of human-computer interaction, and when I started writing I really expected to engage that literature more directly. But as the project evolved, and I spoke more directly to users rather than professional designers, that dialogue came to feel more like a distraction.

Ditto for plenty of other things I've written about here. It was fun to think about contemplation and Virginia Woolf, and Seneca's Letters from a Stoic and its anticipation of Csikszentmihalyi's work, but they're not in the book.

(Conversely, there are also things– lots of things– that are in the book that I haven't blogged about. Sometimes I was too busy writing them. At other times, I decided that I didn't want to give them away yet. But I suspect that with the next book, if there's not a long period where I'm tinkering and not yet under contract, there may be even fewer digital clues about what the book's going to say.)

As for the Gladwell copying, Gladwell himself has said,

If Lehrer is plagiarizing me, by quoting the same quote I quoted, then I am plagiarizing the person who used that quote before me, and that person is plagiarizing the person who quoted it before them, and so on and so forth, and we have a daisy chain of “plagiarizing” going back forty years and plagiarism, as a ethical concept, has ceased to mean anything at all.

Personally, I don't find that entirely convincing: as Edward Champion points out, "Lehrer didn’t just quote the same Goldman quote. He used the exact same introductory phrasing and elided the exact same words as Gladwell did." That's the problem, not the use of the same famous anecdote (though can't you come up with better anecdotes, guys?).

Gladwell's response reminds me of Jon Stewart's comparison of Rupert Murdoch dismissing the idea that his personal connections with the leaders of the British government had any influence on their approval of News Corp's investments in the UK, and Donald Trump's claim that Scottish PM Alex Salmond guaranteed him during a dinner in New York that no offshore wind farm would be built within sight of his golf course. “Here’s Murdoch: Hey, mate, I did have a dinner, but yeah, maybe they were there. I don’t remember. And here’s Trump: We colluded on this! Over steaks! What are you doing? You promised me!”"

Of course, Gladwell and Lehrer live in a world in which they're paid to repeat themselves, to a greater or lesser degree. Gladwell's juxtaposition of two apparently different things that turn out to be linked is a familiar schtick, and when you open a Gladwell essay, you know what to expect, just as you do when you read Michael Lewis or Terry Pratchett or listen to Gilbert & Sullivan.

But for them it goes beyond having a certain kind of writing style, or a distinctive approach or viewpoint. People who invite Gladwell to give a talk don't expect something dramatically new; the transaction is more like hiring Billy Joel to play your end-of-year, hand-out-the-bonuses concert. If you're booking him, you don't care about his new avant-garde direction, and his newfound love of the creative possibilities of the Theremin. You want him to play "Piano Man" and "Captain Jack," and maybe "Zanzibar" if you're feeling really wild and crazy, or "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" if you're really feeling sentimental. If he gets on stage and delivers a Keith Jarrett Trio improvisational experience, you're going to be highly disappointed.

Likewise, hefty speaking fees and corporate gigs come not from being stunningly original every time a speaker steps onstage, but for having a distinctive brand that consists of an original point of view (being an "ideas man," as Josh Levin puts it, rather than a mere writer), and a highly polished delivery. (This is also nicely complimentary of his patrons' self-image: we CEOs gathered in this room are so busy and so highly compensated it's more cost effective for us to fly an author around the world to tell us about his latest article, than it is to pick up a copy of Business Week or whatever at the airport and read it ourselves.)

If the audience hires you with the expectation that they'll get a brilliant talk that's polished because you've tried it out on lots of other audiences, and you deliver that, fine. If they expect to see you be brilliant but fragmented because you're stretching into new territory, that's something else. (Indeed, Levin Agency's Gordon Mazur, who handles Lehrer's speaking engagements, is quoted as wondering, "Self-plagiarization is…I don’t even know what it is…. Where does that fall in the level of crimes?" He goes on to say, "You’re not going to write a new speech every time you go out. People understand that…. Essentially people are hiring them to say the same thing over and over.")

But one of the hallmarks of professionalism is knowing what your audience expects, what you can do, and what you CAN'T do. It's one thing to give a talk you've given before; those earlier performances can be justified as practice, as a later audience gains the benefit of your having tried out your material on earlier audiences, worked out your slides, gotten your pauses right, etc. (Those losers at the Accenture partners banquet! They heard this talk in Scottsdale two months ago, and we get to benefit from them being the practice. What a bunch of a-holes.) But places like The New Yorker don't contract for pieces that include big chunks of recycled material. (As Michelle Dean puts it, "If a man hires you to bake his bread, he doesn’t expect year-old loaves, no matter how well you insist they’ve kept.") And everyone knows it.

So you have to respect what your clients and audiences expect. A blog, I think, is more like the Köln Concert, not The Song Remains the Same. And if you're clear with your readers about where you've previously worked on (or even written on) ideas in latest book, cool. Let the buyer be informed, and leave it to the buyer to be aware.

Finally, I think we need a better term than "self-plagiarism" to describe copying your own words in a context where that's unexpected. (Others do too.) "Recycling" seems better to me, but that doesn't quite capture the sense that it's only a violation if your contract and audience say you shouldn't do it. Maybe it'll do for now (though Alex Remington's suggestion of "me-cycling" is quite clever).

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