Lehrer’s Teachings: On Plagiarism

I’ve only just heard about the plagiarizing/fabricating scandals involving Jonah Lehrer. It is, from the point of view of a German speaker and teacher, unfortunate that his surname in German means “teacher”. Though it may be meaningful, since he obviously had to teach us something, something many of us already knew: namely that even in the metaverse original content has a special value. Since the metaverse is supposed to be a greater mind space that includes the known universe, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the extra space consists of rehashed, or, as Dustin Kurtz of Melville House calls it, ‘repurposed’ content (what a terrible word!). Of course, this isn’t true. There is plenty of original thought and creat ivity to be found on the Internet. But there’s also a small group of profiteers, who probably like to think of themselves as ‘intellectual entrepreneurs’, who are lacking the basic respect of other people’s word work  – plagiarism – and the reader’s justified expectation that anything announced as original is actually original – self-plagiarism; Lehrer was found guilty of both. This respect is basic, because it has formed the basis of creative communication since the beginning, and it is probably not too far-fetched to call it a cornerstone of humanity.

Upholding civilization one word at a time

In Germany, we’ve had two widely published scandals involving plagiarizing politicians in the past year. The name of one of these, Karl Theodor Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, has become synonymous with plagiarism over here. My students will assure me “we are not pulling a Guttenberg,”  (said without the undeserved academic title and without the inherited aristocratic title, notice), meaning that they will be extra careful in accounting for references and sources. Incidents like the Lehrer scandal undermine recent developments towards open science, which involves putting out one’s ideas and research directly and openly to everyone, and not just in principle, as it’s been done since the 1600s, but already in early stages of the work, on the Internet. And then Guttenberg, Lehrer et al come along to confirm the view that the Internet is mindless and somehow unworthy of serious consideration. This view is extended to online publication, blogs, and other virtual community work. It’s potentially damaging, especially because the word is the elementary particle of the web, not the image and not the sound. If like me you enjoy online communication and online publishing, and if you also have high hopes that this online world may grow and improve, as we ourselves improve, and as we improve our ways of dealing with it and living in it, then you may share my views on plagiarism and self plagiarism scandals.

Every week someone asks me if I’m not worried others might steal my ideas, words, stories, titles etc. because I put them out so freely and openly. I’m not worried, because I have too many ideas as it is, and I probably write too much as well… The scandals show that those who built a reputation, careers or even temporary advancement on the sweat of others cannot succeed in the end.

Generation Z: mixing or stealing?

That’s enough for me, despite the case of German writer Helene Hegemann, whose book “Axolotl Roadkill” shot to fame in 2010 even though it quickly became known that she had plagiarized the work of at least two bloggers without attributing them. Little wonder that the then 17 years old author expressed no apology for appropriating other people’s thoughts (NYT: “author says it’s ‘mixing’, not plagiarism“): and a substantial part of the German literary establishment supported her case, perhaps influenced by the commercial success of the book. Once everyone talked about it, it became more difficult for the publishers and the critics to distance themselves: they’d been hungry for new trendy talent and had to feed.

Difficult for me to understand: the book description of the English translation, which is available since January this year does not in any way mention the history and debate around the German publication. As I understand it, later editions of the German original contain apology and corrections, including the statement:

“There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

Cute, but not good enough. Not even postmodernist icon Houellebecq (“This is part of my method“) would probably go this far, though he seems capable.

Things we do with words: fly!

Even though it’s topologically hard to imagine, we all stand on each other’s shoulders: we constantly imitate and copy one another. When this copying is done by the unconscious, later, sometimes much later, to be turned into something idiosyncratic and original, or when it is consciously taken and openly worked into an original work of meta-art, then I’m happy. Because that’s the way I work, too. I hardly think there are other ways. But that’s different from stealing “in cold blood,” as it were. Perhaps Generation Z doesn’t like to distinguish between “mixing” and “stealing”, or perhaps they really don’t get the difference, but I think that the price of dropping the difference, especially of dropping it unconsciously, may be devaluation of the word and, consequently, devaluation of all the wonderful things that we can do with words when we’re serious about them. What do you think?

Update: there’s also a discussion at Fictionaut with additional arguments, viewpoints and stories. Worth checking out.

19 thoughts on “Lehrer’s Teachings: On Plagiarism

  1. “Mixing” – as in the example discussed – is covering one’s tracks. And commercialism is the key – and that would be so in any culture, any market, any period of time.

