It's Hard Out There for a Plagiarist

Jonah Lehrer saw his career as a New Yorker writer end today for fabricating Bob Dylan quotes, but there is an interesting side note for this Internet age: the lifespan of a plagiarist appears to be getting shorter.

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When the news came out that Jonah Lehrer had resigned from the The New Yorker over fabricating quotes from Bob Dylan in his recent book, Imagine, the journalism world went into a state of shock for a moment. Weren't we just dealing with Lehrer and plagiarism-related issues a month ago? The update: Sunday night, Lehrer confessed to Michael Moynihan, who'd three weeks ago found the Dylan quotes suspicious and confronted him about them, as Moynihan wrote at Tablet magazine. Lehrer followed his confession with a resignation, and today, statements from him and from New Yorker editor David Remnick, who defended his writer a month ago, also followed.

It's ultimately a sad story—making things up seems a pointless risk in journalism—but one with an interesting side plot for this Internet age. Is it possible that the lifespan of a plagiarist is getting shorter? While it's true that we don't know how far fabricating goes back with Lehrer (surely some journalists are on the case to find out if it extends beyond this and the cases in The New Yorker?), we do know that he was only at The New Yorker for two months, following his role at Wired. We also know that the murmurings about plagiarism started about a month ago. Recently, in another plagiarism case, a Wall Street Journal intern was caught fabricating quotes after just three weeks on the job.

Compare these cases timewise, and also crime-wise, to what happened with Jayson Blair, in which New York Times editors themselves cited a "long trail of deception," (Blair wrote for the paper for four years). Or Stephen Glass, busted by a Forbes reporter who wanted to verify Glass's story to see how Forbes had missed out on the scoop; Glass had been at TNR at that point for three years. Glass and Blair also made up people and stories; comparatively, Lehrer put words in a person's mouth to suit his purpose. We could argue about what's worse, but as John R. Edlund of CSU Pomona, an English professor who writes about plagiarism, told the Atlantic Wire, "I think Mr. Lehrer's current offenses are more about fraud than plagiarism, although he was accused of self-plagiarism in the past.  He is now accused of fabricating quotations to fit his analysis.  If he were writing a historical novel based on actual people, but fictionalized and marketed as fiction, this would be O.K. However, he sold this book as non-fiction. He can interpret what Dylan said all he wants, but he should be interpreting Dylan's own words as stated in clearly documented sources."

As for the speed with which he was busted, maybe it's simply easier in these Internet days, where facts that are questionable can be called out and easily checked, where deja-vu-causing paragraphs can be plugged into Google search engines and confirmed as actual repeats. But also, everyone's looking for a scoop, and this sort of news is news that any hard-working writer with the drive to find it probably has the access to uncover.

Lehrer's initial misdeeds came to the attention of the Internet back in June when writers including Jim RomeneskoJacob Silverman, and Joe Coscarelli pointed out a weird twist in the journalist code: Lehrer had, it appeared, been plagiarizing himself —re-appropriating chunks of his published work and dropping them largely unchanged into his writing for the New Yorker blog Frontal Cortex. Was this actually a crime, though? Editor David Remnick defended Lehrer at the time, explaining that this wasn't on the same level as, say, "making things up or appropriating other people’s work." Embarrassing editor's notes were added to the offending pieces: "Portions of this post appeared in similar form in an April, 2011, post by Jonah Lehrer for We regret the duplication of material," for example. At the time, Lehrer also apologized, saying, "It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong." As for his book, Imagine, it was noted that he'd recycled his own work there, too. But given his apology, things quieted down, at least superficially.

It didn't really quiet down, though. Journalists stayed with this story, looking for instances of wrongdoing and writing about them, when they were found. Edward Champion kept track of such examples on the blog Reluctant Habits,where he wrote on June 22:

What is surprising is that the material recycled in the New Yorker pieces is only the beginning.

On Tuesday night, Reluctant Habits learned that Lehrer’s had reused his own content on a vaster scale. It was all there, hiding in plain sight within his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

By Wednesday morning, more examples were discovered — including Lehrer plagiarizing a 2006 essay written by Malcolm Gladwell. 

Champion chronicles many of these examples on his blog. And in Moynihan's Tablet piece where, a little over a month later, the news of the Bob Dylan quote fabrication would emerge, he writes of various other journalists' charges against Lehrer for an array of possible journalism crimes, including the accusation that he used inaccurate, arbitrary examples in his first book. Still, that Lehrer's crimes may have been less than, say, those of Blair and Glass, but his trial-by-peers and comeuppance so swift, seems a statement.

Lehrer explains his "breaking point" in a statement published by the New York Times today:

“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book Imagine," Mr. Lehrer said in a statement. “The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said.”

Moynihan writes in his piece,

Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot , in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”

It's interesting that this would be the last straw, but at the same time, a piling on of lies and the inability to keep up with them is a common theme in these cases, and as Lehrer explains in his resignation statement, "The lies are over now." Or, more accurately, the lies will no longer be made. We can't do much to get rid of the lies that are already published in books, even as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, his publisher for Imagine, is trying: They've said they'll stop shipping print editions and will remove the e-book from the market. (At the time of this post it was still being given a prominent place on Lehrer's website.) And it's true, we really don't know how far the lies go back: We only know that once a bunch of writers started to write about them, keeping up with them doggedly and looking for the truth, Lehrer finally admitted what he'd done.

In that way, it was the Internet, this lawless land that's often accused of misattribution and lazy aggregation and other incivilities, that brought this sad story to an apparent close. After Moynihan got Lehrer's confession yesterday and posted about it today, the news was then rapidly disseminated via tweets and additional online articles on the subject. The conclusion of this affair all happened in less than an afternoon. And, as Edlund says, "What Michael Moynihan did was simply follow up on Lehrer's sloppy research, attempting to find sources that Lehrer should have documented himself.  In the process, Moynihan discovered that some of those sources did not exist, and the quotations were either made up or assembled out of other materials."

Perhaps fact-checking is not dead after all. Maybe it's just a new kind of fact-checking that's beginning.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.