It happens outside science too. Aaron Sorkin, no-longer BFF of Jeff Zuckerberg after penning "The Social Network" but still adored by fans for the liberal Fantasy Island called "The West Wing", is apparently so in love with his prose he uses it over and over again to make his characters - young, old, male, female - sound super smart and determined and ethical in exactly the same way, especially when they are talking about how dumb Republicans are. Maybe he thinks everyone in politics (sorry - news media - same thing to him) issues forth lines like "Fire me or shut the hell up!" though "It seems to me that more and more, we've come to expect less and less of each other, and that's got to change" is pretty specific to be in more than one show.
Here's a whole video of well-used Sorkin-isms:
Perhaps that is cool in television. People in corporate media are hiring the guy because he writes what he writes and that's what they want, especially in an election year. Science media is a different animal, though. You have to cite sources.
Jonah Lehrer, best-selling author of "Imagine: How Creativity Works" and recent blogging acquisition of The New Yorker, recently got into hot water for plagiarizing himself. The big problem was that some of his paragraphs in recent New Yorker pieces were lifted in whole form from other copyrighted works he had done for other media groups, like the Wall Street Journal.
Now, stuff happens. The scariest thing to me about writing a book was my memory. Yes, my memory. I remember everything. But memory is tricky business. How do I know if I wrote some exceptionally brilliant line in an article once before here? I may think I have just thought of it or, like Sorkin, I may have said it well once and use it again. Worse, what if I read something 15 years ago and remembered it but don't remember where I first saw it? Luckily I had both a co-author with OCD and an experienced editor so between them, we had so much back and forth about questions, sources, context and positioning that it would be darn hard to have anything slip through uncredited.
However, copying and pasting is a different animal. That's bad. Being inspired by other people and writing an article on what they write? Apparently not a problem. Anecdotes are not data but a few years ago a contributor here came to me with a short list of articles they had written and then a list of Lehrer articles written a short while after that looked very similar - not press release churnalism topics either, that would be understandable. Coincidence? Well, no, I replied, like with comedians, maybe poaching is the highest form of flattery. It happens but never seems to be a scandal.
While writing Science Left Behind, I had a particular factoid that I wanted to use but the paper I got the numbers from was behind a paywall. While we used primary sources as often as possible when we could, we wanted people to be able to read them without lining the pockets of billion dollar science media companies so often if there was a publicly available mainstream media source saying the same thing, we used it. I searched mainstream media for an alternative to my article and found one in a very large media corporation. It used the same number I had derived from the primary source, the same framework, even the same tone as my article, but had no links or sources. I wrote to co-author Alex that the dumbest thing I was having to do, in the interests of source diversity, was to cite someone who seemed to have poached me.
Did I get poached? No clue. Without evidence I can't make the case, that is why I don't link to it.
That confusion may be the problem, writes David Berreby at BigThink.com. After 15 years of blogging and hundreds of millions of blogs, there are still people who claim that "The conventions over blogging are being worked out as we speak." Malcolm Gladwell said that to Joe Coscarelli at New York magazine. See how easy that was? I put a little link to who did the fact finding in one sentence and then a link to where the fact was in another. Who is Malcolm Gladwell? A writer who got poached and has no issue with it, it seems.
What he is not is a credible source for ethics. I mean, these rules are not being worked out. While the courts and AAAS do not recognize blogging with the same legitimacy as they do journalists, the rules for material, whether or published or unpublished, famous or not, have been around for a million years. Or less. I am not sure. I am not a journalist or a paid corporate blogger so I didn't fact check that. Maybe I am lazy.
Jonah Lehrer. He's not Satan, New York literati. Link: Salon.com
Okay, Lehrer was lazy too and he said so. Fair enough. He now knows that when you are a best-selling author with a high-profile blogging gig, you have a big ol' bullseye on your back. You have competitors. And, as we used to say in business, if you want to know the weaknesses of your product, call up a competitor and pretend to be an interested customer and mention your product. Competitors find all the dirt.
Competitors are also all about piling on in ways that suit their agenda too. Michelle Dean at Salon.com insists that Lehrer screwed up because of his gender.