WHEN WRITERS LIE, CHEAT AND STEAL
THE WORDS THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’
Jonah Lehrer was the golden boy of the writing world – until he was exposed as a cheat. Mind Guru, Kim Lacey, finds out what happens when plagiarism becomes a way of life.
Who hasn’t ever wished that they were a successful musician, writer or artist? Some people want it so bad that they’ll cheat to get there. Mind Guru Dr Kim Lacey finds out about the people who steal others’ work and make stuff up in the pursuit of success. But it’s not just the kids who are at it – even the pros are getting caught out.
Full disclosure: I teach writing. I have dealt with many students who have plagiarised. Plagiarism is the act of copying someone else’s work without giving the original author credit for it. It’s like those times when you tell a great joke, but when your friend retells it they don’t say, “Hey! Kim just told me this really funny joke – here it is!” You hope that your friend would credit you with the laugh, but if they don’t – that’s plagiarism. (Now, don’t go around accusing your joke-stealing friends of plagiarism; that’s not going to earn any laughs.) Sometimes plagiarism happens accidentally – a phenomenon called ‘cryptomnesia’. (I’ll get to this in a bit.) But other times – and this is usually the case with my students – it is so blatantly obvious that I have to wonder, what drives them to do it? Almost always, the cheater gets busted. The funny thing is, professionals are accused of it more than we realise. (Second full disclosure: I considered plagiarising this piece. I thought better of it.)
Stealing is stealing is stealing?
How does accidental plagiarism, or cryptomnesia, happen? It’s probably happened to you – without you realising it. Sometimes, we can be so invested in something (researching, composing, or whatever) that we don’t realise we’re using someone else’s ideas. Researcher C. Neil Macrae and his team say cryptomnesia happens when we operate at maximum capacity without having the proper amount of energy to process the information we are thinking about (hence the reason it happens when you’re really invested in a project). Tons of people have done it. Though doing it ‘by accident’ doesn’t make it OK, of course. According to Jonathan Lethem’s article ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’, writers as famous as Vladimir Nabokov and William Burroughs have been accused of incorporating others’ writing into some of their most well-known pieces. But was it on purpose? Musicians often borrow parts of other songs or beats (a practice known as ‘sampling’), but why do writers take the most heat?
The Jonah Lehrer debacle
One of the better-known recent examples is that of science writer Jonah Lehrer. (Another disclosure: I’ve discussed Lehrer in this magazine. See my article in Issue 8: “The Life
of a Bookworm.”) Throughout his career, and even before the cheating scandal, Lehrer took a lot of heat for his writing. Although he earned an undergraduate degree in neuroscience from Columbia University, many readers felt he wasn’t qualified to write about the intense scientific topics his books were covering. As a science writer myself, and one who comes from a literary, rather than a scientific background, I rooted for Lehrer on more than one occasion. All of that changed when it turned out he’d been faking all along.
Lehrer got busted when he made up quotes about Bob Dylan. Bob freakin’ Dylan! In his most recent book, Imagine, Lehrer fabricated an interview with the famous musician. In addition to that discovery, fact checkers also noted that Lehrer had actually reused much of his own writing, passing it off as new material. Hold on, Mind Guru, you’re telling us we can’t use our own stuff? Well, no. Sort of. ‘ Selfplagiarism’ is a prickly subject. In the publishing world, it’s not considered ‘ cool’ to reuse your own stuff – especially once it’s been published in another place. That’s what happened to Lehrer. To get technical: if you acknowledge your writing has been published elsewhere, all is forgiven. (Take a look at the acknowledgements sections of some books. You may see authors thanking other publishers for letting them ‘borrow’ their
own work for republication!) But the Jonah Lehrer debacle gets even more ridiculous. In the same article, Lehrer points at how Bob Dylan himself was accused (more than once!) of plagiarising:
“The songwriter has [plagiarised] not only from panoply of vintage Hollywood films, but from Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza. He also [plagiarised] the title of Eric Lott’s
study of minstrelsy for his 2001 album Love
and Theft.” That’s right, Lehrer highlighting another’s plagiarism through his own plagiarised word. Now that’s irony. So what are the ramifications for cheating? For Lehrer, it has been a rough road. On top of his cred being shot to pieces, he lost his job writing for the New Yorker, Wired, and other publications. The discovery of his ‘ infidelities’ has caused many writers (myself included) to rethink and retract research we’ve done that includes his work. He has become the Lance Armstrong of the writing world. Is it ever possible to recover from such an egregious act? Lehrer is trying – desperately. He’s given numerous public apologies (for which he’s earned upwards of $20K!), but they don’t seem to be helping as much as he’d hoped. Lehrer, allegedly, has a new book contract but its proposal has also been accused of plagiarism! As it stands now, it doesn’t look like Lehrer will be recovering from this huge professional misstep.
Footnote from the editors: This 812 word article has been deemed to be at ‘low risk’ of plagiarism by automated plagiarism checking software.
Is there plagiarism in Jonah Lehrer’s new book proposal? Jonah Lehrer’s mea sorta culpa Jonah Lehrer The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism How to Avoid Sampling Disasters: A Step-by-Step Guide to Clearing Samples Macrae, C.N., Bodenhausen, G.V., Calvini,
G. (1999) “Contexts of cryptomnesia: May the source be with you.” Social cognition. Vol.