The Value of the Publication

In 1928, Horatio Alger: A Biography Without a Hero by Herbert R. Mayes appeared. For over 40 years, it was the “go to” source for information about the iconic boys’ writer. Mayes parlayed the success of his book into an editing career crowned, in the sixties, with a term as president of McCall Corporation, publisher of McCall’s and Good Housekeeping.

When the fact that Mayes’ book was complete fiction was uncovered in the 1970s, the retired editor and publisher could shrug it off:

“It was supposed to be a serious book,” said Mayes, now 73 and living in London.

“But I was young and I found out pretty soon it would take a lot of work and from what I had read of Alger, he seemed like a damn dull idiot.”

Mayes is not the only one who has parlayed lies into a substantial career. The “dish” biographer C. David Heymann, even back when he wrote about poets (his first book, which was once to have been his doctoral dissertation, was on Ezra Pound) rather than players, was known for playing fast and loose with the truth. Pulitzer Prize winner David Cay Johnston wrote about him last year for Newsweek:

For 30 years, I watched with astonishment and then bemusement as major publishers gave Heymann big advances, and respected media outlets—The New Yorker, The New York Times, People, Vanity Fair, USA Today and NPR—praised and promoted his books. I had exposed his first celebrity bio as a fraud on the front page of the Los Angeles Times back in 1983, and I knew his methods hadn’t changed over the years.

These aren’t the only two writers or scholars who have gotten away with lies, parlaying them into successful careers–and they aren’t even the only ones who have been called out for it. Gerd Heidemann’s fake Hitler’s Diaries, for example, even led to his going to jail for his crime. If anything, affairs of this nature seem to be more popular today (or, at least, are more vulnerable to exposure, thanks to digital tools) than ever before.

What made me think of this today was an article by Noam Scheiber in The New York Times called “Beyond Publish or Perish, Academic Papers Look to Make a Splash.” It, in turn, was sparked by the now-infamous (and retracted) Michael LaCour article for Science on the possibility (and ease) of changing one’s mind on gay marriage. Like Heymann often did, LaCour claimed to have data to back up what he wrote but, when pressed, is unable to produce it–again, just like Heymann. LaCour, at least in part through the weight of that publication, had been headed toward an Assistant Professorship at Princeton (and may still be), his career “made”:

Dr. Ferric Fang, a medical researcher at the University of Washington who has documented rising instances of fraud in scientific papers, said the searches his department conducts for assistant professors typically attract more than 100 applicants. Though many of the applicants for the last half-dozen of those positions have numerous papers in rigorously vetted but less-well-known outlets like the Journal of Bacteriology, nearly all of the finalists have been the lead author of a paper in one of the prominent journals. “You try to battle against it, look at the work itself,” Dr. Fang said. “But the luster of that publication is so strong.”

One of the most popular ways of combating the fascination with high-profile (and profitable) publishing has been to rely instead on the number of citations in other reputable journals that an article generates, its individual impact factor (something also used to evaluate journals as a whole). The problem with this, of course, is the old John Collins Bossidy situation where “the Lowells talk only to Cabots,/And the Cabots talk only to God.” Still, it does rely on an “aftermarket” review that, though it may take decades (as in the Mayes case), often does expose the weakness of any particular work of scholarship.

The problem is that, by that late point, an entire career or, indeed, fortune (as in Heymann’s case) may have been constructed out of the lies. If LaCour can ride this out and hold onto his Princeton appointment, whatever it is he did or didn’t do in relation to the Science article will have proven worth the risk.

As long as fabrication remains a viable career-building tool, ‘faking it’ as a career move is going to continue.

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