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The Creative License of Jonah Lehrer


There’s an old joke about plagiarism that goes something like this: The first time a person uses a quote, he or she will say, “According to sources.” The second time a person uses that quote, he or she will say, “It has been said.” The third time a person uses the quote, he or she will say, “You know, the other day I was thinking…” It usually gets a laugh because the best humor has a prickly element of truth woven within.

When I was in the dissertation phase of my doctoral program I was required to take a course on research protocol. A large portion of it was devoted to the crime of plagiarism. In short, plagiarism is the practice of using copyrighted material as though it was your own. And yes, it is a crime. I have observed that we as a culture have become pretty lax regarding this cardinal rule of respect. I witness it most frequently on Twitter, where people are attributed with quotes who weren’t even alive when the original person said or wrote the statement. It’s sloppy.

On July 13, I posted a review on a book titled Imagine: How Creativity Works by author Jonah Lehrer. Today, one of my readers shared with me that the author had recently come under fire for publishing quotations in the book that he, in short, fabricated. According to an article in the N.Y. Times, Lehrer resigned his position as a staff writer for the New Yorker and his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has offered to refund the price of all print editions that had been published.

I, like many other readers, have been disappointed in this development. It causes me to wonder whether this discredits all of the material within the book. It makes me also think about the grave responsibility we all share in communication. I think there is a basic level of trust that takes place when we read, watch or listen to those who share information. The Bible warns that those who teach, for example, should exercise care because they come under a “stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Those who communicate bear a tremendous burden to be truthful and honest. But those who consume communication also have a responsibility to take care of what they take in. The Bible equally warns that those who listen should test what they hear against God’s broad body of truth. Maybe that’s the lesson to take from this sad development.

Having reviewed and recommended Lehrer’s book, I felt I had a responsibility to share this development. What you do with what he wrote is certainly up to you. Just remember to exercise discernment in what you say, hear, and read. That includes this blog.

Categories : Books

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