I awoke this morning to news of the Jonah Lehrer publishing scandal (which actually broke yesterday). Today his book Imagine was pulled by the publisher and he resigned as a writer for The New Yorker (early reports were that he was fired). Here’s what happened in a nutshell: he made up quotations from Bob Dylan for the book and those he didn’t make up, he took totally out of context. He did a mashup of things that Dylan had said and rewrote them and blended them together to get what he wanted. (At least that’s what I’ve gathered from articles I’ve read so far. What follows is my synopsis. For more specifics, just google.)
Another writer who knew about Dylan was interested in the Dylan sections, naturally, and he thought the quotations sounded odd, one in particular. So he tried to find the source of the quotations. He contacted Lehrer and Lehrer lied to him saying that they came from material that Dylan’s management had given to him. The only problem with this was that neither Dylan nor his management had been contacted by Lehrer. So, if he’d actually spoken to Dylan and Co. at some point when researching the book, he might have gotten away with it. So the guy looks harder for sources and that’s when he finds things out of context and mash-ups of things Dylan said, edited together to get the quotations he used in the book. So he outted Lehrer and now the book has been pulled and us readers are left wondering what parts of that book and his others are true and what he just made up because he needed a great quote that sounded good from someone famous he was writing about. Considering that some of the people he wrote about in the past are historical figures, long dead, there’s no way of knowing unless you do all the original research that he supposedly originally did.
This is not the first time Lehrer’s been in hot water. Recently he got in trouble for “plagiarizing himself” as someone put it. He reused some material, paragraphs, etc, that he’d previously published elsewhere for some of his recent columns. I have less problem with this: authors reuse material all the time. They write a blog post which they base an article on, which then spawns a book, or they write an introduction to a friend’s book and reuse what they’d originally written in a review when the first edition came out. If nothing has changed there’ll be a note that a piece was “previously published as”, but usually when material is reused, some paragraphs stay unchanged, some are rewritten and new material is added. Whether Lehrer did anything wrong by having some paragraphs that were the same as a previously published piece depends on what his editor thinks of it and whether Lehrer thought it significant enough to mention when he submitted the piece. Authors are always trying to wring one more tiny payday out of something they’ve written, because God knows, most authors aren’t paid a living wage. (Mr. Lehrer who is also a public speaker, as well as a columnist and successful book author—until now—is an exception to this.) If you asked authors how many of them had reused material, even previously published material, there would be a lot of them raising their hands. (Unless this whole Lehrer scandal makes them less likely to admit it.) There isn’t usually any stigma attached to this type of recycling, even if some paragraphs or sentences stay the same. Strictly speaking it wasn’t plagiarism: he did not take another author’s words and pass them off as his own. Reusing bits of his own writing is not illegal, unethical or immoral: he wrote it. I’m not familiar with the specifics of this case, but I suspect the outrage has as much to do with The New Yorker being publicly embarrassed than with how much was or wasn’t reused material.
On the other hand, writing science books and making up and rewriting quotations to illustrate your point, as he did in the book, Imagine, is unethical and immoral. It’s called “fraud”. It also goes by the name of “lying to the readers”. I’ve got his two previous books and now I’m wondering if I can trust anything he says in them. I was looking forward to reading Imagine, his book on how creative minds work; it was on my Nook wish list. I’m glad I hadn’t bought it yet: I would’ve felt cheated. As it is, I still feel a bit cheated, because he’s cheated me right out of the good book I thought I’d be reading and he’s cheated me out of my enthusiasm for his other books. I recommended them to friends. Though those books were not implicated in this scandal, I now regret recommending them, am embarrassed by my enthusiasm when I read them, because the author can’t be trusted.
If you’re writing fiction based upon some real-life event and you have historical figures in the narrative, then you can have them say anything you want them to say because it’s fiction. Nobody really knows what they said over the breakfast table on Tuesday or what they thought from moment to moment. But if you’re writing science, that’s non-fiction: you cannot fabricate sources, quotations and examples to prove your point. That’s the exact opposite of “science” and “non-fiction”. When an author fabricates sources, quotations and material in a non-fiction book, he betrays the trust of the reader. If Lehrer wants to continue his career as an author, he should switch to writing fiction. Many a novelist has grinned about being a professional liar. It’s the only respectable way to get paid for just making stuff up.