This hoax a dud cheque

One of the inevitable consequences of the placement of a bogus article in the January-February edition of Quadrant by a team associated with the online publication Crikey and its writer Margaret Simons is that, in future, we will scrutinise more closely the personal credentials of authors who submit freelance contributions to the journal. Indeed, as the journalism educator Kayt Davies pointed out yesterday, we will not be alone. “This hoax is bad news for all magazine freelances,” Davies wrote, “because it will make all editors more suspicious of new writers.”

However, this will not affect Quadrant’s willingness to accept work from new authors, whose work will still be judged entirely on merit. Nor will we raise the bar of acceptability for other outside contributors. To do otherwise would be to give a real victory to those who have resorted to this unethical practice.

Any publication that accepts freelance contributions is vulnerable to such tactics. All publications have an obligation to their readers to do a basic job of fact-checking, which Quadrant did in this case. The incidents, authors, publications and institutions in the article in question all checked out accurately. However, there is a point beyond which such sub-editing practices cannot go, especially when dealing with an author’s discussion of the detailed content of several books and their footnotes. There comes a point at which all publishers have to take their authors on trust. We will continue with our basic presumption that anyone who submits work to us for publication is trustworthy, unless there are grounds for thinking otherwise.

Although we are embarrassed at having been taken in by the perpetrators of this exercise, it has become an increasingly easy thing to do. Almost all media today are escalating their volume of audience-generated content. Commercial radio and online media could hardly survive without it. Several media analysts predict that within a generation the majority of all media content will be audience-generated. Those who exploit this in order to perpetrate political stunts like the one revealed in Crikey yesterday betray the trust required by such an environment As Simon Caterson wrote on literary hoaxes in our July-August 2008 edition:

Culture, like the wider society it seeks to approximate, requires self regulation to a very large extent, and transgressors who cause damage to the fabric of trust and responsibility should expect to pay a price for doing so.

One of the contributors to the online debate that emerged yesterday has suggested I should not try to defend being taken in by ‘Gould’ but should simply acknowledge the lapse, apologise to readers and say I will be more careful in future. I am quite willing to do all that, even though public apologies these days are largely worthless gestures, having degenerated into a form of political spin. Yet I still insist that this was not a genuine hoax.

A real hoax, like that of Alan Sokal and Ern Malley, is designed to expose editors who are pretentious, ignorant or at least over-enthusiastic about certain subjects. The technique is to submit obvious nonsense for publication in order to expose the editor’s ignorance of the topic. A real hoax defeats its purpose if it largely relies upon real issues, real people and real publications for its content. All of the latter is true of what ‘Sharon Gould’ wrote. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of the content of her article is both factually true and well-based on the sources she cites.

In the ‘Gould’ article, all the principal subjects, personnel and publications actually exist. The biotechnology controversies she discusses genuinely occurred. The authors she quotes do hold the positions she says and they did write the works she cites. The institutions she says were involved in the biotechnology products she discusses are real institutions and are well known for funding projects of this kind. In particular:

  • There was an MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine scare in Britain.
  • Ben Goldacre is the author of Bad Science.
  • Andrew Wakefield did publish a paper about the MMR scare.
  • Richard Hindmarsh did write a book called Edging Towards BioUtopia.
  • The chief plant scientist of the CSIRO until 2003 was Jim Peacock.
  • The July 2003 edition of Plant Biotechnology Journal and the study cited there are authentic. Only the footnote is an invention.
  • There is a genetically-modified product called Golden Rice.
  • The following institutions she cites are all real: the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the European Community Biotech Program and the Swiss Federal Office for Education and Science.

Moreover, Margaret Simons confirmed to me yesterday that only one of the 18 footnotes in the article was completely bogus and in another six cases the articles, books and footnotes cited all exist but do not contain some or all of the information ‘Gould’ claims. Eleven of the footnotes are genuine.

In The Australian (January 7) reporters Justine Ferrari and Samantha Maiden allege the ‘Gould’ article contained ‘scientific nonsense’ and ‘pseudoscience’. This is untrue. The critical issue on which I was allegedly hoaxed, the claims about inserting human genes into animal stock and crops to give immunity to human consumers of those products, is anything but nonsense. As Kelly Burke and Julie Robotham reported in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (January 7):

… the projects cited by ‘Gould’ as having been dumped by the organisation [CSIRO] are not in themselves implausible, and similar technologies are in active development. Human vaccines against diseases including hepatitis B, respiratory syncytial virus and Norwalk virus have been genetically engineered into crops as diverse as lettuce, potato and corn, and shown to provoke an immune response in humans.

Gould also suggests the CSIRO abandoned research into the creation of dairy cattle capable of producing non-allergenic milk for lactose-intolerant infants and a genetically engineered mosquito that could stimulate antibodies against malaria in humans who were bitten, mitigating against the spread of the disease. Both ideas are under serious scientific study by research groups around the world.

At most, all that ‘Gould’ has done is misrepresent her own identity and the direct involvement of the CSIRO in some of the research projects she cites. She has done no more than demonstrate that, through the subterfuge of a bogus email address, an invented identity and CV, plus a series of deceitful email conversations with an editor, a writer can get an article published that contains a small amount of information that was not true, but which is otherwise entirely plausible. Rather than a hoax, her article is simply a piece of fraudulent journalism submitted to Quadrant under false pretences. It is no more a hoax than a dud cheque.

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