The fall from grace of one of America's hot young writing talents provides an opportunity to discuss ethics in publishing with our students.
Jonah Lehrer's not my kind of writer - he falls into the "pop psychology" camp, but with an undergraduate degree in neuroSCIENCE and a short stint in Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel's lab, his credentials helped him gain fame and wealth as a contributing writer and editor for several newspapers and popular magazines. He also wrote three popular books, including "Proust was a Neuroscientist". (More on his early career here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonah_Lehrer).
The teachable moment comes from the fact that he was recently found to have committed two serious ethical breaches, self-plagiarism and fraud, which resulted in him losing his positions and having his latest book pulled from the shelves.
The issue of self-plagiarism was raised first, about a month ago, and although it tarnished his reputation, he was in no risk of losing his positions over it (http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/06/jonah-lehrer-new-yorker-writer-plagiarizes-himself.html). This shows that self-plagiarism is not always treated as a serious offence (perhaps there's a feeling that everybody does it sometimes, and it's not like you're using somebody else’s work.....). However, in academic publishing, self-plagiarism is an ethical violation, and is as illegitimate as other forms of plagiarism. You can learn more at the American Society of Plant Biologists' statement on ethics in publishing (http://www.aspb.org/publications/authorethics.cfm), in which self-plagiarism is prominently listed as a form of misconduct.
Lehrer's fraud was exposed last week, and was the ultimate cause of his downfall. The full details are found here (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/107779/jonah-lehrers-deceptions), in an article for Tablet by Michael Moynihan. Moynihan is an expert on Bob Dylan, and was interested in a quote he'd never seen in Lehrer's book. He requested the source of the Dylan quote from Lehrer, who finally admitted he'd made it up.
Making up data to fit the hypothesis is the most serious ethical breech. If science has a dogma, it is that facts are sacrosanct. We collectively establish a body of irrefutable facts, and we argue about how to interpret them; altering data for personal gain violates this foundation. When this sort of fraud occurs, the damage to the scientist's career is usually complete. Sadly, the pressure to publish is intense, and data falsification happens more often than we realize (here's an interesting analysis of why this happens http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/doing-good-science/2012/07/31/how-we-decide-to-falsify/). The retraction watch blog (http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/) brings these cases to light, and also contributes to a culture in which cheating is likely to be detected.
Most of our students won't write best-selling books, but are instead motivated by a desire to enjoy a satisfying career and do good science. It's imperative that we provide them with a strong education about professional ethics, to help them to resist the temptation to cheat, even just a little bit.