by Steve Laube
Recently John Lehrer of “The New Yorker” was discovered to have reused past material for his articles and his bestselling book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Here are links to the articles unveiling the controversy. From Jim Romenesko, Jacob Silverman, and Edward Champion. There has been considerable outrage and a genuine apology from John Lehrer.
This incident begs the question, “Can you plagiarize yourself?”
First you have to define plagiarism. The traditional definition is copying someone else’s words word-for-word without acknowledged of some kind, intentionally or not. In the United States this is actually illegal.
But what if the words are your own?
In magazine writing it is a common practice to sell an article’s “First Rights” to one publication and then sell “Reprint Rights” to other magazines. I jokingly say that you can use the same article multiple times by selling it to the Baptist’s denominational magazine, then the Presbyterians, then the Methodist, and then the Nazarenes…because those groups don’t read each other’s material! I met one man who sold the same article over 100 times over a number of years to over 100 different periodicals. The difference here is that this is not plagiarism because the writer is openly offering “Reprint Rights” and the magazine knows they are buying something that showed up elsewhere.
But can you “repurpose” a blog post or an article and reuse it? This starts to get trickier. John Lehrer of “The New Yorker” did not “repurpose” something, he simply lifted full sections and reused themwithout telling anyone.
If I were to be asked to write three separate articles on the topic “How to Fix a Flat Tire” I would be hard pressed to be completely unique in all three articles. The principles for fixing a tire are the same no matter how you approach the task. But maybe I could find a nuance to make each article unique. And I would have to be careful not to simply lift paragraphs and reuse them unedited. Otherwise I would be plagiarizing…or being sloppy.
In a book contract there is a Warranty clause that reads in part “the Work is original, has not been published before.” And if a chapter had once been an article or a blog post (yes, a blog post is “published in that it is freely available on the Internet) your contract would have to then be adapted to read “Portions of the Work have been previously published in periodicals. The Work, in whole, has not been previously published and is not in the public domain.” This fact is then revealed on the copyright page of the final edition of the book . Many professional columnists do this when converting their work into book form.
In a recent case we had to negotiate with the publisher because much of the material for the book was on the author’s blog. He did not want to have it removed from the Internet, so we negotiated accordingly to make sure the material was different in scope, citation, and expression. Such that it would still “feel” new to a reader who had already read it on the web. The publisher of course was concerned that a reader could get the material for free so what would be the motivation to purchase a copy? Often a publisher will ask the author to remove the disputed article from their blog to avoid any trouble. But this shows the difference from the John Lehrer case. Mr. Lehrer failed to tell his editors that he was copying phrases and content from previous material.
You see the difference? One uses full disclosure and cooperation of the editor and publisher. The other did not.
So what is the bottom line?
The question is “can you plagiarize yourself?” Of course you “can.” A better question would be “Should You Plagiarize Yourself? My answer would be “Not if you can avoid it.” If you are converting a blog, columns, or articles into book form be sure to have an open conversation with your editor, agent, and publisher. If you plan on trying to sneak by with a shortcut…you may suffer the consequences of a ruined reputation and a loss of trust by readers, editors, publishers, and even your agent. Just be careful.
On February 12th, 2013 Jonah Lehrer made an apology as part of his speech at a Knight Foundation Seminar. (link to story here). Two weeks later his publisher pulled another of Mr. Lehrer’s books off the shelves and is offering refunds to anyone who purchased it. According to this linked article from The Daily Beast, “an internal review uncovered significant problems with the book.” The article goes on to show material from the now discontinued book that could possibly have been drawn from Wikipedia.