Plagiarism and Surviving the Career Death Penalty

Jonah Lehrer Image

What becomes of authors and journalists when they commit plagiarism? The answer isn’t straightforward.

For some, such as Jayson Blair, Jonah Lehrer and (so far) Filip Miucin they never really work in their fields again. Though comebacks may be attempted, they are controversial and quickly rebuffed. Even if they do manage to work again in the field, it’s never at the same level or height.

For others, such as Benny Johnson and Marie-Louise Gumuchian it’s little more than a speedbump. They may be fired or have other punitive action taken, but largely continue their career. Though some, like Gumuchian, learn their lesson and do great work after their scandal, others, like Johnson, never really do.

Still others seem to suffer no real consequences at all. This would include Fareed Zakaria, Margaret Wente and even Jane Goodall. In all of these cases, compelling evidence of plagiarism in their work was found but they were largely allowed to clean up the specific mistakes found and then move on.

Why is it that plagiarism is treated so radically between case to case? Looking through the list above, there is little common thread. The celebrity status of the plagiarist, the severity of the plagiarism itself and when it took place is all over the map.

If plagiarism is meant to be a “capital offense” in journalism and writing, why do so many plagiarists find ways to survive? What will likely happen to you if you’re the subject of a plagiarism scandal of your own? The answer often comes down to simple math.

Surviving a Plagiarism Scandal

Whether you’re an author, journalist or another type of creative, your likely fate after a plagiarism scandal can be neatly summed up with two values:

  1. The Value You Bring to Your Employer/Publisher/Audience: If you are seen as a valuable asset to your employer, they are more likely to maintain your position or to quickly find a new place to land.
  2. The Damage That Having You Does To Them: Hiring or publishing someone that has a reputation for plagiarism or other ethical violations carries a risk. The greater the risk, the more likely that the scandal will be career-ending.

While this may seem like pure logic, it’s important to remember that we are talking about an ethical infraction and one that is seen as serious. In an ideal universe, the perceived value one can bring wouldn’t be a part of the equation as the ethics would be judged on their own.

That, however, clearly is not the case. Some serial plagiarists, like Benny Johnson, get chance after chance while others, like Jonah Lehrer, are forced out of the industry entirely.

The problem is that the two variables have almost nothing to do with the plagiarism itself. Though theoretically, more serious plagiarism should do more harm to a prospective employer, that’s not the case. Filip Miucin plagiarized a single review (that’s been confirmed) and made international news while many news outlets declined to even call Jane Goodall’s copying “plagiarism”.

Instead, the severity of the plagiarism is determined by a variety of factors that have little do with the actual copying. Who was plagiarized from? What type of piece was it? What connection did the audience feel with the author? Did the plagiarism become a major news story?

These are not objective ways of looking at plagiarism but play a very big part in determining how the public feels about a plagiarism and, thus, a plagiarist.

As a result, the chance of any plagiarist surviving a plagiarism scandal likely hinges more on the variables around it than the misdeed itself. While that is grossly unfair to many who find themselves on the outside looking in, it’s also the reality we live in.

Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds

The next obvious question is “When can a former plagiarist come back?” The answer is likely never.

To be clear, time does reduce the harm a plagiarist does to an