I have mixed feelings about the Jonah Lehrer affair. No matter how I dislike the rivalries and jealousies of the writing world, it’s impossible for an old grafter, in these tough times of shrinking advances and dwindling opportunity for writers, not to feel a pang or two at the sight of a Wunderkind commanding whopping great speaker’s fees and being showered with adulatory reviews proclaiming him to be the future of science writing. But I’d like to think I was able not to be too begrudging, to feel that at least one of ‘us’ was making it big, and to recognize that this is just how things work, especially in the US. I’m sure that a fair bit of the venom that has come Jonah’s way in the light of the revelations of fabrication and self-plagiarism is fuelled by resentment at his youth and fame.
It is in any case all very sad. He may now be set up for life anyway, but I shudder to think how excruciating and embarrassing it must be to fall from such heights in such an ignominious way. And though it’s not what he meant by it, Lehrer’s remark in Imagine that “the young know less, which is why they often invent more” is not one that he’s going to be allowed to forget in a hurry.
He’ll recover, I expect, but it’s hard to see how he’ll ever quite shake off the stigma. And all for a few moments of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God hubris and deception. I don’t find it at all hard to understand the panic which compelled him to dig his hole deeper with outright lies about his fictitious sources on Dylan. It was foolish, of course, and unethical, but hardly a terrible sin.
Jonah was clearly far on the wrong side of grey territory in making up those quotes and pretending they were genuine. But there certainly is grey territory here, as there was in the case of Johann Hari using quotes from old interviews with his subjects as though they had been told directly to him. It’s not clear just how finickety must one be in making one’s sources plain – is it enough, for example, to say that your interviewee “has said…”, or do you need to mention to whom it was said? And there are no rules for how to ‘tidy up’ quotes. Do you just leave out repetitions and digressions? Or correct obviously unintended errors and grammatical slips? Or make a statement a bit more concise while preserving the meaning? I have certainly seen my own words recast, generally to good effect by making me sound much more articulate than I really am – I’ve no objection to that. I’ve also seen my meaning occasionally distorted once or twice, but evidently without that intention, and I’ve not been affronted by it. What Lehrer did obviously goes beyond such things, but I’ve a sense that, if you make a big blunder like this, the little slips and elisions are then hauled up as evidence against you too.
The charges of self-plagiarism are particularly ambiguous. I simply don’t know what the rules are here. It seems clear that one should never recycle articles for different publications unless there’s an explicit reason for that, and open acknowledgement of it. To accept a commission without admitting that you’ve written something similar or related before would be bad form. But what if you need to explain some particular concept or theory and feel that you couldn’t better the way you put it elsewhere? Is it okay to reuse a few phrases? A paragraph? I would think so, if they’re your own words anyway. There’s evidently a question of degree here – how much, how similar? I’ve not looked into exactly what Jonah has done in this regard, but self-plagiarism is a slippery concept. The comment by his publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that “Jonah Lehrer fully acknowledges that Imagine draws upon work he has published in shorter form during the past several years and is sorry that was not made clear” sends a few shivers down the spine – is one really not meant to draw on one’s earlier, related journalistic work when preparing a book, or at least does one really have to specify in detail what's new and what you've said before?
And yet my response to this affair is coloured by another consideration. Some years ago, Jonah spoke to me while he was an editor for Seed magazine. He was preparing an article on people who were transforming science and how we think about it, or something, and for some reason I’d been selected as one of them. And you know, I have always remembered (at least, I think so, but Charles Fernyhough might argue about that) getting off the phone and thinking “Is it just me, or was there something sour in that bloke’s tone?” I’d sensed he was not persuaded that I quite deserved the accolade I was being given, that I had somehow disappointed him. Then he became famous, and I thought, ah OK, evidently here’s a very ambitious and competitive young man. So it goes. But now it seems there might have been just a tad too much of that.