Writer Jonah Lehrer has admitted to fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in his book “Imagine.”
It’s been a bad month for Jonah Lehrer.
Not only is his book Imagine, a pop-psychology analysis of human creativity, being pulled from shelves for containing fabricated and out-of-context Bob Dylan quotes, but now the rest of his work is also under review for similarly misleading and blatantly made-up material.
Lehrer’s embarrassing quote fabrication debacle adds a touch of irony to some of Imagine’s broad proclamations on the creative process. One of the book’s most thought-provoking arguments, for example, is that creativity can’t happen without a block, and that innovation comes from “getting past the impasse.”
That idea is novel and tidy, sure. But looking back, it seems that when Lehrer reached a roadblock of his own with his book — as an author of non-fiction, he didn’t have enough real Dylan quotes or hard evidence to back up his hypothesis — he got too creative. He just invented some suitable material, and ended up undermining his own integrity and duping his readers.
There isn’t a college student alive who can’t tell you something about creative impasses, inspiration deficits and writer’s block when it comes to academic work. And students often deal with those moments of frustration in irrational ways not so different from Lehrer’s own costly mistake. It’s not news to anyone that college students cut corners all the time in their work, from copying and pasting paragraphs from Web pages into essays and referencing obscure books for information learned on Wikipedia, to turning in term papers written partially or entirely by somebody else.
In fact, somewhere between 33-66% of college students admit to having plagiarized at least once in their academic careers, with some variation by survey and differing definitions of plagiarism.
In other words, the sorts of obstacles and creative impasses that Lehrer addresses in Imagine don’t only lead to outpourings of creative genius. They can also drive writers of all levels to give up and do whatever it takes to get the damn paper or manuscript finished — even if that means plagiarizing, citing a non-existent source or fabricating content.
Susan D. Blum, author of My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture and anthropology professor at University of Notre Dame, said that pressure to excel at highly competitive schools can often drive students to cheat and plagiarize. Students who cheat on academic work generally do so in part to meet the very high expectations set for them.
“It’s the pressure to have the outcome without having to go through the process,” Blum said. “They want the high grades, but they don’t really care about what they’re supposed to be learning.”
Likewise, Lehrer was under stress of his own to deliver high-quality, original material. He already had two successful books published before Imagine was released and was working a lucrative lecture circuit.
“He was, like a lot of high-achieving students, under a lot of pressure to be excellent,” Blum said. “Some of the research on cheating and plagiarism suggest that it’s the best students who do it.”
Perhaps it was that pressure to perform that led Lehrer to crank out a pithy and revelatory conclusion about creativity before he necessarily had anything to conclude. He came up with a thesis that was palatable to a mass audience and passable as science journalism, then shoehorned figures, anecdotes and quotes (both invented and out-of-context) into it.
But there’s an important difference between Lehrer and, say, the average student who cheats on an essay: Lehrer got caught.
Unfortunately, so many plagiarized (or semi-plagiarized) paragraphs and shoddy bibliographies are handed in that pinning down every instance of cheating would be an insurmountable task for college professors.
Blum said she has experienced this frustration in her own classroom.
“We’re pulled. We’re supposed to make sure that we have a very high standard of academic integrity, and at the same time … tracking down a third of the students who fabricate or plagiarize on an assignment would be impossible,” she said.
Hopefully, though, some students will take Lehrer’s faux pas as a cautionary tale. Watching a young, successful writer’s career tank for making up material might help reinforce the idea that deliberately lying in written work at any level is a serious transgression — and encourage students not to make similar mistakes.
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