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How to Punish a Plagiarist

June 13, 2013
Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer, swearing to the audience and media that he isn’t the NSA leaker . (Photo credit: Knight Foundation)

Before Jonah Lehrer signed a new book deal with Simon & Schuster, I had nothing against him.  I didn’t care that he had to resign from The New Yorker for allegedly recycling stuff in his articles.  I didn’t care that two of his books (Imagine and How We Decide) were pulled from circulation because of plagiarism.  I didn’t read his books, I wasn’t interested in his books, and I didn’t give him a second thought (except maybe “That’s what you get”) when he was punished for his literary transgressions. 

But it’s been less than a year and he’s already gotten a book deal, and that ticks me off.  It probably shouldn’t.  If Simon & Schuster wants to take a financial risk on a plagiarist, that’s their gamble.  I’m not going to buy the book, but Jonah Lehrer isn’t buying my books either, so I guess that evens out. 

Part of Lehrer’s new book (titled The Book of Love) is about Jonah’s emotions as he got caught plagiarizing.  According to a short excerpt, he threw up a little.  That doesn’t seem too dramatic, and it’s a little gross.  Maybe if he streaked a baseball game out of guilt, I’d read about that.  But I’m not really interested in the thought processes of a plagiarist, especially if it leads to throwing up.  If I want to read about someone’s guilt, I’ll read “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  It’s short, and the guilty guy didn’t get a book deal afterward. 

I don’t care if a plagiarist gets more books published after he (or she) gets caught plagiarizing, but a year seems too short to be a good punishment.  I’m a fan of punishment.  Rehabilitation is okay, but sometimes rehabilitation is tough to measure because you can’t always tell what’s in a person’s heart.  But a punishment is concrete.  It can be measured.  After a punishment, you know that even if an apology is insincere, the offender has still served his time.  A punishment can be proven.  I’m a concrete kind of guy.  That’s why I like punishments (as long as I’m not on the receiving end of one). 

There’s only one way to punish an author, and that’s to not let him/her publish.  If all the publishers agreed not to publish a plagiarist’s book for ten years, that would be worse than a ten-year prison sentence (maybe not, but it would still be pretty bad).  Ten years where nobody would read any of the plagiarist’s words.  Ten year’s where the plagiarist would have to self-publish his own books and write his own 5-star reviews (like the rest of us). 

I’m not an unforgiving guy.  If I see Jonah Lehrer on the street, I’m not going to scream “PLAGIARIST!!” and chase him down with a mob carrying stones and pitchforks.  If Jonah Lehrer does a book signing, I’m not going to picket the bookstore.  I’m just not going to read a Jonah Lehrer book for at least ten years. 


How can plagiarized books get published with today’s technology?  My kids in public school write essays that are run through a website that checks for signs of plagiarism.  In reality, nobody really cares if my daughter copied her essay about One Direction from a 1D website, but her paper still got checked.  I thought at first from her spelling and sentence structure that she wrote her own paper, and then I read the fansite and I wasn’t so sure.  Fan websites have lots of spelling and sentence structure errors.  All this shows is that my daughter’s public school checks for plagiarism more closely than some publishing companies do. 

I’ll be honest, though.  If my kids ever get caught plagiarizing, I’ll probably still read their books, even before their ten years of punishment are up.

  1. People would be interested to read about him, I guess that’s why he got the book deal! Negative press sells too!

    • Well, he made the news (or at least got a few press releases out of this), but maybe… just maybe… people won’t buy the book. I don’t know if plagiarism is a notorious enough behavior to intrigue book buyers.

      • I don’t think so, but getting the book deal in the first place shows the level some publishers has sunken to. It’s a horrible thing to do…

  2. I was under the impression that plagiarism in that form was illegal. Did he not get some kind of legal sentence?

    • As I understand it, unless you violate specific copyright laws that will get the FBI after you, generally you are only open to being sued.

    • Yeah, the government probably wouldn’t go after him (from what I understand), but somebody (who is NOT Jonah Lehrer) might have quietly received a settlement over this.

  3. Three years ago one of my students got her poem published after I encouraged her to enter it for a poetry competition. When the anthology arrived she came to proudly show me her poem in print. Paging through the book I found a poem entered by another learner from a different school. Not only was the poem one of the prescribed poems for the senior year, it was the title poem of the prescribed anthology I used for teaching poetry. I wrote to the competition organisers and pointed this out to them. I received no reply and we never again received an invitation to take part in the competition.

    I guess as long as it’s not their rights being infringed upon, publishers don’t really care.

    • This also shows that even in poetry, it’s the whistleblower that gets punished. I wonder if these poetry contest publications will start running their poetry entries through the anti-plagiarism websites. That could solve the problem… if they care.

      • That’s the thing. Why should they care? Taking the plagiarist to court will cost more than it’s worth, and in some places, like the US, you can’t even sue if you haven’t registered copyright.

        A writing ban for plagiarists (which even bans them from self-publishing) and an embargo on publishers who allow it will certainly make them care.

  4. I’m with you. Even if I was interested, I wouldn’t read any of his books. How are you supposed to trust an author after plagiarizing? This reminds me a little bit the book called, “If I Did It” a book supposedly written by OJ Simpson about the murders he “didn’t” commit, and how he “thought” they played out. I couldn’t believe the poor taste shown by the publisher for actually putting such a book out. I think she was blackballed from publishing. I guess we pick and choose how to punish people arbitrarily.

    • I forgot about that! If I remember correctly, the editor(?) who was involved with that book had been very successful before that OJ book (which was probably why that project was okayed in the first place). I might have to look that one up (but I usually don’t like research).

      • Teey published the book, but it was pulled the day it debuted. I don’t think that editor is working in publishing any more. What greed will get people to do.

  5. I just find it all too depressing, DL … why the heck do people cheat? Doesn’t their inner voice every tell them it is self-defeating?

    Anything won by cheating, even money and fame, is never worth having in my book and smacks of desperation. Even if no-one ever realises you yourself will always know and only very strange minds can live with that.

    • I think people cheat because they think they can get away with it (and they think it’s worth the risk). There was a saying a couple decades ago, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” I have a lot of my own character flaws, but I haven’t plagiarized (as far as I know).

  6. Pardon my french but Lehrer is a douche! And Simon and Schuster has committed more of douchy-ness by publishing him AGAIN even when they know he’s a liar and a cheat! I stole someone elses work…so now I get to sell a book about how I felt when I got CAUGHT? I don’t think so.

    My first published work was with Touchstone, an inprint of S&S. They purposely stopped making it available so that we could never reach the threshold for royalties and the final payment I was due. A common practice, I’m told, by the big publishing houses that only hurts those of us who slog through writing our OWN WORDS and not stealing from others. I hope they do the same thing to Lehrer but I doubt it.

    • Maybe somebody can steal from one of Jonah Lehrer’s books and see if the publisher notices it. I mean… I wouldn’t do it. But it would be great publicity, to plagiarize the plagiarist and then get a book deal to describe the thought processes behind plagiarizing.

  7. Unfortunately the ethical issues take a backseat to the financial issues. While you’d think they’d be at least a little related, apparently they think he can still make them money (if only because a book about being caught plagiarizing probably is his own work).
    Incidentally, maybe the world would be more just (and funnier) if we did chase plagiarists around with pitchforks.

    • It might be tempting to chase plagiarists around with pitchforks, but there are still people who think violence is worse than plagiarizing. Until we change their hearts and minds, we’ll have to restrain ourselves. And I’m one of those people whose hearts and minds we’d have to change, so that would be an awkward conversation with myself.

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