When a forgery is uncovered or a plagiarized volume appears or a fake letter is adduced to support a mediocre manuscript, cries are sent forth that there is a need for tighter security by publishers. This is often coupled with a complaint that authors should scrutinize themselves more carefully. The burden of my remarks is quite the reverse: that the review process works surprisingly well and that authors have enough mechanisms of censorship at work to inhibit all but the most brazen few from “crossing the lines” of sound judgment and good taste alike. On rare occasions, serious transgressions may not be captured until after publication, but one of the chief functions of making a work public is exactly to separate sense from nonsense.
Maintaining standards of truth in scholarly communication is an important goal, but it is necessarily a shared obligation. In the main, the amount of intentional deception that goes undiscovered is small. For example, four relatively famous, popular books have received careful scholarly attention: Alex Haley’s Roots, H.R. Haldeman’s The Ends of Power, David Rorvik’s In His Image: The Cloning of a Man, and Timothy J. Cooney’s Telling Right From Wrong. Each has received different sorts of criticism regarding standards of truth. Apart from the introductory essay. Roofs was not billed as nonfiction but as a piece of imaginative reconstruction which provided a collective vision of the slave roots of American blacks. It was criticized as inaccurate by those who took it as a literal tracing of a single family tree, but the transgression was quite properly seen as minor and modest. H.R. Haldeman’s The Ends of Power may be a more revealing statement than many of the fiction and nonfiction potboilers that followed Watergate. In part, the book aroused curiosity since Haldeman, although former President Nixon’s closest aide, had previously refused to “cash in” by discussing Watergate in public. One can accuse Haldeman of a stubborn inability, even now, to grasp the magnitude of the Watergate affair, but not even his most severe critics have labeled him a liar on the presentation of larger issues. Certainly his version is as credible as a host of others which came before and after.
The Rorvik volume is more problematic and more interesting, not so much because the author claimed to have evidence that a man has been cloned, but because the promotional copy asserts that the publisher is an adequate judge of the veracity of these scientific claims. Since Lippineott is a major publisher of medical texts, its trade division is clearly suggesting that they consulted in-house experts on the scholarly side. This may account for the disturbance felt by the scientific community, which was not, apparently, consulted at all. Even the Clifford Irving biography on the late Howard Hughes might have passed muster as imaginative biography—the problem here was fraud in labeling. The author sought a large advance, and the publisher sought big profits by claiming in its advance publicity that the book was autobiographical rather than biographical. But as the Rorvik case indicates, this seems to have been more an example of advertising exaggeration than publisher negligence.
The case of Cooney’s Telling Right From Wrong provides another sort of wrinkle in the truth-telling paradox. The author believed, incorrectly as it turned out, that his book had no chance of being published by a major publisher without a supporting letter from a major academic figure. When the faked letter was discovered, the original publisher declined publication; but another enterprising press picked up the option and, in this case, the plates. Since the quality of the book is not under consideration, but only the authenticity of a supporting document, the issue came down to whether an author-as-faker is any worse than an author-as-murderer. According to Random House, the book would have been materially affected by the author’s prepublication actions. According to the author and his new publisher, Prometheus, the book remained to be judged on its merits or demerits and not on admittedly shaky ethical behavior in search of publication. In this instance, the “truth” of the manuscript was not in question; rather the “morality” of publishing strategies by a young author was central.
In each case, these are books with a “serious” purpose or message, but published as “trade” rather than “scholarly” works. This is in itself an indication that the problem of truth in publishing, with rare exceptions, is most frequently found in big publishing houses that have comprehensive lists. Books published as fiction are prima facie exempt from “truth-telling” (except when such tides get too close to empirical reality), and books published as pure scholarship are subject to a severe or vigorous review process that screens out works of serious deficiency.
Scholarly publishing has traveled a long way from serving as a printer to scholars in Renaissance culture to functioning as gatekeeper of truth in science and humanities. Indeed, at this time, there is scarcely a tenure decision undertaken at a major university that fails to take into account the publishing history of the individual under consideration. In not a few instances, the scholarly press provides the essential bona fides in the form of referee reports that may not determine the truth and falsity of a scholar’s work, but certainly determines whether the scholar shall survive or perish in a given university. Given this considerable shift in obligation from academic department to editorial department, the world of scholarly communication has tended to err on the side of severity and caution.
