Tipster: ‘I didn’t have a fiendish plan to bust Jonah Lehrer’

“Is this plagiarism?” asked the subject line of an email sent to me late Monday afternoon.

My tipster’s message read: “This piece by Jonah Lehrer, the noted science reporter, ran in The New Yorker on 6-12. It’s longer than the excerpt I’ve included, but take note of the top. It’s almost note for note from an earlier column Lehrer wrote in the WSJ.”

Jonah Lehrer

He sent links and excerpts from Lehrer’s New Yorker piece, “Why Smart People Are Stupid,” and his earlier Wall Street Journal essay, “The Science of Irrationality.”

“Quite interesting,” I wrote back. “Do you mind if I give you credit for pointing this out?”

“I’d rather be anonymous,” he said. “A little uneasy about being id’d on this one, frankly.”

I called New Yorker digital editor Nicholas Thompson for comment and then posted this at 9:53 A.M. CT Tuesday: “Jonah Lehrer’s ‘Smart People’ Post Borrows From Earlier WSJ Piece.”

About 90 minutes later — at 11:26 a.m., to be exact — I heard from my tipster. “Wow – looks like that caught fire,” was all his message said.

He was right.

“I’m not interested in being named or defined by this incident,” my tipster told me late Friday. He’s willing to say this much about himself: “I’m a working journalist. I’m on the West Coast. I’ve been in the daily business for 12 years.”

He’s also willing to answer a few questions.

Did you spot the similar Wall Street Journal and New Yorker passages on your own, or were they pointed out to you?

I noticed on my own. It started as casual surfing. I landed at The New Yorker, and saw Lehrer’s blog post (Why smart people are stupid). It was an entertaining read. Once more, I found myself thinking how much I enjoyed Lehrer’s stuff.

The opening section – the bat-and-ball math problem – had the desired effect. I got the answer wrong and spent a few minutes retracing my mental steps. Lehrer’s piece noted that the bat-and-ball question had been devised as a way to test our collective penchant for mental shortcuts.

That made me curious, so I surfed around for the source of the bat-and-ball question. The surprise came in the hits: one of them was the WSJ piece by Lehrer. I read it, along with his refer from Wired, and realized the front of the New Yorker piece was a near word-for-word lift, apart from tiny style edits. That surprised me. I saw nothing in The New Yorker to indicate past use, and I assumed they would be diligent about such things. I also noticed Lehrer had been hired by the NYer only a week earlier.

Did you point this out to others before contacting me?

Yes. I shared it with a few co-workers. We chewed over the plagiarism question. The general thought was that it looked like syndication, which seemed legitimate at first glance. I wasn’t so sure. It seemed fishy to me – the length of time between publication dates felt too long, and his recent hiring fueled my curiosity. Did his new bosses know or care? That was the bottom-line question. Ultimately, I sent the side-by-side examples your way, knowing you had the connections to get a fast answer.

Have you been a longtime Lehrer reader/fan/whatever? Read all of his books, blog posts, articles?

Yes. I haven’t read his books, but I enjoy his work on RadioLab. I enjoy the way he talks about ideas. Never spoken to him, never corresponded with him. I don’t make a point of following each and every thing he writes. He’s more of a stumbled-across read for me: Oh, it’s that guy again. I’ll spot something interesting, realize it’s his work, and remember how much I like him.

What did you think might happen to him when you sent me the tip? Was the fallout after my post what you expected?

Absolutely not. Not remotely close to what I expected. I suppose that’s my naiveté talking. I figured someone would say it was a contractual matter, or that Lehrer brokered some sort of agreement with the NYer for the old material. I assumed the NYer (famous for fact-checking) knew about it. I had looked at one blog post – a single article. I didn’t search further, didn’t seek any other examples that others subsequently found. The volume of recycled material was shocking to me, and somewhat disappointing. When that information surfaced, I found myself wondering whether the NYer even read Lehrer’s clips before the hiring. It’s so easy in the digital age to find this material – look how many people spotted stuff with simple searches. That’s all I did – took about two minutes.

You’re responsible for exposing the misdeeds of a major writer/speaker. Your thoughts about that? Have you told people at home and/or work — “I was the guy who caught him”?

As I said, I didn’t expect the firestorm. I didn’t know about the serial recycling until others spotted it. I expected a minor acknowledgement of an internal agreement related to a single item, or perhaps admission of an oversight and a move-on statement. I assumed (wrongly) that people at the top of our profession would have known what was going on.

I didn’t have a fiendish plan to bust Jonah Lehrer. I like his work, but I think his actions were unethical at best. It’s not about whether self-plagiarism is possible – that’s a definitional side issue. I see free-lancers and other writers talking about the legitimacy of re-purposing material. I get that (I’ve done free-lance work), but it’s not the point. The point is trust, the unspoken agreement between the writer, the bosses and readers. It’s OK to self-refer, but you have to be transparent. At this point, I feel sorry for Lehrer. When the news started hitting, I did tell a few people about it – friends and co-workers. We debated the self-plagiarism question over beers.