Friday, September 07, 2012

Bad writing and writing badly

Siris writes about Jonah Lehrer and the scandal of his recycled, misquoted, and plagiarized writing for the New Yorker and Wired. Most of the work that has been called into question appeared as blog posts or in books.

A news (NYT) article is here, and a more extensive analysis of what he did wrong and why it was wrong is on Slate here.

Siris makes an excellent point about the differences between journalistic writing and academic writing and that though they are similar in that authors in each area strive to say something distinctive or in a distinctive way, the ways in which they build their reputations are different.

That line becomes blurred, though, when academic writing becomes judged as a matter of quantity without concern for the content of what is said (e.g. in merit evaluations that simply quantify number of articles published) or the process of vetting (selectivity of journals, % of their articles that are submitted rather than invited, forms of peer review). I remember reading about this problem and an effort to combat it a while back, but I haven't heard much in the meantime about its effects.

Charles Seife, the author of the Slate article makes a subtle move, highlighting his own control over his writing and the way that a point can be made available to certain readers without making an unfair or explicit accusation. Seife shows text that Lehrer wrote next to previously published but very similar text by other authors. The explicit message is that Lehrer plagiarized others' work. What is not said but can't be missed is that in every case the original passage conveys more detail in fewer words using more interesting sentence structure. A secondary question follows the ethical issue of plagiarism--how does a writer rise to stardom when his material is not (all) original and his writing is not in the best style?

And now a serious question. I've assigned Lehrer's "The Truth Wears Off," an article in the New Yorker, in my philosophy of science class later this term. The New Yorker has posted notes on Lehrer's blog posts identifying the recycled material but has not made a note about this article. On the other hand, the Wired piece makes it seem as though everything Lehrer has written should be called into question, not just for having been recycled (which doesn't bother me in this particular context) and not just because of plagiarism, but also because of factual inaccuracies and unsupported claims. The New Yorker's fact-checking department has a sound reputation, so should I keep the article on the syllabus?


Brandon said...

That's a tough question. If it were just a matter of recylcing his own material, I'd say it's just a problem between him and The New Yorker; but since there are other issues, it's definitely trickier. I imagine the article would be safer than blog posts, for the reason you note, but it does keep the question raised.

Depending on how exactly you use it, perhaps you could go instead with David Freedman's article in The Atlantic on Ionannidis's research, or depending on how much of a slog your students can take, perhaps some of the back-and-forth on Ioannidis's research in PLoS Medicine since his famous article in August 2005 (all of which is online, although none of it is extremely easy)? That might be a safer way. I don't think it would necessarily be wrong to keep it, but speaking just for myself I would probably try to replace it if I could, to reduce the danger of distraction from any legitimate arguments there might be.

Matthew Slater said...

I'm struggling with this very same questions, so I'm eager to see what others have to say here. The strategy I was leaning towards was to assign Lehrer's NYer piece but spend about 10 minutes on the dual teachable moments of (1) The temptations to, variety of, and ethical wrong of plagiarism; and (2) the need to exercise some healthy critical skepticism even of things we believe to have gone through some level of review.