Interview with Jonah Lehrer
By Dean Keith Simonton, PhD
By now, probably every media psychologist knows about Jonah Lehrer, the science writer who was obliged to resign from his position at The New Yorker after confessing that his 2012 book Imagine contained some serious fabrications—most notably quotes attributed to Bob Dylan. Furthermore, Lehrer has been accused of both plagiarism (e.g., of Malcolm Gladwell) and self-plagiarism (i.e., expropriating without due attribution previously published material into the same book). I was recently drawn into this affair when Boris Kachka, a writer for New York Magazine, interviewed me about a 2010 article that Lehrer had written for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). In that article my research on the age-productivity relation was extensively discussed with direct quotations. This material on my work had evidently been “fraudulently recycled” in Imagine as well. Curious about the nature of the borrowing, a little googling revealed a website specifically devoted to making comparisons between Lehrer’s earlier and later writings, including a large section identifying the whole paragraphs lifted from the 2010 WSJ article for use in the 2012 book (Champion, 2012). I found the comparisons edifying. To illustrate, let us compare two parallel paragraphs that are reasonably representative of the others.
From WSJ: “Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has spent the last several decades expanding on Mr. Quetelet’s approach, sifting through vast amounts of historical data in search of underlying patterns. For instance, Mr. Simonton has shown that physicists tend to make their first important discovery in their late 20s, which is why it’s a common joke within the field that if a physicist hasn’t done Nobel-worthy work before getting married, then he or she might as well quit. According to Mr. Simonton, the only field that peaks before physics is poetry” (Champion, 2012).
From Imagine: “Dean Simonton, a psychologist at UC Davis, has spent the last several decades expanding on Quetelet’s approach, sifting through vast amounts of historical data in search of the subtle patterns that influence creative production over time. For instance, Simonton has shown that physicists tend to make their most important discoveries early in their careers, typically before the age of thirty. The only field that peaks before physics is poetry” (Champion, 2012).
It should be immediately apparent that the second paragraph is a very close paraphrase of the first. A few words are changed here and there, some added and some subtracted—the latter happening more so because the book’s paragraph is visibly shorter. Significantly, the main reason for increased brevity is the omission of the passage about physicists needing to do their Nobel-quality work before marriage. I am pleased that the author later dropped this statement, because the first paragraph makes it seem that I made it, which is false. I still possess the exchange from the original January 25, 2010, email interview, and it is clear that this cute observation was his addition, an “embellishment” of my more restricted statement. Whether this misleading elaboration exceeded the boundaries of good journalistic practice, I leave to others to decide. It would not be acceptable in a scientific publication.
Even so, I am ambivalent about applying the term “self-plagiarism” to the second paragraph. To be sure, if the latter paragraph were written by a different author—like a student in a term paper—we would definitely feel comfortable with the accusation. Indeed, Lehrer’s self-plagiarism here—the degree of paraphrasing— matches closely the cases of actual plagiarism (Champion, 2012). He seldom stole long passages verbatim. Yet it could be argued that by adding the qualifier “self” we must change the standards. After all, paraphrasing of this nature is commonplace in scientific publications. Scientists who pursue highly productive research programs will often write sections filled with boilerplate concerning the sample participants, the measures, the manipulations, the statistical analyses, and so on. Although a word or number might be altered here or there, and perhaps even the syntax changed from time to time (e.g., passive to active voice), the result remains highly “self-plagiaristic.”
Nor could it be otherwise. The number of synonyms in the English language is finite, and the proportion of those words that are exactly equivalent in meaning is extremely small. Contrary to Microsoft Word’s Thesaurus, arithmetical, numerical, arithmetic, geometric, and algebraic are not synonyms of the term “statistical” as used in most journal articles. Admittedly, the scientist will invariably include a self-plagiarizing-avoiding self-citation that gives credit to the earlier studies in which that method, technique, or analysis was first introduced. That was something that Lehrer failed to do—to cite his earlier pubs and blogs. Yet apart from any copyright issues that only lawyers can decide after scrutinizing signed contracts, I would consider that failure Lehrer’s only genuine infraction.
So far, it seems that I have been rather forgiving. If I were his editor, I might have taken Lehrer aside for a long, closed-door conversation, and perhaps afterwards given him a public wrist slap—such as happened to Fareed Zakaria at CNN, another caught-in-the-cookiejar plagiarist—were it not for an even more problematic infraction. Scientists working with science writers trust that the writing accurately represents the scientific findings. Scrutiny of the two paragraphs reveals a critical exception to this basic tenet: One word is switched to another, a “first” to a “most” that converts a statement from an empirical truth to an absolute falsehood. In particular, the age at which a physicist makes the “first important discovery” is not the same as the age at which he or she makes the “most important discovery.” On the contrary, the two career landmarks differ by about a decade, a difference that Lehrer should have known, because he was sent copies of the original research (see Simonton, 1991, 1997). For a concrete case, Einstein’s general theory of relativity followed about ten years after his special theory of relativity.
Perhaps the switch in adjectives was a measly mistake, a mistake that might be forgiven as being sloppy but not deliberate. Yet maybe this critical change was instead a journalistic embellishment to make the point more dramatic. Should that be the case, then the replacement is far less acceptable. My research that Lehrer cited explicitly showed that physicists produce their best work in their late 30s, about the same age as other eminent creators in the mathematical sciences. That fact may be more boring, but it is also more valid. In either case, I am glad that Imagine has been withdrawn from publication. I do not want to spend the next several years having my research results misrepresented in a best-selling book. More specifically, I hope that physicists do not believe that they are over the hill at 30 years old. They even have my permission to marry whenever they want to!
Champion, E. (2012, June 20). How Jonah Lehrer recycled his own material for Imagine. Accessed August 22, 2012, http://www.edrants.com/how-jonah-lehrerrecycled- his-own-material-for-imagine/
Lehrer, J. (2010, February 19). Fleeting youth, fading creativity. Accessed August 22, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703444804575071 573334216604.html
Lehrer, J. (2012). Imagine: How creativity works. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Simonton, D. K. (1991). Career landmarks in science: Individual differences and interdisciplinary contrasts. Developmental Psychology, 27, 119-130.
Simonton, D. K. (1997). Creative productivity: A predictive and explanatory model of career trajectories and landmarks. Psychological Review, 104, 66-89.