Self-plagiarism: mortal sin, venial sin, or huh?–who cares?

Jonah Lehrer of the New Yorker has been caught recycling old material for his new blog Frontal Cortex. The New Yorker has had to add editor’s notes to all the blog entries in which they “regret the duplication of material.”

I haven’t read Lehrer’s books, but his blog shows him to be a fine writer working the Malcolm Gladwell vein — giving an entertaining layman’s spin on findings from social psychology, neuroscience, and the like.  Good stuff!

The Slate writer seems to have put his finger on at least part of Lehrer’s problem: it’s just to hard to keep coming up with new material.

Given that continuous cycle of creation and reuse, blogging seems to have been a bad idea for Jonah Lehrer. A blog is merciless, requiring constant bursts of insight. In populating his New Yorker blog with large swaths of his old work, Lehrer didn’t just break a rule of journalism. By repurposing an old post on why we don’t believe in science, he also unscrewed the cap on his brain, revealing that it’s currently running on the fumes emitted by back issues of Wired. For Lehrer and The New Yorker, the best prescription is to shut down Frontal Cortex and give him some time to come up with some fresh ideas. The man’s brain clearly needs a break.

That sounds about right.  Between June 5 (when the blog apparently started) and June 13, Lehrer put up five blog posts — each of which was the equivalent of a nicely crafted magazine-quality column.  It’s not surprising that he cut some corners.

Part of the problem has to be that Lehrer is trying to make a living from his blog (among other things).  Blogs have no deadlines (unless the New Yorker imposes them), but there are expectations associated with them.  There are plenty of blogs that I don’t frequent any more because the author updates them too infrequently.  If you want traffic, you need content.  Lehrer was trying to feed the beast and decided he needed to use leftovers.

And what kind of sin has Lehrer committed?  Mostly a sin of stupidity, I’d say.  You can’t expect to get away with self-plagiarism on the Internet, and you can’t expect some people not to gloat at a misstep from a young hotshot.  A little note at the end of each post saying what the editor’s note now says at the top of the post would have sufficed, I think.

But wait!  This blog is about me, not Jonah Lehrer!  Please note that today is my six-month blogging anniversary, and I haven’t been caught self-plagiarizing once! (I’ve quoted extensively from my novels, but I believe blogging etiquette allows this.)  I’ve tried to follow my own writerly advice and make blogging a habit, so I’ve averaged about a post a day — although, granted, some of them consisted mainly of YouTube videos.  I guess I cut corners, too.

Anyway, advice about how to improve the blog would be gratefully received.