Jonah Lehrer and the cult of rewriting

One of the key things to understand in the debate over the future of journalism is that people who paid to write will tend to favor systems that continue to pay a lot of people to write. And that may or may not be best for the public.

This was front and center in my mind the past couple weeks since the Jonah Lehrer non-scandal over his supposed “self-plagiarism”, a term that’s been appropriately panned. If you haven’t followed the story, here’s one link. Basically, he used stuff from his books and from other articles for new articles. Like this passage:

Here’s a simple arithmetic question: “A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs 10 cents. This answer is both incredibly obvious and utterly wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and $1.05 for the bat.) What’s most impressive is that education doesn’t really help; more than 50% of students at Harvard, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology routinely give the incorrect answer.

That’s from – gasp – both his New Yorker blog and a WSJ column. Now, I get why the publications are upset and I’m not saying he did nothing wrong. If you agree to certain terms of employment – to produce original content – then you have to deliver on those terms. To the extent that he violated them, it’s appropriate for an employer to be upset. Fine.

But those are really stupid terms of employment. Put another way, why is it a good use of someone’s time? Particularly someone as talented as Jonah Lehrer, one of the best in the world at taking scientific topics and making them simple and fun enough for popular consumption. It’s not. If he thinks he got it right the first time, it’s a waste to rewrite it.

So how to get around this from a business perspective? Well, the WSJ doesn’t own the idea, nor does it own Lehrer’s familiarity with that idea. It only owns the particular expression of the idea in words. The simplest way to get around this would be for Lehrer to reappropriate his writing minimally – block quote-style – from the WSJ under fair use and for The New Yorker to get off its high horse and be ok with this. Another would be to move toward some sort of licensing model in which Lehrer licenses his writing to any publication that wants to publish it.

Whatever the ultimate fix is, you’re likely to hear writers wail against it. That’s because writers prefer there to be a lot of writing jobs available. They might not like rewriting press releases, but they don’t want you to just read the press releases because that means fewer paid jobs for writers. But what’s good for writers isn’t always good for journalism.

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