Self-Plagiarism and Other Ethical Grey Areas

I know a very young and successful business book author named Jonah Lehrer.  Lehrer has written two bestselling books and is frequently in the news, but last month it was not for a positive reason.

Slate – among other outlets – recently reported that Lehrer had been caught stealing…from himself.

“Media watcher Jim Romenesko claimed that Jonah, a newly minted New Yorker staff writer, copied his blog post “Why Smart People Are Stupid” from a 2011 Wall Street Journal story “The Science of Irrationality.” A few hours later, New York’s Joe Coscarelli and writer Jacob Silverman discovered a bunch more instances in which Lehrer reheated his leftovers.”

Is There a Problem Here?

Self-plagiarism, as Slate notes, is clearly not the same as outright plagiarism.  But is it a crime at all?  Many writers have come to Jonah’s defense, saying that writers recycle their own work all the time.  Most who write prolifically in the business space have but a few central ideas that they package in a variety of different ways.  Nevertheless, Romenesko, Coscarelli, and Silverman’s amateur detective work resulted in one heck of an unpleasant scandal for Lehrer.

My point is that whether Jonah Lehrer did anything wrong is up for debate.  And based on personal experience, I am willing to bet that the New Yorker did not provide him with precise editorial guidelines detailing how he could and could not use previous work in his blog.  The online world is this century’s Wild West.  The ethical grey areas are too numerous to count, and the “rules” are changing all the time.  Even if you have an objectively good moral compass, it’s easy to get burned.

Understand Available Guidelines

No matter what kind of field you work in (but especially if it’s online), it’s in your best interest to ask your human resources department for the organization’s Code of Conduct and/or employee manual.  You should become intimately familiar with this document, as the many policies and procedures spelled out there should provide good direction.

If an incident comes up that you feel funny about, please ask a trusted colleague or senior leader for their opinion.  Insights from someone who has been around the block a few times and has a keen sense of what’s acceptable in your particular organization are invaluable.  The old adage “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission” does not apply when it comes to ethical slip-ups.

Finally, I like to recommend this useful primer from the Josephson Institute.  The booklet offers specific examples and guidance for making choices in everyday business life that withstand ethical scrutiny.

Alexandra Levit

Alexandra Levit’s goal is to help people find meaningful jobs - quickly and simply - and to succeed beyond measure once they get there. Follow her @alevit.

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