Recently, in Simon, Schuster, & Shame, I decried a major publisher’s recent acquisition of noted plagiarist and fabricator Jonah Lehrer’s newest project, a book about love, which has already received questions about its originality. Of all the examples of dishonesty in publishing I’ve discussed on my blog,** from Kaavya Viswanathan’s borrowing from “chick lit” novels to Jane Goodall’s lifting from Wikipedia, I find Mr. Lehrer’s transgressions to be among the most egregious, both for his fraudulent “invention” of Bob Dylan quotes and for the sheer volume of his dishonest actions.
The majority of Mr. Lehrer’s infractions appear to be self-plagiarism, where he lifted portions of previously published materials and inserted it into “new” publications without disclosing it. This type of plagiarism usually doesn’t generate the same level of outrage as other forms of dishonesty in writing, such as plagiarism of other people’s works and fabrication.
In cases of self-plagiarism, plagiarism of others, and to a lesser extent, even fabrication, we can see how even well-intentioned authors can fall prey to temptation in our time-pressured publishing culture. We can even see how questionable examples of plagiarism happen by accident, such as when an author copies a couple of paragraphs verbatim from a previous publication (their own or someone else’s), intends to re-write it or build on it, but fails to tweak it enough and forgets to cite it properly.
Even when the intellectual dishonesty happens purposefully, as opposed to negligently, self-plagiarism doesn’t have quite the same level of intent to mislead readers for personal gain in comparison to a plagiarist who falsely attributes other people’s content to himself or a fabricator who makes up material and passes it off as non-fiction (as Lehrer did–this outright lying is particularly terrible). With these latter two forms of dishonesty, there are often clear victims who might have claims under copyright or defamation law: the author whose work was lifted without proper attribution or royalties, and the public or private figure who never said the words attributed to them.
It’s harder to see who is victimized by self-plagiarism. The author whose work was lifted is the one who did the lifting! It’s also probably not the reader, except to the extent she paid money for recycled content she may have previously purchased. Rather, the victims of self-plagiarism are the publisher who contracted to have a new publication from the author and the publisher of the old publication, who no longer has an exclusive. These victims may have legal recourse under contract law or, if they hold the rights, under copyright law. Then there is the issue of how an author lists recycled publications on a resume, bibliography, or biography. It would be misleading to list them separately if they are substantially similar, and it could be problematic if an author fails to disclose recycled material to a hiring or tenure committee in a field where publishing is central, such as in academia or journalism.
So, writers need to be careful about self-plagiarism. What may seem like “stealing” content from themselves — which doesn’t sound so bad — could really be stealing from someone else (the publisher of the previous work) and often requires lying by omission to others (their new publisher or a hiring committee) about the originality of those words and ideas. Even if self-plagiarism doesn’t really change anything in the essential relationship between authors and readers, it may change everything in the relationship between authors and publishers.
**Relevant previous posts, in addition to Simon, Schuster, & Shame (linked above):