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Academic fraud or just the usual simulation?

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Some of you might be surprised by the story below of how a social pyschologist "faked dozens of studies and managed not to get caught for years despite his outrageous fabrications."

The Fraud Who Fooled (Almost) Everyone

I have to thank Nic Groombridge for tweeting this story @criminology4u yesterday from the Chronicle of Higher Education in the US. The comments from readers in the CHE are predictable, along the lines of 'this is untypical', 'academics are committed to truth', and 'we must be careful not to generalize from this'. I say to those readers: nonsense, such fraud is merely an extension of what academics do normally today. I speak after 33 years employed in a variety of academic institutions in a variety of countries.

As an aside, I myself once did the sleuthing at one grand old university that put one 'student' inside for 3 years - for faking a professional identity to gain entry to a postgrad course and for burglary of the premises. You might say that was an odd one, but there are many examples of impostors - because very often universities have few decent checking systems or safeguards. More common still, at the other end of the scale of seriousness, is 'salami-slicing' where research is divvied up into a number of thin slices to maximize the publication rate, a practice which by its very nature reduces the depth and quality of the content in each publication.

In between these examples, we have the middle-range offence, such as the quick and shallow perpetration of poorly delivered drivel, intentionally or, more likely, otherwise. There is actually very little in the system today to stop a fool with few social skills or commonsense but a lot of aggression and a manipulative brain becoming a professor. In fact, the more establishment and the more aggressive the personality, the cleverer s/he sounds. Gender is no obstacle; nor are age, race and class. This is not fraud but simulation - like a 'dive' in football - where the academic makes a gain by going through the motions but without much genuine content. It could also be described as the ability to 'state the bleedin' obvious', as Alf Garnett once put in that very popular tv series Till Death us do Part, but at great length and in a manner which suggests there might be a kernel of truth there somewhere.

Are we talking about middle-class bullshit 'knowledge'? Well, the last Labour government's fuss about class bias in university admissions was such a joke when the whole university system, from tip to toe, in the UK is profoundly middle class, and if staff from working-class backgrounds find it very difficult to survive in these universities,as I did, why would students do well in them and why should they even go to them? The whole system skims a huge tuition fee from them and gives them an education in middle-class ideology with poor job prospects in return - that in itself is reprehensible even if legal. The trick is to get students to volunteer for these institutions, and they do.....

Being in the politically correct category of persons does conceal a lot of academic simulation [how diplomatic], because people dare not criticize that work, and the politically approved academic often alleges terrible offences against others, likely with the confidence to declare anything s/he does not like as a failure or a fake, or poor or inappropriate. If you are in the politically unfashionable category, you are more likely to be seen as mad, 'ideological', wrong, inappropriate, lecherous, or even worse 'political', before you even open your mouth. If seen as guilty, a career can end suddenly for those who are unfashionable, different, or maverick. And there is a book to be written on what academics loosely consider to be 'proof', and the dubious 'procedures' and 'evidence' they deploy to establish it, when it comes to official censure and discipline, as employment lawyers know. Have a good look at the blog Bullying of Academics in Higher Education....

As one guy put it on that blog: "Sadly, just as the principle of free higher education is under assault as never before, so too is the idea of the academic as a free-thinking intellectual, particularly in the UK." He went on to say:

"Moreover, with sails trimmed tight, increasingly academics are forced to cut corners if they are to meet the next publishing deadline, particularly newly qualified academics who are expected to combine research with heavy teaching loads and endless administrative duties (a problem whose sheer scale and mind-numbingly tedious and pointless nature appears to be exclusively British). ‘What ever you do, don’t over-prepare’: ‘You only need to be one step ahead’: ‘Just cover the basics, ignore the rest’. These are just some of the suggested coping strategies one encounters when starting a new lecturing post. So much for the idea that the university is a place where teaching is carried out in an atmosphere of research, and vice versa. And this says nothing of the way in which the instrumentalisation of research has undermined collegiality by atomising any sense of a collective academic community... It is no wonder that many junior academics, though grateful to finally have got their feet under the desk, find the early years of their careers strangely alienating and dispiriting, not quite knowing where to begin, what to prioritise or who to turn to..."

One person's incomprehensible drivel is another's masterpiece, especially in any social science that involves politics and ideology. From what I can see, however, it is not as different in the natural sciences as is commonly thought. Disputations between physicists, computer scientists, heatlth studies bods and environmental studies people inevitably turn on interpretation, charm, power and available information rather than logic and facts. Climate change, the search for the Higgs bosun, high-tech vs. appropriate technology, the masculinity of medicine, the likelihood of flooding, Kings and Queen's history, the effects of the media....the list of battlegrounds is long.

The academic world has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 40 years. So much of what is produced in the social sciences now, in this age of commercialism, privatization, continuous government interference, obsessive auditing and vocationalism is 'thin', 'dumbed down', reiterative or unoriginal, mere commentary or simply selective. Very rarely is there any attempt to be comprehensive; so often the work referenced is only arbitrarily related and key writings and research are ignored.

Budget cuts and bias against critical thought have meant that there is simply much less social science available and that which exists struggles to be free of the shackles of commercial pressure on the university and the publishing house. Fields are full of textbooks redolent with dated platitudes from an age gone by and crying out for fresh, critical, thinking that relates to the real world. In fact, things are so bad that students can learn more from the broadsheets and quality journalism than their university. Indeed, it is one reason why I launched CrimeTalk. But the present academic malaise is not considered fraudulent, just a close resemblance to the real deal or mere simulation.