Linkages between universities and their presses have come full cycle. What started out as university support for scholarly publications has reached a point at which the quality of the university press attachment comes to define the worth of the university as such. Charges of slipshod refereeing, ideological bias, or poor management now reflect on the status of the university as a whole. In such a context, the issue of maintaining standards of truth is akin to beating a straw man to death. These concerns for accuracy are built into the socialization process of scholarly communication. As a result, the real wonder is less the occasional fraudulent work that slips through the net than the rarity of such an event. Controversies concerning authenticity of historical documentation or laboratory experimentation are so rare that they cause newspaper headlines and stirrings among university managements. In such a climate of opinion, the emphasis on an occasional mistaken publishing judgment in releasing an unsound work must be seen as a minor issue in the world of scholarly communication.
Aiming for the goal of truth in what is published is certainly no less compelling in commercial or trade publishing than in scholarly communications. The problem is that possibilities for deceit are simply greater in trade publishing, not so much because of the greed of one kind of publisher and the altruism of the other, or because one employs lower editorial standards and does not have its books professionally reviewed. Scholarly communication is simply different, more intimate, in its nature. Individuals doing research are well-known to each other, publishing parameters are clearly established, and professional constraints or claims are far easier to maintain than is allowed for in trade publishing.
Gatekeeping issues about truth, as opposed to merit, must be tempered by concerns about censorship. In the case of presumably serious works published in a commercial manner, the question of accuracy has often been more problematic, even as it becomes less important. James Watson’s The Double Helix may not be an absolutely accurate description of the priorities in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Immanual Velikovsky’s Worlds of Collision may be nonsense or an apt, albeit speculative, recounting of how our planetary system was formed. Resolving these questions is not the publisher’s responsibility. In the case of the commercial publication of books by individuals whose reputation rests on their scholarly achievements, the concerns and the responsibility still belong primarily to the scientific community. That community has ample access to publishers, commercial and scholarly, to make known its objections after publication. Martin Gardner in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science has made a decent living exposing fraud and chicanery in scientific writing. In the world of politics, where the content of truth is filtered through a series of ideological strainers, it may be dangerous to insist on canons of pure truth. It is both simpler and more efficient that the public is made aware of possible biases and sentiments through the postpublication reviewing process than a denial to channels of communications in the name of truths—often little more than ideological biases or dictatorial wills.
There are a variety of techniques employed by publishers in both trade and scholarly activities to reduce the probability of issuing fraudulent or plagiarized materials. They include a heavy reliance upon established authors, firmly drawn parameters of fields of interest, the much mentioned multiple referee processing of manuscripts, down to more mundane matters of insistence upon a ribbon copy and verifiable author questionnaires. While no one mechanism is foolproof, as a collection of safeguards these work relatively well. The problem is that they may work too well. The tendency of publishers to operate within well-defined limits often leads to an overconservatized view of the marketplace and a corresponding suspicion, if not breakdown, in innovation. Thus, extreme caution may have the effect of drying up the wellsprings of creativity, and moreover rejecting manuscripts that may be useful to publish, albeit risky on the surface.
The present condition of scholarly journal publishing indicates how serious the problem of the overconservative approach to truthmaking can become. In the social sciences, at least, most journals have such finely tuned methodological criteria for publication that the method rather than the findings, or even the theory, become central. The wide gap in style and substance between book and journal publishing in the social sciences is indicative of this gap between information and knowledge. For book publishers to adopt the same standards of rigor is to guarantee an even smaller audience base for their products than currently exists and a choking-off of an area of creative communication currently not available in the journal publications area. Tightening the screws on the truth-error continuum may have the opposite impact of drying up the innovation-convention continuum. In such an environment, to err once in a while in the publication of a manuscript may be far easier than tightening yet further the criteria of publication altogether.
Karl Marx, in an early essay “Remarks on the New Instructions to the Prussian Censors” neatly expresses the rationale behind most publishers’ reluctance to censor: “Are we to understand quite simply that truth is what the government ordains? . . . Freely shall you write, but let every word be a genuflection toward the liberal censor who approves your modest, serious good judgment. Be sure that you do not lose a consciousness of humility.” With these mocking words, Marx made plain that the problem for democratic society is less the occasional charlatan or liar who carries off a literary swindle than the much more frequent demands by the state and, in our age, the State Publishing House, to protect the public by preventing access to controversial materials. The best safeguard against fraud is a free and untrammeled publishing network. Fail-safe systems urged by those who would make the publisher a Guardian of Truth represent a cure far worse than the disease. Truth can be guaranteed when the exclusive publisher is the Government Printing Office. But a democratic culture must be protected from that kind of perfection.
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