Felix Salmon

How Jonah Lehrer should blog

By Felix Salmon
June 20, 2012

In the wake of the revelations that Jonah Lehrer is a serial self-plagiarist, Josh Levin declares that if you’re an “ideas man”, you shouldn’t be a blogger:

For professional thinkers like Gladwell and Lehrer, the key to maintaining a remunerative career is to milk your best ideas until there’s no liquid left and pray you’ve bought yourself enough time to conjure up new ones.

Given that continuous cycle of creation and reuse, blogging seems to have been a bad idea for Jonah Lehrer. A blog is merciless, requiring constant bursts of insight. In populating his New Yorker blog with large swaths of his old work, Lehrer didn’t just break a rule of journalism. By repurposing an old post on why we don’t believe in science, he also unscrewed the cap on his brain, revealing that it’s currently running on the fumes emitted by back issues of Wired. For Lehrer and The New Yorker, the best prescription is to shut down Frontal Cortex and give him some time to come up with some fresh ideas. The man’s brain clearly needs a break.

While I’m sympathetic to Levin’s point here, I think his prescription is entirely wrong. The problem with Jonah Lehrer, like the problem with Zach Kouwe, is not that he was humbled by the insatiable demands of Blog. Instead, it’s that he made a category error, and tried to use a regular blog as a vehicle for the kind of writing that should not be done in blog format. Lehrer shouldn’t shut down Frontal Cortex; he should simply change it to become a real blog. And if he does that, he’s likely to find that blogs in fact are wonderful tools for generating ideas, rather than being places where your precious store of ideas gets used up in record-quick time.

If you look at the post which started the whole controversy, you’ll find a honed and self-contained 1,100-word meditation on science and intuition. It’s basically a mini-New Yorker article, and in that it’s very similar to all the other blog posts which Lehrer has written for TNY. Which is to say, none of them are very bloggish. There’s a formula to them, too: start with a news hook. Declare that it’s indicative of a deeper, broader phenomenon. Talk about some scientists who have studied that phenomenon, and what those scientists have found. Tie it all up with a neat conclusion.

Given that formula, it’s a bit easier to understand why Lehrer felt driven to self-plagiarism. The art of blogging is basically the art of glossing the news: finding something out there on the internet, and then saying something interesting about it. Lehrer has a collection of interesting-things-to-say, and at any given point it’s quite easy to apply one of those things to something going on somewhere. And if you’ve already said that thing in the best way that you can, it’s a bit silly to say it a worse way just for the sake of not repeating yourself.

But there’s an easy way out of this problem: break the formula, which isn’t very bloggish in the first place. For one thing, Lehrer’s posts seem designed to make you not want to click on his links — he’s not sharing his excitement at finding something new, so much as delivering a seminar on ideas he’s had for some time, and which he feels confident expounding upon.

So here, then, are some ideas for how Lehrer’s blog might become much better.

Firstly, think of it as reading, rather than writing. Lehrer is a wide-ranging polymath: he is sent, and stumbles across, all manner of interesting things every day. Right now, I suspect, he files those things away somewhere and wonders whether one day he might be able to use them for another Big Idea piece. Make the blog the place where you file them away. Those posts can be much shorter than the things Lehrer’s writing right now: basically, just an excited “hey look at this”, with maybe a short description of why it’s interesting. It’s OK if the meat of what you’re blogging is elsewhere, rather than on your own blog. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point.

Secondly, use links as shorthand. Kouwe and Lehrer were both brought down by the fact that they felt the need to re-write what had already been written elsewhere. On the web, you never need to do that. If you or someone else has already written something well, just link to that, rather than feeling the need to repeat it.

Thirdly, use the blog to interact with your peers, rather than just primary sources. There are hundreds of great science and ideas blogs out there already; start reading them, and be generous about linking to them. Your readers will thank you. When you see an article you wish you’d written, link to it and say so. When someone finds a fantastic paper and writes it up in a slightly incomplete way, credit them with the great find, and then fill in the blanks. When two or three people are all talking about the same thing, sum up what the debate is, and explain where you stand.

Fourthly, iterate. Lehrer is a big-name journalist at a major publication: when he writes stuff, people respond, often on their own blogs, and often with very keen intelligence. Link to those people, learn from them, converse with them via the medium of blog, and use that collaboration and conversation to hone and further develop your own ideas. Treat every blog post as the beginning of a process, rather than as the end of one.

As the editors of the American Chemical Society write, self-plagiarising is fraud, because it is “an intentional attempt to deceive a reader by implying that new information is being presented”. A blogger should never feel the need to do that, because blogging is not at heart about delivering new information, so much as it is about finding and linking and connecting and conversing. Once you internalize that, self-plagiarism becomes a non-issue.

