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I is for integrity

August 15, 2012

If Rick Astley and Bill Gates had a kid, he would look exactly like Jonah Lehrer.

In the new world of online publication, where some are prolifically filling the Internet with their words, there’s a potential problem–repetition. In scathing words of criticism aimed at blogger Jonah Lehrer, they’re dubbed self-plagiarism. The term can draw your attention. How can you possibly plagiarize yourself. The words and concepts are yours, and if you publish long enough, you’ll definitely wind up repeating content.

Lehrer is, or was, an up-and-coming name in the genre of explaining complex and ground-breaking scientific concepts in a manner that dunces like you and me can understand and apply them. According to an article in The Daily Beast, he’s been called Malcolm Gladwell 2.0. Or he was, until he was caught recycling almost verbatim three paragraphs from a Wall Street Journal article in a post on New Yorker.com. Although Lehrer wrote both pieces, he passed the work off as original in a new venue. Maybe plagiarism isn’t the best work. Maybe cheating is.

In online work, there’s an integrity factor involved that you don’t see in printed material. It’s a personal, social outreach. When you buy a specific newspaper, you choose all the articles from that one source. When you select something to read on the Internet, you select from an infinite number of sources. You’re spending your time on what a specific person has to say or show. You’ve seen that they bring value and you trust they’ll bring more.

And when they don’t show integrity, either in ethics or in quality, your trust is betrayed. In a world of infinite choices, it’s an easy choice whether to wait for the writer to rebuild the trust or move onto the next choice.  Most people move on to the next choice.

This approach isn’t specific to online content, but it probably changes the way people approach other types of content as well. There’s a highly successful author whose work I’ve enjoyed. Recently, one of her books was so bad–and poorly edited, in my opinion, that when I finished with it, I threw it out and I vowed never to read another book by her again. I felt a violation of trust in the contract where I spend money and she delivers her best work.

Another author, a prolific personal favorite, went through a period in the 90s where the type in his books kept getting bigger and the stories kept getting flimsier. This is a guy whose books I saved up to buy in hardcover for years. I stuck it out, and the quality improved. Today, I might not have been so loyal. There are more choices today, and they’re easier to come by.

The integrity factor for writers is more important now than ever. Once you develop a following, you have to maintain that trust above all other things. You can’t cheat. And you can’t lay an egg.

If content is king, then integrity is the king’s most trusted adviser.

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