Self-Plagiarism, Ethics, and Us

Can we really steal from ourselves?

Shakespeare had a few thoughts on the matter. We should too.

Self Plagiarism, Ethics and the Case of Jonah Lehrer

by Jonathan Bailey

Jonah Lehrer is widely-heralded as a rising star in the science writing community. He’s written columns for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe. He also recently left a job writing for Wired Magazine to write for The New Yorker, often considered one of the most prestigious publications in the U.S. This is on top of his three books, including the recent best-seller “Imagine: How Creativity Works”.

However, that promising career and stellar reputation is now in peril. Allegations were brought forth that Lehrer had reused language from an earlier column of his in the Wall Street Journal in a recent column for The New Yorker. The allegations spread like wildfire through the blogging world, which in turn found at least 13 other instances of language reuse by Lehrer, each pulling from earlier works of his in newer columns.

The New Yorker, where much of the reuse took place, has since added an editorial statement, expressing regret at the duplication, to each of the columns involved. The publication’s editor, Nicholas Thompson, has said that “It’s a mistake. We’re not happy. It won’t happen again.”

Read it all

Upon further reflection, we call “Bullshit” on this argument. Isn’t the whole point of “plagiarism” to take credit for someone else’s words?

One thought on “Self-Plagiarism, Ethics, and Us

  1. Jay Aitch says:

    I don’t understand what the problem is with “self-plagiarism” – surely, a stock standard component of a writer finding their voice is to start adopting certain idioms that distinctly differentiate their work from that of other people? Likewise, if you applied the same sort of rules to characters in comics or TV shows, EVERYONE in those genres would be guilty of some degree of “self-plagiarism”, as one of the things that gives a character their unique voice is their catch phrases (the Tick’s “Spoooooon!” being a silly and succinct example, but there’s plenty of others). If someone’s doing feature writing (as opposed to news writing) I see no problem with some degree of reuse.
    The one thing I *WILL* say about reusing previous work is that it’s a bit “hackish.” I’d rather find good new words to get across a new or refined opinion rather than cut and paste from a library of top shelf snippets… but that might just be me. If other people want to get more efficient via reuse, then all power to them.

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