WHEN WRIT­ERS LIE, CHEAT AND STEAL

THE WORDS THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’

Guru Magazine - - Contents - KIM LACEY• MIND GURU

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.

Ref­er­ences

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.

17: 273–297.

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