When Do Plagiarizers and Fabricators Deserve Our Sympathy?

Fancy Nancy Quote on Lying

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.”


  1. Richard Posner has a written a short, little book called “The Little Book of Plagiarism” in which he delves into this topic at some (little) length. Have you seen it? In general, what do you think of Judge Posner’s voluminous oeuvre of writing?

      1. I liked it! I thought the book had new things to tell me that I didn’t know before. It’s also super short, so the time invested to information gleaned ratio was very good. Let me know what you think after “eventually” happens!

  2. Interesting points here. As a high school writing teacher, I see this issue in the trenches, as it were, and I have caught some of my creative writers submitting work that was not their own (which is sorta perverse — it’s not like I’m a hard grader. But I’m pretty sure they were aware of the cheating issue when they did it). It actually is quite difficult to teach students the more-basic issue in using research: how to actually incorporate others’ work into their own essays (for instance, what to quote from a source, how much to quote, how to explain it, incorporate others’ phrases into their own sentences rather than just throwing a whole quoted sentence in). These things require judgment, and that’s mostly what teenagers, no matter their raw facility with writing, tend to lack. However, I hope to have my students hyperlink to their research, which may make more sense to them than the not-at-all native modes of documenting, such as MLA or APA styles.

    But the larger, more-philosophical question of borrowing is interesting, too. I don’t at all mean to excuse deliberate attempts to pass off others’ work as one’s own. But the book “Reality Hunger” , itself a collage, makes some interesting points along these lines. An in my own experience, certain books and ideas have been so influential to shaping who I am and how I think that I almost feel I owe them citation on everything I write. The model we normally teach for citation is the academic one, and I’m not always sure that’s the best one. For instance, as I understand it, the listed authors of scientific papers are not always the actual authors, either. Different realms (academia, journalism, art) have different ways of giving credit, whether explicit or implicit (for instance, how many artworks make references or allusions to other works that viewers are just supposed to “get”?). Anyway, an interesting post on a fascinating topic!

    1. Ah yes, it is common in certain academic and professional fields for underlings to do all the work and for the professor or supervisor to take all the credit. We often joke that you need to look at the third or fourth name to identify the real author. I’m not a fan of ghostwriting in any form, whether it’s in academic writing, a celebrity “memoir,” or a public policy campaign. As for the topic of borrowing more generally, there is a point at which it’s ridiculous to trace the seed of every idea back to its source. However, those individuals who have served as strong influences on our thinking shouldn’t be relegated to a footnote. They deserve to be in the dedication or in the acknowledgments section.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

    1. Hi Donna! It does seem like they are rewarding his behavior. At some point, we have to forgive and forget, but it’s too soon for that with Lehrer.

  3. Here is a great example from Shakespeare: a 19-year-old William Henry Ireland in the late 1700s make a series of groundbreaking discoveries of letters, pay receipts, and even a new Shakespeare play. It convinced many Shakespeare scholars and was soon performed… to riotous disapproval.

    The truth of Ireland’s forgeries was discovered within 10 years even in a pre-internet age, but he is STILL one of the most famous names associated with Shakespeare. (All this can be found in a great book by Jack Lynch, “Becoming Shakespeare.”)

  4. I completely agree with you. What happened with Jonah Lehrer is just infuriating. On the other hand Doris Kearns Goodwin seem took made an honest error (one that I can imagine making myself by oversight) so I’m glad that she has recovered.

    1. Sorry. I was using voice activated software and should have proofread. Here’s what I meant to say:

      I completely agree with you. What happened with Jonah Lehrer is just infuriating. On the other hand Doris Kearns Goodwin seems to have made an honest error (one that I can imagine making myself by oversight) so I’m glad that she has recovered.

      1. Yeah, a fair amount of plagiarism is unintentional and seems to be little more than losing a few cites somewhere between researching and publishing a 300 page book. Lehrer’s situation is very different. Fabricating material is particularly bad.

        Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Such a great post, as always. It’s very true about younger generations and plagiarism. I work in higher education in a disabilities testing center. Most of the students are college-able, but have learning disabilities. During down time, some students will stop by and ask for help with homework or projects. I am always astonished by their lack of understanding about plagiarism. Their papers are often filled with quotes and ideas not cited. In some cases, I’ve even seen an entire paragraph copied-and-pasted, with no referencing whatsoever. Often when I point this out to students, they are perplexed about the reference and feel placing the person’s name on the reference page is enough to credit. While I think some cases need to be handled flexibly, depending on the author and the intent, it seems to be a growing issue!

    1. Thanks for adding your perspective! I do think it’s a growing issue. There should be repercussions for intellectual dishonesty in higher education, but when the problem is really a matter of confusion and ignorance, rather than an intent to deceive, then I hope that the consequences aren’t too harsh.

  6. It is difficult for young people to understand why the economy of recycling information is not a good idea – true it isn’t the same as generating original work – but if they are good at it it certainly saves time and leaves them free to do something else – a quality we might value in an productive employee.

    1. Yes, recycling content seems like a good idea in terms of efficiency, but it’s risky when that content belongs to someone else. Plus, a particularly difficult concept for people to understand is that recycling your own previously published material is also a form of plagiarism.

      Thanks for the comment!

  7. One of my favorite movies is “Shattered Glass,” about D.C. journalist Stephen Glass, a reporter working for “The New Republic” who fabricated partially or wholly over half the articles he wrote for them. After he got canned, I think he went to law school. ;/ And wrote a book about his experience.

    The thing I most object to in such cases is the person who committed these acts (and I do tend to think of them as criminals) finding a way to profit from it. This strikes me as obscene.

    1. Yeah, I remember that Glass went to Georgetown for law school (as did Kaavya Viswanathan). Last I checked, Glass was having trouble meeting the “character and fitness” standards for lawyers. I don’t like it when these kinds of unscrupulous individuals profit from their misdeeds, but I also wonder at what point we should forgive and forget. With Lehrer, I think it’s too soon.

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