To do great writing, read great writing. Here’s the great writing I’ve been reading this week:
Is it OK to borrow from your own, previously published writing? If you do, is it plagiarism, copyright infringement or just bad business?
The question of cribbing your work for one publication for an assignment for another has been the talk of the media business this week. The debate arose after it came to light that up-and-coming social science writer Jonah Lehrer — author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, who some had started calling the new Malcolm Gladwell — had lifted the same sentences, paragraphs and anecdotes from his previously published articles for blog posts he’d written for The New Yorker, where he recently became a staff writer.
Articles in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Poynter.org and influential journalism industry blog Romenesko have dissected the situation ad infinitum, so I won’t bother to get into the particulars here. If you want to see more on the subject, I’ve listed a number of relevant articles below. Lehrer has apologized, telling the Times, “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.” New Yorker editor David Remnick came to his defense, telling the Journal‘s media columnist Jon Friedman, “There are all kinds of crimes and misdemeanors in this business, and if he were making things up or appropriating other people’s work that’s one level of crime.”
Why Freelancers Should Care about Jonah Lehrer
Freelancers — which is ultimately what Lehrer is — don’t have to move in the same rarified publishing circles he does to learn from his mistakes. Namely, if you write about a specific topic, it’s possible — preferable, really — that you could write about the same subject more than once. That’s what covering a beat is all about.
But if you do, you need to choose your words, phrases, quotes and paragraphs carefully. A smart freelancer knows it’s a cost effective business practice to re-use research and even pull quotes from the same interview for different stories. I’ve done it. You probably have too. But proceed with caution.
For one, you need to check to see what you’re contractually allowed to do (more on that in a minute). For another, the editor at publication A isn’t going to be happy if she wakes up one morning, scans Twitter and sees a story you’ve written for publication B with the same quotes as a story you did for her, regardless of what it says in your contract.
There are easy workarounds for that. Don’t reuse quotes. If you cover a beat, don’t write for competitors — I’ve gotten around that by covering workplace issues from an employer’s perspective for a trade magazine, and from an employee’s perspective for consumer magazines or websites and taking care not to write about the same exact topic at the same time.
Borrowing from your own published work doesn’t meet the legal definition of plagiarism. But it could run afoul of your contractual obligations. Many publications, especially if they’re online, use contracts that buy all rights to a freelancer’s work, or what’s known as “work made for hire.” If you sign such a document, you’re contractually prohibited from re-using your own work in another article for a different publication — unless you’ve worked out a special arrangement with the publication and put it in writing.
It’s a different story if you’ve signed a contract that specifies that you retain the rights to your work. In that case, a publisher may include an exclusivity clause, giving them exclusive rights to run your work for a specified period of time, whether it’s a day, a week or three months, after which you’re free to resell or re-use it any way you’d like.
The Other Reason the Jonah Lehrer Story Matters
There’s another reason the Jonah Lehrer story matters to writers. It shows the intense level of scrutiny that happens in a social media-driven world. When anyone can do a Google or Bing search on your name and pull up everything you’ve ever written that’s online and put it through TurnItIn or another plagiarism catcher, you can be sure that if you’re involved in some kind of controversy, you’ll be the target du jour. “Today, the Google Game pile-on is standard operating procedure when anyone with a medium-to-high profile is accused of plagiarism, self or otherwise,” writes Craig Silverman in Regret the Error, his Poynter column on media mistakes.
Lehrer could have avoided at least some of his self-inflicted problems by linking back to his original source material, Felix Salmon points out in his Reuters column on the episode. In a hyper-connected world, there’s no excuse for blogging without links, Salmon says. He adds: “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.”
Here are some of the more noteworthy stories on the Lehrer affair:
- Jonah Lehrer’s NewYorker.com ‘Smart People’ post borrows from earlier WSJ piece (Romenesko)
- New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer plagiarizes himself repeatedly (New York Magazine)
- Under the microscope: Lehrer’s work shows bigger problems than self-plagiarism (Poynter.org)
- Lehrer elided quotes in the New Yorker and reused material in NYT Magazine (Poynter.org)
- Questions about Jonah Lehrer’s reporting were raised in 2009 (Romenesko)
- Lehrer apologizes for recycling work, while New Yorker says it won’t happen again (New York Times)
- New Yorker editor: Lehrer won’t be exiled (Wall Street Journal Market Watch)
- Jonah Lehrer is latest target of Google Game, crowdsourced investigation (Poynter.org)
- How Jonah Lehrer should blog (Reuters)