7 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

An 1,100-word piece on how to blog. Love the irony.

Posted by Mitchn | Report as abusive

Irony aside, Is there some unwritten law defining the word limit for blogs? One of my daily blog visits is to a retired anthropology professor who posts 4 – 5 times a week, but only one on any given day. His writing is usually of substantial length and intellectual heft. I prefer heft to brevity.
On the topic of Lehrer, I believe if you go back to his blog on ScienceBlogs (formerly of Seed, now part of NatGeo, you’ll find his recycling habit goes further back than the current examples. While I cannot cite examples directly, for the most part SB archives are lost in the seas of magnetic ink; however, I recall saying to myself didn’t I see this before when reading his work. IMO, “na ja, es geht so,” but only because I never had that much respect for poseurs such as Gladwell and Lehrer. If you’re buying what they say, you paid too much.

Posted by OnkelBob | Report as abusive

Self-plagiarism on a blog is not “fraud.” The ACS editors are talking about the submission of a manuscript to an academic journal for publication and distribution to a paying public, where the work has been previously published. That sort of submission carries with it the implied warranty that this is new is new work. In fact, submitting it as a manuscript, and not as a reprint, is a subterfuge designed to mislead the editors of the journal. Journal subscriptions are expensive, their space is limited, and subscribers have full access to back issues – so an author who submits work that has already been published is harming the journal and its subscribers while contributing nothing to the goal of scientific publication, which is the dissemination of knowledge to a sophisticated professional readership.

Furthermore, the reason an author would do this is to obtain another publication that he can put on his resume – in effect misleading potential employers and colleagues about his productivity and accomplishments.

The ACS editors call this “academic fraud,” and it is – but “academic fraud” is not all the same thing as “fraud,” which is a crime.

Your statement that Lehrer is guilty of the crime of of “fraud” by putting stuff that he wrote on a blog, where it is available for free, does not displace anyone else’s work, and makes his own product more widely available to casual readers who would otherwise have to search it out and pay for it is way over the top.

Posted by Blox | Report as abusive

@Blox – The situation with Lehrer is, to take one example, that he wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal last fall and then used the 3 introductory paragraphs from it, almost verbatim, in a blog post at NewYorker.com. I’m fairly certain that the WSJ owns the rights to the piece that he wrote for them, i.e., Lehrer has sold them this piece so he could not sell the exact same piece to another publication. (If I’m off on this point, I’ll ask for Felix or someone else familiar with these business arrangements to describe typical terms.) I suppose there’s a grey area in that Lehrer hasn’t sold anyone his ideas, only a particular work, so he could write similar pieces on the same topic.

That said, I assume that the underlying concern for the New Yorker is that it faces legal and reputational risk in sponsoring the digital publication of a piece owned by another publication. At a certain level, the situation is NewYorker.com plagiarizing the WSJ, and the fact that Jonah Lehrer is the author of both pieces isn’t relevant.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

What @realist said. Also, Lehrer almost certainly signed a contract with TNY promising them “original” work.

Posted by FelixSalmon | Report as abusive

“Lehrer is a big-name journalist at a major publication”

That’s the big mystery in all of this.

Posted by petertemplar | Report as abusive

Given that far too many “major publications” pay nothing, zip, nada for blog posts, and far too many publications period pay nothing for op-ed columns and other written material, this dispute is absurd.

Journalism is insisting on professional behavior in an inherently unprofessional environment journalism itself created: the unpaid writer, the unpaid blogger, the unpaid columnist, the unpaid HuffPo contributor, and so forth.

While Mr. Lehrer may be one of the few lucky blokes receiving a paycheck for his blog contributions, he’s working in a long-established culture of people who receive no paycheck for same, and is putting to use the “you get what you pay for” tools of that trade.

Re-purposing previously published material from your own hand is one of those tools, unless you’ve previously sold away all rights to it (most writers retain these rights).

If journalism wants to stop plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and every variant on what is herein being deemed unprofessional copycat behavior, then journalism needs to do some serious soul searching in its own right.

If you want professional behavior, treat your people like professionals. First stop on that road: PAY YOUR WRITERS! ALL your writers — your bloggers, columnists, etc.

Author Harlan Ellison makes that case profoundly here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g- fE

Meanwhile, don’t whine when you get something unprofessional from a business environment — in this case, journo-blogging for major (and minor) publications — wherein far too many practitioners slave away with no pay.

Posted by MJM0362 | Report as abusive

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