This issue of academic fraud deserves a book in itself, because the fact is that, in the real world, academics do not agree on what is rubbish and what is not, and even what is genuine and what is not. Critics of one's work slip all too readily from disagreement, in a very competitive industry, to supposing that you set out to irritate them by being deliberately stupid or incomprehensible, and from there it is a short step to supposing that your intentions were dishonourable. This is especially true when your work is better than theirs or better received.

The individualization of this issue is bizarre when you think about how collective a production any academic publication is. My first book was once slammed by a competitive colleague in the field. That book emerged from an intense doctorate carved out over 4 years of toil, whilst lecturing full-time, supervised by a leading scholar and influenced by several others. It was examined by a star in that field of enquiry. The text was then picked up by another leading light, the editor of the book series that took the book. Once published, it was well and widely reviewed. For years afterwards, I was surprised by how many people came up to me to tell me how good it was and how much it meant to them. I was also surprised at the ferocity, incomprehension and bitchiness of the one dismissive review - by a woman who had just published a book in the same area. For 15 minutes, I was 'the man', the one with the fame and the best-seller - yet simultaneously, for a few, the target for abuse, the one who should be ashamed, the 'failure'. Yet so obviously, albeit complexly, did the work reflect the thinking of a group, a slice of society and the mood of the time.

Deliberate fraud does exist, but the line between it and normal academic bitching and backstabbing is very, very, thin. Besides, how would you tell the difference? I wouldn't trust a panel of academics to define it, that is for sure. Not after running a Law School for 4 years and re-discovering that even some lawyers, a clan who you might suppose were also searching for truth, laughed at the very idea of any usable, worthwhile, truth. They saw their task as teaching students how to tell a story and make an argument. To them, social scientific methodology belonged in another department. Winning the case is all that mattered, legally and politically, to those lawyers; the immorality or amorality of the means to victory were irrelevant. Of course, other lawyers do see the relevance of truths, admissible evidence and correct procedure.

One final note: academia now is so competitive, so run as a capitalistic-type business, and so concerned with quantity rather than quality, that we cannot be shocked about the cheat in the CHE story. If you have not worked as an academic, you perhaps do not realize [a] how much pressure there is at the top to produce superficial, fence-sitting, non-statements in a situation that cannot adequately distinguish drivel from a masterpiece but punishes the unwelcome brutally and [b] how little research you need to produce or even read in the UK's post-1992 universities to teach our young people and to become the judge of what is and what is not fake. Indeed, you really ought to question what is the difference between an academic, a scholar and a public intellectual, because academic fraud may be a commonplace but I would not be so cynical to suppose fraud was common amongst scholars or public intellectuals - however my impression is that today's universities are rapidly replacing scholars and public intellectuals with academics.

The student mentioned at the start of this brief essay who was imprisoned for his offences did actually pass his first postgraduate examination in criminology at that old university, after a huge row between the examiners and despite actually having written a load of drivel and having no educational qualifications [although, true, he did have much experience of committing crimes]. As the sociology examiner, I was implacable, declaring that the script was so confused and indecipherable it was like a schizophrenic 'word salad'. I received support from a distinguished old professor who, like me, has a traditional view of scholarship that supposes certain 'bottom line' requirements, such as the text must be readable, must make grammatical sense, must contain some content and must address the questions. However a very distinguished psychologist, concerned at failure rates as I remember it, argued strongly that we should pass the script in order to allow the student to improve as time went on as he recovered from an alleged divorce. We had a system of continual assessment, with the then usual vast examiners' discretion to make any decision we wanted, more or less, and could permit such generosity. The chair of this exam board sat on the fence, if I remember rightly, but allowed the mark to be ratcheted up to the bare pass level of 40 and so the student was permitted to proceed. But, you could say, he failed a rather more demanding burglary test a month or two later......More universities really should set these practical exams in criminology......

In sum, my point is the sad one that academic fraud is not only more frequent these days in all aspects of HE it is increasingly difficult to distinguish it from what has become normal academic practice. The line between the deviant and the normal is often unclear; in today's academic practice it is 'waffer thin' [to quote Monty Python from The Meaning of Life [1983 Dir. Terry Jones] and certainly warrants a good vomit. Some academics do very well out of summarizing other people's stuff and adding a line or two of bland comment: how is this so different from the fraud discussed in the article above?

However I will give the final word to our friend Pierre Joseph Proudhon from the Bullying of Academics in HE blog because he sums up the current situation quite well:

"....as market-driven research and corporate partnerships are accorded even more importance in higher education due to ever decreasing amounts of public funding, it is ..... all the more reason for academics to adopt the position of truth-teller and to question anything and everything that facilitates the growing marketisation of higher education or undermines academic freedom. However, defending the university requires much more than academics representing truth through democratic criticism and moral indignation. Also needed is a much broader social movement comprising all UK university workers, students, other public sector employees and the trade unions. Only then might politicians start to rethink their present assault on higher education, indeed, on the welfare state at large.

In the meantime, it would seem that the onerous responsibility of speaking truth to power has fallen on the student movement. It is they who have taken the upper hand and who are asking difficult questions. And, who knows, if student occupations spread up and down the country, perhaps we will see the uncovering.... of yet more evidence of ethical wrongdoing. If such a situation were to occur, however, universities will of course accuse students of irresponsible behaviour and do everything in their power to bring them to heel. In fact, there are already disturbing signs that the state itself may yet ‘police’ matters (in and through its many ideological apparatuses) should student dissent intensify...... And all because they have the conviction to defend the idea of the university as a vital social and public institution. One only hopes that academics will express equal commitment and courage, not just in their writings, but in their actions too."

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