Misreporting is Worse than ‘Self-Plagiarism’

In the last few weeks, science writer Jonah Lehrer has been under fire in media circles for “self-plagiarism”. A number of investigators have discovered close similarities or identical wording in the texts of articles and speeches he’s written or delivered. However, there’s another aspect of the Lehrer situation that I find more concerning than the allegations of “self-plagiarism” – and that’s the alleged errors in his reporting about scientific research.

The New Yorker, which published the blog post by Lehrer which initially started the controversy, has appended notes to all the posts on Lehrer’s blog, acknowledging material in each post that had appeared elsewhere previously, and “regret[ting] the duplication of material”. This very extensive analysis posted on another site presents parts of other works by Lehrer that use identical or very similar wording, plus a few which closely resemble work by other authors. Notably, one of those authors, Malcolm Gladwell, responds in the comments section that in the cited example he and Lehrer were using the same source, and suggests that the resemblance in their work was thus to be expected.

I’m not going to get into a long discussion of the ethical implications of self-plagiarism, other than to say that I would hope this controversy leads to greater care in commissioning this kind of work. Not unreasonably, those who paid Lehrer to write for them or to speak to them were probably expecting original work in return for their investment.

However, what bothers me more about Lehrer’s work is not his alleged recycling, but earlier questions about how accurately he reports information. This past weekend, while catching up on my reading, I found the review that ran in May in the New York Times Book Review about Imagine, Lehrer’s new book about “the science of creativity”. The reviewer, psychologist and researcher Christopher Chabris, points out a number of significant problems with Lehrer’s writing in the book. These include not just lack of contextualization of the research results he reports, but also some “elementary errors” (Chabris’ words) in facts and accuracy.

In my first post on this blog, I analyzed an example of how the media misrepresents research results. In a news context, it’s difficult to accurately capture all the nuances of research design and data collection that determine whether research outcomes actually mean something. I haven’t read Imagine, and I am not a trained neuroscientist (which Lehrer isn’t, either, for that matter) – but from my experience in research design and data analysis, I have no reason to doubt that the concerns raised by the reviewer are valid ones.

Research experiments and results aren’t always easy to explain or understand, but it’s still important to report them correctly. (Credit: guardian.co.uk)

Researching how creativity happens is a hugely complicated task – and most non-scientists or non-researchers probably don’t want to sit through lengthy discussions of methodological choices in conducting research, or detailed comparative analyses of research outcomes from multiple experiments. But, at the same time, a writer discussing this kind of research has the responsibility to present the material accurately and in an appropriate context, not just to rave about the “wow, that’s interesting” outcomes. Chabris, in my opinion, gets it right when he says, “The clarity of physics and chemistry is rare in social science, but this is no license for presenting interesting speculations as settled truths”.

Since Malcolm Gladwell has spoken up in Lehrer’s defense, and since he works in a similar field of writing, it also should be pointed out that Gladwell’s writing has received the same sorts of criticisms that Lehrer’s has. I appreciate that both Lehrer and Gladwell are trying to popularize science and make it accessible and interesting, and that both seem sincerely curious and excited about the topics they are investigating. But this review of Gladwell’s last book, by psychologist Steven Pinker, points out many errors of the same type as those identified in Lehrer’s book – search “igon value” on Google to see some hilarious riffs on one of the most painful errors. (Gladwell’s rather selective response to Pinker’s review can be found here.)

Slate magazine suggests in this piece that Lehrer has stopped being a writer and is now an “idea man” – and so, like Gladwell, he has to keep coming up with catchy new insights to maintain his commercial reputation.  This very interesting piece discusses how Gladwell also commercializes his output through the visual and thematic consistency in how his work is presented. Perhaps Gladwell and Lehrer are so busy building their brands that they haven’t had the time or inclination to come with grips with the theoretical framework of the ideas they’re enamoured with. Or maybe, as writers, they’ve decided that there’s more “pop” in writing about intriguing research results, and that including the finer points of how those results came about would just slow down the pace of a good story.

I wish I could be happy that, because of writers like Lehrer and Gladwell, research and science are getting much more attention in popular media. I don’t say this entirely out of self-interest as a researcher myself, but mostly because I think discussions of how research works and what it tells us are so important in understanding the world, how it works, and how we know how it works. But it bothers me when these writers focus just on what’s “cool” and “interesting”, and even that apparently is not always being reported completely and accurately. I’m not sure this situation benefits researchers, readers, or writers – and maybe the debate about “self-plagiarism” is a place to start talking about how to do things differently.

4 comments

  1. The self-plagiarism concept is interesting to me. Our Society journals/conferences have self-plagiarism policies, but I wonder how much of it is really more about (their) copyright. If I’m trying to introduce a new concept and terminology, isn’t it inevitable that I will use at least some of the same language, and certainly the same ideas? And shouldn’t that be encouraged?

    1. Agreed – at least in academic writing, if you’re writing multiple papers on the same topic, it’s expected that you review previous publications to show that you’re familiar with the existing research that’s related to your topic and how yours fits into that. And there’s only so many ways you can make that different without losing the gist of what you’re trying to convey.

      Also, in academic contexts, copyright is definitely an issue for commercial publications. But I think policies against academic self-plagiarism serve a larger purpose in discouraging (and hopefully stopping) people from submitting an identical piece of work to multiple outlets.

      But I see a difference between both of those practices and the tactic of making minimal changes to wording/content to fulfill multiple commercial opportunities.

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