Self-Plagiarism and Self-Pleasure

After the flap over Jonah Lehrer’s humiliation and firing from the New Yorker for making up Bob Dylan quotes and lying about it, I worry that one really foolish idea will take hold and perhaps even give trial lawyers the scent of money.

Since critics started digging into Lehrer’s work after charges of self-plagiarism surfaced, and since he did eventually get dragged down to disgrace, people may assume that there’s merit to the idea of self-plagiarism.

There isn’t. It’s a ridiculously stupid concept whose relationship to logic and grammar makes exactly as much sense as describing marital sex as self-pleasure.

Or, to use a less vulgar metaphor, self-plagiarism is like self-stealing — a logical fallacy. You see, it takes two to plagiarize: one to come up with the words in the first place; the other to steal those words and pass them off, without attribution, as his own.

If you create words in one context and then put them to a different purpose there might, conceivably, be copyright infringement involved. Or the double-dipping might offend an editor and cost you future income.

Yet copyright infringement and double dipping are not plagiarism. Any pretense that they are the same amounts to defining plagiarism down, and you can quote me on that.

  • ike brannon

    Thank you! Dear God, when did we start worrying about this? Wasn’t Kinsley’s publishing edict something like “publish every article 3 different times?”

  • Gradivus

    It’s not copyright infringement either. I’d advise you to pass comments about copyright, trademark, and patent by an intellectual property attorney before you put them in print. And when you use a hitherto unknown term like “self plagiarism” at least provide a brief explanation or a link so people can figure out what the heck you’re talking about.

    • Pettifogger

      I’m no IP lawyer, but it is possible to write something as a work-for-hire so that another owns the copyright. Thus, as Mr. Lott stated, it is conceivable copyright infringement might occur. That’s different from likely.

    • Buzz

      Actually, it can be, depending on the contract you signed (assuming you did, of course). Some publications buy all rights to a work, meaning you no longer own it. To reuse it or resell it to another is, in effect, selling something you don’t own.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “describing marital sex as self-pleasure.”

    You can’t. It is just work. Like taking out the trash or mowing the lawn, you gotta do it once a week, whether you want to or not.

  • Gradivus

    Okay, you drove me to Google before I’ve had my coffee, for which I am quite vexed. Apparently the stupid term “self-plagiarism” is indeed being used to describe falsely attributing quotes one made up oneself. You’re right, it’s definitely not the right term for it. When I was a kid, quote fabrication was called “reverse plagiarism” and was used in essays or term papers (usually by fabricating quotes from some prolific and long-deceased writer like Aristotle or Emerson) to make it look like you’d actually done some research. The theory was your teacher wouldn’t call you on it because if he accused you of making it up and it turned out to be a real quote, it would make him look stupid for not knowing it. This was way before the Internet, of course, so it was much easier to get away with.