Here's a simple ethical question: A journalist publishes a story. The story contains paragraphs that mirror — almost verbatim — an article printed in another publication. Is that journalist a plagiarist?
The vast majority of people would respond quickly and confidently, insisting the reporter has committed the gravest of journalistic misdeeds — plagiarism. This answer is obvious, but in the case of The New Yorker's Jonah Lehrer, it is unclear whether it is correct.
That's because Lehrer plagiarized himself.
The New Yorker's new hire ignited a firestorm Tuesday when media blogger Jim Romenesko noted that a June 12 post on The Front Cortex, Lehrer's blog for The New Yorker, lifted three paragraphs from a piece he published in The Wall Street Journal last October.
Romenesko's post quickly gained traction on New York magazine's Daily Intel blog, which rounded up numerous examples of Lehrer's self-duplication from stories he wrote on Wired.com, the New York Observer and the New York Times Magazine. Gawker's infamously sharp-tongued media critic, Hamilton Nolan, further inflamed the issue with posts filed under the site's mocking "Journalismism" label.
By that afternoon, The New Yorker had appended five of Lehrer's posts on The Frontal Cortex with an editor's note regretfully recognizing the duplicated material.
And on Wednesday, Lehrer apologized to a New York Times reporter.
“It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong,” he told the Times.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of Lehrer's three books, told the Times in a statement that future editions of his bestseller "Imagine" will include a disclaimer about previously published lines appearing in the book.
“Jonah Lehrer fully acknowledges that ‘Imagine’ draws upon work he has published in shorter form during the past several years and is sorry that was not made clear,” the statement said. “He owns the rights to the relevant articles, so no permission was needed. He will add language to the acknowledgments noting his prior work.”
Lehrer did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.