    • Yes, Sam, exactly. It’s too bad really, as usual commerce turns a blind eye to both ethics and the fact that “good mixing”, mixing as an art form, has great earning potential and is appreciated by people: the conscious use of myth and of the great artists of the past shows that. I would also like to think that this hasn’t got as much to do with generation than with making money. My experience with students indicates that the Internet certainly lowers the threshold of copying, but it doesn’t change the fundamental ethics, and in the end it all boils down to instruction, interest and inspiration.

  2. M: I’m with you, and Henry …

    The Education of Henry Adams. 1918.


    JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU began his famous Confessions by a vehement appeal to the Deity:—“I have shown myself as I was; contemptible and vile when I was so; good, generous, sublime when I was so; I have unveiled my interior such as Thou thyself hast seen it, Eternal Father! Collect about me the innumerable swarm of my fellows; let them hear my confessions; let them groan at my unworthiness; let them blush at my meannesses! Let each of them discover his heart in his turn at the foot of thy throne with the same sincerity; and then let any one of them tell thee if he dares:—‘I was a better man!’” 1
    Jean Jacques was a very great educator in the manner of the eighteenth century, and has been commonly thought to have had more influence than any other teacher of his time; but his peculiar method of improving human nature has not been universally admired. Most educators of the nineteenth century have declined to show themselves before their scholars as objects more vile or contemptible than necessary, and even the humblest teacher hides, if possible, the faults with which nature has generously embellished us all, as it did Jean Jacques, thinking, as most religious minds are apt to do, that the Eternal Father himself may not feel unmixed pleasure at our thrusting under his eyes chiefly the least agreeable details of his creation. 2
    As an unfortunate result the twentieth century finds few recent guides to avoid, or to follow. American literature offers scarcely one working model for high education. The student must go back, beyond Jean Jacques, to Benjamin Franklin, to find a model even of self-teaching. Except in the abandoned sphere of the dead languages, no one has discussed what part of education has, in his personal experience, turned out to be useful, and what not. This volume attempts to discuss it. 3
    As educator, Jean Jacques was, in one respect, easily first; he erected a monument of warning against the Ego. Since his time, and largely thanks to him, the Ego has steadily tended to efface itself, and, for purposes of model, to become a manikin on which the toilet of education is to be draped in order to show the fit or misfit of the clothes. The object of study is the garment, not the figure. The tailor adapts the manikin as well as the clothes to his patron’s wants. The tailor’s object, in this volume, is to fit young men, in universities or elsewhere, to be men of the world, equipped for any emergency; and the garment offered to them is meant to show the faults of the patchwork fitted on their fathers…

    • This is brilliant, Bruce, thank you: “The object of study is the garment, not the figure.” To be able to go back in time and not just forget those broad shouldered men and women of the past is a skill and to do it is a great service.

  3. I have a lot of mixed feelings about all the things the word “plagiarism” is supposed to cover. I find it interesting that some writers are called on “repurposing” and others are not. For example the latest big hit memoir in the U.S., Wild, by Cheryl Strayed is a book made up of big sections from essays she’d published previously and also the parts of her novel, Torch, that were autobiographical. So when I read Wild, I find myself skimming: “I’ve read this already.” I probably wouldn’t have minded if I had checked the book out of the library, but since I admire Strayed’s writing, I bought the hardback. I haven’t heard a single criticism of the book (for this or for her rather lame idea of what “radical feminism” is either, for that matter). Roxane Gay has a great piece in today’s Salon about why we “coddle young male genius” in reference to Lehrer. And while I agree with her overall point, I don’t think it applies only to males. In one of my classes at Cal, I used Hegemenn’s case as one of several instances of “remix” along with some writing and a video by Lawrence Lessig. They are horrified at Hegemann but find Lessig’s ideas about remixing radical and wonderful! And then we try to parse the differences and the different responses.

    I’ll admit to being slightly amused at Lehrer’s making up Dylan quotes–I mean, how much fun he must have had! Have you ever heard an interview with Dylan? He’s largely incoherent. And for that matter Dylan ripped off a lot of his early music from folkies like Dave Van Ronk, and Joni Mitchell has called Dylan on his own lies numerous times. I guess Dylan saying he was born in Gallup, New Mexico, is “colorful” rather than dishonest?

    Like you, Marcus, I don’t worry about my stuff on the Internet. In fact, I was quite flattered to learn that a student attending the same high school in Austin, Texas, as my nephew attends had submitted one of my stories as his own. I mean, it’s kind of outrageous, and even wilder that my nephew happened to be working on the school lit mag and recognized it! And probably if he had made a ton of money, I’d want my cut 🙂 But bottom line, I didn’t care. The other cases I look at with my students are those of public intellectuals like Doris Kearns Goodwin who have been “caught” plagiarizing but whose reputation suffers not at all. She still retains her chair at Princeton and appears on all kinds of news programs as an expert in American culture–on everything from baseball to Abraham Lincoln. Students are hyper-aware of plagiarism and know they would have suffered extreme penalties (at Cal anyway) if they had done even one of the things Goodwin has done more than once.

