Less than a year after Jonah Lehrer’s fabrication of Bob Dylan quotes and blatant plagiarism forced him to resign from the The New Yorker, the disgraced writer is in the news again. In mid-February, he gave a speech about his intellectual dishonesty at the Knight Foundation for a whopping $20,000 (who knew that admittedly lying was “worth” so much?), and then this past Friday, Lehrer’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, announced that Lehrer’s second book, How We Decide, will meet the same fate as the book with the Dylan “quotes”: it will be recalled from bookstores and customers will receive a refund because of unspecified “problems” with its content.
Part of what is so outrageous about the Lehrer controversy is the waste of resources. The fact that his faulty books received publishing contracts and the time and attention of agents, editors, marketers, reviewers, and readers means that someone else’s book did not receive those resources. If his transgressions become the subjects of lawsuits, that will only add to the overall expense and distraction caused by these works. Plagiarism and fabrication are not always illegal; for example, copying someone else’s ideas is rarely sufficient for a copyright claim, but uncredited plagiarism of someone else’s words could be a copyright violation, and there could also be claims based on breach of contract, fraud, or misrepresentation.
With so many high profile examples of intellectual dishonesty in recent years, from Kaavya Viswanathan’s How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got A Life in 2006 to the widespread cheating scandal at Harvard in 2012, it feels like plagiarism, fabrication, and other forms of cheating are on the rise. Research suggests an upward trend in such dishonest behavior, with many academics blaming the Internet. For example, Professor Jeffrey Masten has said: “It’s physically easier to lift material because of the Internet, in a way that 10 years ago papers were harder to get — physically harder to get.”
In addition to enabling plagiarism, technological advances have also improved detection of such dishonest behavior. There are programs to uncover plagiarized term papers and books, and there is no dearth of bloggers and journalists out there looking for their next story. The same desire for content that leads some writers to cheat the system also fuels the discovery of such cheating. For the one who committed the dishonest act, the consequences can be devastating: the loss of a publishing contract, the loss of a reputation, and possibly dismissal from school.
While I believe there must be repercussions for intellectual dishonesty, there are some mistakes that deserve more sympathy than others. There is a difference between the transgressions of adults like Lehrer, who is my age and should have known better, and the mistakes of younger individuals, like Viswanathan, who was in high school when she received her publishing contract and was a freshman at Harvard when the scandal broke.
Many college students do not understand where to draw the line between honest research and plagiarism. In many ways, it seems they wrongly believe that plagiarism is no different from copyright infringement: while students recognize that simply copying someone else’s words is plagiarism, many do not understand that rewriting someone else’s ideas and failing to cite sources both constitute plagiarism. Some degree of fabrication and plagiarism is part of the creative process — even Shakespeare did it — and it takes experience and maturity to understand what behavior is unethical.
To some extent, I feel sorry for those navigating late adolescence and young adulthood today with Google, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs at everyone’s fingertips. Youth is the time to make mistakes; now, however, those mistakes are easily discovered, publicized, and then engraved in html. The old empty threat that every infraction in your youth “goes on your permanent record” is now true, thanks to the Internet.
As for Lehrer, unless there are many more $20,000 speaking gigs in his future, he may want to consider going to law school.
PS. The quote above is from Jane O’Connor’s Fancy Nancy: My Family History (with pictures based on the art of Robin Preiss Glasser), a children’s book ideal for pre-readers like my twins. It seems certain adults out there have a lot of learn from Fancy Nancy, who comes to realize the importance of “stick[ing] to the plain truth.”