Friday, April 26, 2013

Round-up of academic frauds

The NYT Mag is on a roll with academic fraud coverage, first the UNC physics prof who is the self-proclaimed 1% of everything - brains, beauty, marital material, and now, cocaine smugglers who are actually innocent. This was written with a degree of irony and panache rarely found in the maudlin pages of NYT Mag. Now there is the Dutch psychology prof who made up all his studies but now is vewwy, vewwy sorry for it. Look at that remorseful puppy face!
“I have fallen from my throne — I am on the floor,” he said, waving at the ground. “I am in therapy every week. I hate myself.”
Emoticon worthy. The rest is the kind of self-congratulation disguised as self-indictment that resembles the job candidate who says in an interview that his greatest failing is that he's too much of a perfectionist - I loved beauty too much! Data no beautiful unless I invent it!

This coverage is great at two levels - it forces the NYT to publish one fewer tale per week of tragic and mysterious (usually child) disease that you and your children will probably never get but will now spend inordinate time worrying about contracting. And, of course, academic fraud is practically my favorite subject ever, after the actual (non-fraudulent) academic subjects themselves. (Well, let's be real, in some cases, it's more interesting than the academic subjects.)

Reading these kinds of things while writing a dissertation is especially heartening because, more than any other academic thing I've written - and I have never been able to write even a college term paper quickly - the dissertation is slow going. Getting it right - or trying to - means spending months on one chapter, writing up an account of Hobbes's paternal power, reconsidering the argument, reading someone else's understanding of it, going back and re-writing to account for that, going back again when a different thought occurs to me in connection with another part of Hobbes, then going back again when I thought I was done with Hobbes but a problem in Filmer arises that requires re-reconsideration of the Hobbes argument. The professional advice about this situation is to "just get it done," and I understand the practical impetus behind this suggestion, which is usually given in light of the consideration that one has a life to live that should not be indefinitely held up by a mere bureaucratic requirement like a doctoral dissertation, which will probably be accepted no matter how bad it is. But I don't exactly mind the slowness of the process or the apparent abstruseness of it, if only the Just-Get-It-Doners would pipe down. Hobbes is difficult for a reason. The Just-Get-It-Doners, however, are vindicated by people like Stapel - the super-producers who write and publish with approximately the regularity and speed at which I drink coffee. And there really are superstar non-frauds like that in every discipline, but for the sake of a discipline's integrity (and for the schadenfreude of us snails), it is good to regularly see the perils of academic aspirations to celebrity.

However, my personal preference in the realm of frauds is for impostors over plagiarists and data-fabricators, so I found the labyrinthine tale of A.D. Harvey more excellent than both these hyper-successful NYT egomaniacs. A.D. Harvey is interesting because he was so unloved that he had no perch to fall from by the author's discovery of his numerous identities. He was probably correct to believe this damning article would actually raise his stock quite a bit, as it would constitute precisely the kind of probing examination of his work that he'd longed for and frustratingly never received (except by versions of himself, of course). This is the perfect reply to the accusations against him: "I look forward to learning about significant overlap in your article. I hope you mentioned all eight of my academic monographs and my contributions to journals published in the US." And true fact - I read some of his articles after reading this one (spoiler: they are pretty much all about sex). Depending on whether he believed his college porn novel was truly great (hard to say from this piece, but I'm skeptical given his education), A.D. Harvey may be the only one of these egomaniacs to actually understand himself (quite a feat given the multiplicity that his self encompasses) and his colleagues. He saw that in a world of peer review, where your own talents may fall short, the unjustified esteem of others can compensate. Maybe your work will eventually be judged by History to be worthless, but the disparity between the judgments handed down in the court of History and those of peer reviewers might be vast. Plagiarists and data-fabricators teach us that ambitious people take shortcuts, but maybe impostors are more than simply ambitious people who can't properly channel their desire for success and esteem. For one thing, they are willing to forego esteem for themselves, since they are usually posing as someone else. Impostors point us to more interesting problems with identity and what is annoyingly called "the social fabric." And impostors do funnier things, like muse prolifically on the nature of the female nipple.


Anthea said...

I read that article in the NYT about Diederik Stapel and I kept on asking myself did he really think that he'd get away with what he was doing and was he totally unaware that he was committing fraud? In fact the article made me wonder just how academic fraud exists to be honest.

Miss Self-Important said...

He sounded pretty aware that what he was doing was fraud, and he probably did think he'd get away with it. But I don't understand your question about how academic fraud exists. Why wouldn't it exist? The fact that most people will never bother to verify your data is one loophole, but there are many others. I'm impressed that much more academic fraud doesn't exist - why people follow rules and norms when they don't have to is at least as interesting as why they don't.