    We do all stand on the shoulders of others, and we would do well to survey the landscape in that way, acknowledging the inspiration and mentoring we receive–regardless of how we receive it, or acknowledge, it for that matter. I think if we understood and appreciated creativity (as opposed to genius) better, we would probably have different discussions around these matters.

    • Jane, thank you for linking to the article by Roxane in Salon.com. I enjoyed reading it including the comments: Gay can always be relied upon to spark controversy, though I also, like you, don’t think any of this phenomenon is explained by whiteness or maleness. In fact, there is an uncomfortable quasi-colonial perspective that I haven’t even entered into in my piece (nor has anybody else): at our school, the most severe cases of academic plagiarism come from non-Western students, because of quite, it appears, incompatible scientific standards.

      It’s so interesting that you use the Hegemann case in class! I must track down the video you mentioned. Among bloggers it is quite normal, especially when they are really successful, for them to put out a book based on their blog posts. Of course, that’s not self plagiarism as long as they admit to it and even use the blogger VIP status to market the book. The most recent example I’ve come across is the delightful book The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth (better known as The Inky Fool). As long as the book is properly edited and doesn’t look like a blog printout, I don’t feel cheated.

      Love your story about your freely appropriating–or should I say “repurposing” nephew. Have not heard of Goodwin, but if she’s an historian, it seems she should have felt the consequences of her creative amnesia (my term, but that’s the impression I get after reading about her in Wikipedia) more strongly.

      Yes to using the term creativity instead of genius; it’s ironic that Lehrer’s last book was dedicated to creativity, isn’t it. As he said himself (though we can’t be too sure of that, can we):

      «Every creative story is different. And yet every creative story is the same: There was nothing, now there is something. It’s almost like magic.»

      • Here’s the link to the Lessig video (a talk he gave in Berlin if I remember correctly).

        I honestly don’t quite get the self-plagiarism thing. Is that why in academic articles, writers actually quote and cite themselves (which I find hilarious)? Why can’t you say the same thing more than once, other than to risk being redundant? There are such gray areas here, which is fine, but in public discourse, we seem to ignore the complexity inherent there. I think Roxane Gay does that as well, to some extent, in her article because she is more concerned, really, about the young white male thing and Lehrer’s case gives her the opportunity to write about that.

        As for the Non-Western students, at least in the Humanities, it is more a case of the rhetorical context than standards. For example, many of my Chinese students have not been taught to quote and cite because it isn’t a rhetorical move Chinese schools care about. What they care about is that the students demonstrate that they have mastered a certain kind of content, which also creates problems for the students when I tell them I want to know what *they* think about a novel or an essay they’ve read, not what the critics or experts in the field think. (I am oversimplifying for the sake of brevity and example, but I’m sure you get the gist.) And so they have to learn how to do this. And I think if Berkeley, like a lot of other U.S. schools in this bad economy, wants to make a lot of money off international student tuition, then we (I use the term broadly) have to not only teach students these moves but also tolerate a certain amount of “violation” of our standards as they learn.

        • Agree with you on the question of international students and standards versus “moves” (I like that word… it suggests a certain choreography that you need to know about if you want to dance in the West, and vice versa, I’m sure).

          About this self plagiarism thing: I can certainly see why you’re confused; I think it’s mostly an issue of miss led expectations on behalf of the journals and the subscribers, and a critical issue because magazines like the New Yorker are facing stiff online competition from free blogs etc. Their strategy seems to go in the direction of “original content”. But it really is mostly a competitive issue. In the case of Lehrer, it made people suspicious for the 1st time. However, having looked at some of his writing these last few days, I can’t really see a lot of reason for excitement either way. On the spectrum of the great popularizers of science he was never going to occupy a very high position.

    • Thank you Mark, this article looks very interesting, and very long, not untypical for essays on minimalism/conceptualism. I understood some of it, I think, and I especially found the references to contemporary views of poetry useful: this was completely new to me! (I found your summary very clear, however.) It makes me realize that apart from my academic experience (entirely outside of literature and writing) my point of view is probably rather naïve, though archaic maybe a better word. I accept that, I’m quite happy in the role of an antediluvian steward. Though, as for most of us online creatures, the truth must be that we live and write between two worlds.

    • I’m with you, Mark: I think something vital is lost when the processes of craft, creativity, form, materials, etc., are given second place to ideas.

