The Tyranny of Novelty

Literal self-copying.

I have a confession to make, which may color your feelings about the book I’m writing. (More on that at the end of the post.) Parts of the book will be edited from blog entries on this site, and I won’t necessarily flag each time this happens. If I use a big chunk of a post, I’ll indicate that in the notes, but I don’t intend to provide a detailed list of which words were from the blog and which were written especially for Back Roads, Dark Skies.

If we’re honest, we’d admit this is a common practice, and generally not even unethical. I have the copyright on what I write here (even though I haven’t needed to assert that legally yet), so I’m not breaking the law. However, my corner of the Internet began boiling over the recent discovery that Jonah Lehrer has repeatedly cribbed from his past work to create new pieces. Lehrer, if you haven’t run across him, is a blogger and bestselling author recently hired by The New Yorker; I gave his most recent book, Imagine, a positive review at Ars Technica. My discussion with friends and colleagues on Twitter kind of devolved into a discussion of whether “self-plagiarism” is a legitimate concept or not, but I don’t really care to rehash that here.

In Lehrer’s case, two things were going on, as far as I can tell. The first is the problematic one from my point of view: a piece he wrote for The New Yorker was lightly edited from another piece he wrote for The Wall Street Journal, evidently without telling his editor that’s what he was doing. The second I don’t criticize at all: he reused passages from his Wired blog in his book Imagine. The difference in these cases isn’t money, since Lehrer presumably is/was paid for his Wired blog (though based on my understanding, even a high-profile blog like that doesn’t pay very well compared to magazine pieces of similar length and content). The difference is primarily ownership and honesty, to my thinking: it’s unethical to sell a single piece of writing twice to two separate outlets, as though it were a new article. I have no idea how much that kind of thing pays, so it’s not the amount of money that’s important (again, in my opinion). In this economy, being paid once for a piece of writing is an accomplishment, so perhaps a bit of professional jealousy is at work here: he gets to be paid twice for something he wrote, why can’t I? But I suspect that’s not my entire mindset, and I’m not really interested in examining the malfeasance aspect of selling the same piece twice, which I think is undeniable—I’m a blogger and aspiring book author, so that’s where my primary interest lies.

In my view, blogs and similar author-owned pieces seem to be a different case. While some (including the author of the link above) seem to be very upset that Lehrer reused his own words from his blog in the book, I disagree. Maybe he should have said in Imagine that he was doing so, but I think he’s within his rights to crib as much as he wants from material he owns. Blogs are also kind of a special case. Personally, I revisit topics, expand, even occasionally re-post items from earlier. I certainly recycle jokes all the time (a carryover from professorhood). While each post is supposedly (hopefully) a finished piece, blogging is an excellent way to flesh out ideas, changing them from something unformed into something a little more coherent. Posts may not be rough drafts in the usual sense, but they can certainly be considered first complete drafts, if the writer wishes to revisit the topic later on.

From what I can see, Lehrer has positioned himself as an Ideas Man, someone who thinks deeply in new ways about how the mind and society work. That puts some pressure on him, both within and from outside, to constantly come up with new ideas and new ways of thinking about familiar things. I know some people criticize his ideas, but I haven’t done my research as to why (sorry). However, the pressure to be new is strong for many of us: the stories must be breaking, the theories must be radical departures from previous work, the paradigms must shift—and the words used to describe all these things must be new.

So I’m sympathetic to Lehrer and his reuse of words. I think he did wrong recycling the Wall Street Journal/New Yorker piece for ethical and contractual reasons, but why should we expect every word of his books to be brand-spanking-new when he has a perfectly good blog to draw from? He’s done the research and written a decent first draft of the material; the difference is that the blog is public, while drafts for a book written by a non-blogger will never see the light of day (unless one’s son is Christopher Tolkien). In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made for deliberately publicizing at least parts of a book draft, crowdsourcing the editing process and getting opinions from the people who are most likely to read it: your actual readers.

Postscript: Update on Back Roads, Dark Skies

The trip to the Southwest to finish research for Back Roads, Dark Skies has been postponed for a while, at least until I can figure out how I’m paying for it. In the meantime, I’m still working on my book proposal.

9 responses to “The Tyranny of Novelty”

  1. I’ve done a fair amount of publishing in connection with my career as a university professor. I’ve never gotten any sizable amount of money for anything. Occasionally, material that was in a book chapter or an article was republished at the second publisher’s request or as an expanded or edited version. In those cases, both published versions were cited in the second publication. I think citing one’s own writing is a good idea, even if it’s a general note like “Much of this material was originally published in my blog ….” Republishing an article should be acceptable if the second publisher knows in advance that this is a republication and is ok with that.

    1. I definitely agree with all these points, though saying in the book that he was drawing from his own copyrighted material on his own blog is more a courtesy to readers than anything. It also would help defray some of the criticisms of self-plagiarism if he made it clear that’s what he’s doing. I intend to say in my book when I’m using edited material, partly for that reason, though I won’t do a detailed breakdown.

      1. Yes, it’s a courtesy, but it also suggests that the author isn’t pretending that the material is completely new. What you suggest sounds like a good way to handle it.

  2. […] a popular neuroscience writer, has been caught “self-plagiarising” his own work. Not everyone is so upset. Is it ureasonable to rework old columns with partially duplicated content […]

  3. […] The Tyranny of Novelty by Matthew Francis […]

  4. […] While it’s unlikely it will survive to the published version without extensive edits, I just want y’all to know.) Grote Reber, courtesy of the NRAO […]

  5. […] This blog post is a very rough draft of a section I hope to include in my book Back Roads, Dark Skies. I wanted to test my explanation on an audience before including it, so if you have any thoughts (positive, negative, or meh), please provide them. (Yes, I’m going to recycle material.) […]

  6. […] beginning with the realization that Lehrer recycled material from one paid article into another (a questionable practice, but not horrible), others uncovered acts of blatant plagiarism and fabrication of quotes. On […]

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