The self-plagiarism scandal

aaroonsorkin.jpg (Aaron Sorkin, West Wing creator and Oscar-winning screenwriter (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

First aired on Day 6 (30/6/12)

Can a writer plagiarize his own work? That's the question raised by Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and bestselling author Jonah Lehrer. It was recently revealed that both writers have recycled their own work: a YouTube video highlighting Sorkin's habit of reusing dialogue (which you can watch below) popped up and Jim Romenesko reported that Lehrer had reused segments of his work in different articles. Is what Lehrer and Sorkin did wrong? How should their fans -- and employers -- react? Day 6 brought together Rachel Giese, senior editor at The Walrus; Ed Champion, managing editor of Reluctant Habits; and Jacob Silverman, who covered the story for The Daily Beast, to answer these questions.


Why would these successful writers reuse their own work in the first place? Giese argues that Lehrer and Sorkin were "victims of their own success, their own productivity and their own hype." They produce a lot of content in a variety of different formats. For example, Jonah Lehrer "writes long form journalism, he writes books, he makes TV appearances, he makes speeches, he tweets, he blogs," she explained to Day 6 host Brent Bambury. Basically, he does everything a writer can do.According to Giese, in order to survive -- and to produce content that stays true to their brands -- the two writers have had to resort to recycling material.

Giese is quick to point out that this does not make what they did okay. Edward Champion agrees, but believes there is one big difference between Lehrer and Sorkin. "One is an artist and one is a journalist," he said. And he believes it's fine for artists to repeat certain ideas in order to get their message across. However, he says the same can't be said for a journalist. Lehrer, who at 30 years old was named a staff writer for The New Yorker only two weeks before this scandal broke, was seen as a bright light for the future of journalism. He was prolific, he was interesting, he was "talented and bright," and could "express complicated information in simple and accessible terms." In Champion's opinion, Lehrer's reuse of his own work indicates that he's not adhering to the highest standards of journalism. He's not looking to grow as a writer.

"When we get into pushing a story forward, it's about picking up a phone or reading a book or opening up your eyes and trying to see if what you are inhabiting has another angle," Champion said. "That's what good journalism does."

Jacob Silverman agrees. "With an artist or a writer, you can just say they are being a little derivative," he said. "It's much more consequential for a journalist when there are certain expectations of truth and originality with readers and with your employer."


Do you agree? Were Sorkin and Lehrer wrong to reuse their own work? And is one's crime worse than the other's?




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