      In school, I was presented with conceptual art first with Duchamp’s “Fountain,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_(Duchamp), and given to understand now the “trick” of turning the everyday (at least for men) object 180 degrees was a fabulous idea in the context of the form: something inherent in the form was brought out, the idea, the “trick” was just a part of it: the object, as sculpture, was opened up for us (the viewer) in a new, wonderful way.

      I never let go, nor was given to think of letting go, of the sensual, experiential quality of Duchamp’s work. In 1974 (yikes!) I spent hours over many months looking the Duchamp collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and especially, Etant Donnes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89tant_donn%C3%A9s — a fabulous idea best experienced — which opened Surrealism up for me.

      Thinking about it now, it occurs to me that I see conceptual art as a “tricky” form of Abstract Expressionism: that it is quite possible to create metaphors for an audience to experience with all the richness and wonder that a painting by Motherwell would set up for you to walk through, in great detail, as if waking through the painters footsteps (Rosenberg’s view).

      I think this almost miraculous, transformative effect for viewers — the great power of “wit” — has been put nicely, meaning in an especially understated way, by either Cage or Rauschenberg, and I think it was in “Painters Painting, who said something like: “the wonderful thing about Warhol’s soup cans, is that when you see them in the supermarket they no longer look so miserable.”

      (ps: how on earth could you read that Yankelevich article? It reminded me of “the windows” — certain moments in graduate school when you want to jump out the window.)

  4. Great post and great discussion.
    I love your clear approach to it all “I have too many ideas as it is”! I’m still rather fuzzy on it all, feeling there is a spectrum from the plagiarists who set out purposefully to do wrong (it’s the intention that stings) through to the blithely ignorant who think it’s OK to take something because it’s digital not physical. Where’s the harm in that?
    I also post stories etc freely, I don’t expect anything from them except either a good discussion, and perhaps feedback one way or the other. But as you know, I hope to make a proper living out of this writing lark with novels. And I don’t want that given away for free, I’d like people to buy it. I worry that the web is not going that way, when content is…
    PS – nice to see Proust.

    • As you know, I’m still fuzzy on it all, too. Nobody knows where the journey is going, which is why in my better moments I tend to focus on the writing and try to forget everything around it, all that weed… I think we are only seeing phase 1 of the revenge of the digital, which so far has always been the poor, binary cousin of print. Perhaps the same thing happened 500 years ago when Gutenberg reduced calligraphy from an industry to fancy, who knows. It’s definitely too early for any predictions. I’m sure though, that your work stands on solid ground, and if it will be loved, that ground and love of its readers will protect it from harm. Since you mentioned Proust: whenever I think of difficulties publishing something worth reading, he comes to mind. [Also did you know that according to my records, nobody has left more comments on my blog than you? thank you for that!]

        • Not in the least, I’d like to think you’ve come here because you found what you needed and couldn’t resist commenting because of the excellence of my posts 🙂 also, when two writers chat and gossip, it’s called cross fertilization (that’s nothing to chuckle about: it’s purely platonic and highly technical)…

  5. Wish I had read this before commenting on CK’s blog, a nice pairing.
    I just read a story collection (print) to find I had read much of the work online. That’s OK; it’s a bundle of collected works… But as a reader, I was nevertheless disappointed to have paid for a printout more than a new experience.
    As regards my own pieces online, they are largely offerings — take or leave packets of words that I hope readers will enjoy, but I won’t be spending a lot of time shepherding them. The exception is WIP excerpts which I guard and rarely post.
    On originality, as a scientist and relatively evolved hominid, I believe originality still exists. I believe one of the greatest joys in creative writing is seeking it out. It might lie beyond the horizon or may lurk in the belly of our tapeworms but I do believe it exists and I pity those not in the hunt.
    Now, I am still poking my blessed Android so hope this (a) makes sense and (b) posts in the right place. It might not.

    • Dear Martha, this topic seems to fascinate people all over: at this moment not one but two threads at the Fictionaut are also wrestling with this issue (spun off by CK and myself). Everyone, of course, has a slightly different take on it and a different interest. Over at Fictionaut, science is getting a bit of a bashing; deservedly, I must add, because when it comes to fraud and plagiarism, academics both make the strictest rules and break them unashamedly. But that really is for another time and place…

      I’m more affected by your other remark on being disappointment when you realized what you read in print bead already been read by you online. Most likely this is an experience which you will have with my own debut collection, because all the material has already appeared online somewhere. However, it can’t be helped, and perhaps you will buy the book and give it to someone who lives and reads a wet rock on somewhere in the Atlantic, someone without Internet access…

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