Friday, September 07, 2012


I have been following with some interest the recent Jonah Lehrer events. Lehrer, a bright young man who was doing much too much, much too fast, for much too long, originally got into trouble blogging at The New Yorker when it was discovered that material from his posts there was recycled fairly directly from previously material he had previously published, leading him to resign; further inquiry unveiled that this was quite common throughout Lehrer's oeuvre, leading publishers to pull his most recent book and begin investigating others; and more recently had a full-scale inquiry about Lehrer's work with them, concluding that he had engaged in multiple accounts of journalistic misconduct, including recycling, plagiarism, and repeated sloppiness with quotation, ending with firing him. The investigator recently published a summary of the results of his investigation, which is one of the more interesting pieces in the saga to read, since unlike most of the hue and cry it's published by someone who at least has some idea why plagiarism and recycling are problems in a journalistic context.

Plagiarism was not on the stone tablets at Sinai, and it is not a sufficiently well-defined offense to be anything intrinsically wrong. Indeed, contrary to the way it is often presented, there is nothing morally wrong with plagiarism as such; rather, it's a social role violation. It gets its moral wrongness because in a particular context it is a failure to fulfill our responsibilities to others. The 'in a particular context' qualification is quite important: if you look at issues of plagiarism across a wide variety of fields, it becomes clear that the standards are not stable, and that things that would be counted as plagiarism in one field are often not in another, and for good reason. Plagiarism becomes an issue when money or reputation are on the line. Nobody cares if lawyers, hired to write a contract, recycle parts of old contracts, whether their own or another's, because people don't pay lawyers for writing new kinds of contracts, even when a contract does happen to be of a new kind, but for writing contracts that do what they're supposed to do; and legal reputations are built not on finding new contract language, even when lawyers do, but on finding contract language that works in a given situation. Likewise, oral storytelling and much folksinging is an area in which using other people's material is not a big thing: it's the performance that matters. (Contrast that with stand-up comedy, in which distinguishable material is extremely important, and in which using someone else's material is regarded as a very bad thing.) In academia, on the other hand, reputation depends on having a body of work distinguishable from anyone else's, and there is a great deal of pressure on reputation as a way of sorting out who gets the nicer things -- academia is a reputation market, and the reputations are built on standing out from other people in one's contributions. Contrary to the way this is often presented, this does not mean that academia puts a premium on originality in any robust sense; but it does mean that academia puts a premium on doing something distinguishable. Plagiarism is a threat to this, and whether you view academic life as a pursuit of truth or as a political interaction, the result is the same: if it were to spread, it would make this particular kind of pursuit or interaction impossible. (There is variation, of course, across the disciplines: witness the differences between the sciences and the humanities on authorship of papers. In the sciences, everyone who makes a notable contribution to the substance of the paper is usually listed as an author; but in the humanities, most of these people would usually be given credit in a footnote, at best, and even that involves judgment calls about just how important they were in the development of the paper. This, as with everything else, is due to differences in how reputations are built up in the different fields.)

Journalists, on the other hand, are required always to be doing something new; it's what they're paid for. The New Yorker, no doubt, was shocked that it was paying Lehrer not to write new and distinctive material that would be exclusive to The New Yorker but to say again what he had already said in several other places. Popular young authors being paid well to write new things is a good deal for a periodic publication; popular young authors being paid well to repeat themselves, not so much. Newspapers, magazines, and other outlets are themselves competing in a reputation market; they need to stand out as a constant source of accurate new information, and this is as much true on the opinion side as on the reporting side. Journalists working for them are hired precisely in order to contribute to this, and they are certainly not doing this if they are recycling old material and plagiarizing other people, actions that could reflect very badly on the reputation of the people they work for (and with). This is, incidentally, one reason why the author of the article is right about one journalistic gray area, repeating press release material. As Seife notes, when journalists simply repeat material in a press release, they aren't harming the people they are copying at all (quite the opposite); but they are still violating the same professional responsibilities to other people in the profession of journalism, in exactly the same way they are when they engage in any other plagiarism. The same social role expectations are violated, and for the same reason. As with academia, robust originality is not really what journalists are after here: it's distinguishability. The conventions are radically different. An academic who sourced things the way journalists source things would soon be in hot water, since by most academic publishing standards sourcing in journalistic publishing even at its best is extremely haphazard and defective, while there are probably things many academics will happily do that would horrify a journalist; but this is precisely because the two professions face different reputational issues, and therefore what counts as bad copying is not going to be the same.


  1. Robert Lennon11:33 AM

    I think the conventions in journalism have even changed in the past century -- if you look at Chesterton's reporting, a lot of the time he's recycling many of the same images and phrases that he would use in his larger essays. Granted, he was also in charge of his paper, so that might have something to do with it.

  2. It seems to me that in the cases in which plagiarism is most obviously wrong it is a variety of lying or fraud (we call it 'academic dishonesty' for a reason). That is,  the thing that makes it wrong is that you (typically implicitly) present as your own original work what is in fact someone else's, or (again, typically implicitly) present as new what has already been published. This is why there is a range of cases, as you describe. In folk music or the writing of legal contracts, there is not even an implicit representation of originality. In some other cases, there may be a representation of originality, but it might not be especially important. But in journalistic and academic publishing, these representations get to be enormously important, hence cases where people misrepresent their work in these ways must be taken extremely seriously. This parallels how we deal with lying or dishonesty in general: how seriously we take it (whether we think it was a trivial sort of moral failing, a more serious moral failing, or even a criminal act) depends on what is at stake.

  3. branemrys11:48 AM

     I think this is definitely right. (And it's true of academia, too; citation prior to WWII is very different from what would be expected today.)

  4. Hi, Kenny. Because you entered your comment on the Blogger comment page rather than the main pages, your comment only shows up here rather than in the ordinary comment system.

    Those are certainly the cases in which it is most obvious that something was wrong, but this is simply because fraud is obviously wrong. Fraud and plagiarism, however, seem to me to be rather different problems, and not at all parallel as you suggest; they, to be sure, can both be put under the label of 'academic dishonesty' but I don't think they are structurally similar cases. In plagiarism one is not representing anything, implicit or otherwise, and I don't think there's any way to make sense of the notion of 'implicit representation' in these cases unless you just mean by it 'what other people expect'; rather, one is simply failing to make clear something he or she is expected to make clear. It is dishonest in the sense of leaving something out when you have a responsibility to say it, not dishonest in the sense of deliberate misrepresentation. This is why, in fact, you can plagiarize without deliberately setting out to do so: intention is not relevant, since what matters is conforming to social standards of fair ways to build up reputation. It's also why, despite the common way of putting it, it really doesn't matter whether you are putting something forward as your own original work or not: you can plagiarize in a survey article, for instance, and arguably you can even plagiarize while simultaneously saying that you are not being original, if you are still using extensive material without attribution specifically to the person whose work you are using. It's not that you're presenting it as your own work that is the problem; it's that you are not giving credit to the other person in a context in which you should be, and you can fail at that even if you are quite clear that you are not being original.


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