Jonah’s Lehrer’s habit of recycling his own content is being referred to as “self-plagiarism,” which is, of course, oxymoronic, as Michelle Dean points out in this excellent piece. You can’t plagiarize yourself.
What he’s doing, it seems to me, is self-aggregating. He’s taking content from, say, Wired, that he wrote, and presenting it on the New Yorker as original work.
Who does this hurt? It doesn’t really hurt the reader. If we’ve read it before, we’ll recognize it as familiar and maybe start skimming, or stop reading altogether. It hurts the New Yorker, which wants to present its content as original. If we recognize a self-aggregated Jonah Lehrer piece on the New Yorker, we’ll stop thinking of the New Yorker as a destination for original content, and start thinking of it as a site with some original content mixed in with content its writers have previously posted elsewhere.
Lately I’ve noticed that the conventional journalistic wisdom, which insists on clear lines in these debates, and assumes their moral implications, tends to get the diagnoses wrong. Mike Daisey is accused of fabricating his story when what he really did was plagiarize it. Jonah Lehrer is accused of “self-plagiarizing” when he was really aggregating content without disclosing the original source of publication.
Should we care? I feel bad for the New Yorker, because Lehrer watered down their brand, but what bothers me more, I think, is what his actions may portend for writing and journalism in general. Ann Friedman and the staff of Good were fired just a couple of weeks ago, even though their magazine was excellent and profitable. David Carr’s piece on the steady decline of print journalism was a bit depressing to read. NPR music interns are carrying the flag for the free culture movement (see David Lowery’s response here). Sometimes it’s possible to believe the worst — that technology is unstoppably degrading content, and that in the end the market won’t support editorialized content produced by professional writers, and that we won’t notice this loss until it’s too late.
Lehrer said what he did was “stupid” and “lazy” and “wrong.” He might not have been wrong, and might have been more honest, to say he was only ahead of his time.