Jonah Lehrer, author of the bestselling book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, was recently exposed as a plagiarist — of himself. Some of the material in his blog on The New Yorker had previously appeared in articles he wrote for the Wall Street Journal. Similarly, sections of Imagine had appeared in Lehrer’s articles and columns. The literati and the blogosphere lashed Lehrer harshly. Lehrer even lashed himself, saying, “It was an incredibly stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.” The editor of The New Yorker‘s web site said simply, “This is wrong. … It’s not going to happen again.”
At virtually the same time, however, The New Yorker published Richard Brody’s review of Woody Allen’s new movie, To Rome With Love, with Penelope Cruz. As Brody notes, the movie includes many “allusions” to Allen’s earlier works, including Scoop, Annie Hall, and Stardust Memories. Brody also notes (approvingly) that To Rome with Love even repeats a joke from Midnight in Paris. Brody doesn’t seem to be at all bothered by these allusions and homages. Other news outlets panned To Rome With Love — the L.A. Times called it “meandering” and Policy Mic called it a “thinly spread mess of clunky story telling”. But Brody calls it one of Allen’s “most coherent and deepest” works to come along in recent years.
So, when does self-homage become self-plagiarism? The New Yorker muddles the point.
Full disclosure – I often make essentially the same point in different media, including this blog, my course lectures, speeches, and seminars. Does that make me a plagiarist?
We all repeat ourselves. If you’re a plagiarist for making the same point in different media, then my Uncle Carroll plagiarized himself constantly for repeating the same stories and jokes over and over.
I honestly don’t have a problem with what Jonah Lehrer did. Teachers, story tellers, and yes, bloggers, repeat themselves often to make a point, or remind people of what they’ve previously learned.