Apocrypha Now?

by Scott McLemee on July 13, 2007

A friend has asked about a story that may be the academic equivalent of an urban legend. I had never heard it. I asked some journalists who cover higher education, and they also say it does not ring a bell. But the thing sounds just plausible enough that it might really have happened. So at my friend’s request, here is a call for leads in case there is anything to it.

I will avoid naming the university in question, leave gender uspecified, and say only that the events in question are supposed to have happened within the past decade. Here is the the gist of it:

A doctoral candidate has finished a dissertation based on the archives of a village in Italy. It has been accepted, the defense has gone well, and all that remains is a little paperwork. A member of the committee (or possibly just someone who knows about the dissertation topic) happens to be on vacation in Italy and decides to visit the village. It’s not clear why—curiosity, time to kill, maybe to explore the archive? In any case, it turns out there is no village.

So there you have it. Does anyone know of a real case like this?

A few years ago, I read around in the literature on “contemporary legend” (the term now preferred by people who study them, rather than “urban legend”). Usually they amount to cautionary tales of some sort, in which some norm or rule is violated and punished. The tale of the faked archive seems to qualify, though I suppose it’s possible that it might be based on something that actually happened.

(crossposted to Cliopatria)

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Maud Newton: Blog
07.19.07 at 1:47 am

{ 64 comments }

1

Kieran Healy 07.13.07 at 2:38 pm

Princeton History department c. 2000, I believe. I was in grad school there at the time (not in History) and I’m pretty sure I remember the talk about it. Of course I may be wrong. I’ll check with a friend who was in the program.

2

Michael Bérubé 07.13.07 at 2:53 pm

In the archives of the University of Tlön there is a most entertaining special issue of a journal — its name escapes me at the moment, but I remember it is Volume XI, Number 1 — in which this story is told in admirable detail. The village of Tlön is worth visiting, as well, if you’re in the area.

3

Kieran Healy 07.13.07 at 2:54 pm

Princetlön University, then.

4

perianwyr 07.13.07 at 3:22 pm

Borges has a habit of writing concepts that stick in your mind like glue. Even a quick little story like that conjures up ghosts that you see everywhere afterward.

5

thag 07.13.07 at 3:29 pm

So they give the kid a phd in something else, right? creative writing? Italian prose comp?

I mean–this is an amazing piece of work/work of art/labor of perversity. Constructing a fictional village complete with archives, written in the proper provincial dialect–that’s not only hard, it takes real genius to do it well. (And the story only works if he did it well, i.e. if it completely fooled the committee back home, and was only rumbled by chance).

I don’t know–I think the kid deserves some props. Probably not a teaching job at an institution of higher education, since there are some issues about honesty and scholarly integrity. But–a publishing contract?

6

Shelby 07.13.07 at 3:44 pm

If this were a winning-the-thread sort of blog, Michael would win it.

7

dave heasman 07.13.07 at 3:50 pm

Small beer in comparison with Enron, Orbis Tertius etc, but Terry Venables once funded a business venture by mortgaging a number of properties he owned including a pub in Cardiff. The Daily Mirror got a local stringer to locate and describe the place, and the stringer got into a lot of trouble when he couldn’t find it. It took a couple of days for the editor to accept that it didn’t exist. Venables not only escaped gaol, he didn’t even get charged with fraudulent misrepresentation.

8

jayann 07.13.07 at 3:55 pm

You forgot Carlos Castenada!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlos_Castaneda

9

Jonquil 07.13.07 at 4:03 pm

This is a major plot point (in slightly different form) in Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night.

10

Njarl 07.13.07 at 4:11 pm

Yes, Princeton History department. As I heard the story, the forgery was discovered by graduate students, not a professor. Apparently, at least one of the thesis readers was a famous academic who had written about forgery, and so the failure to spot the fake was an interesting part of the story. Furthermore, the forger had obtained a tenure-track job when the forgery was discovered.

This is the sort of story Lingua Franca would’ve had a field day with, had they still existed.

11

bryan 07.13.07 at 4:19 pm

“I mean—this is an amazing piece of work/work of art/labor of perversity. Constructing a fictional village complete with archives, written in the proper provincial dialect—that’s not only hard, it takes real genius to do it well. (And the story only works if he did it well, i.e. if it completely fooled the committee back home, and was only rumbled by chance).”

In high school I used to write book reports on fictional books. At the time I was reading a book a day, but unfortunately the questions they wanted answered in these book reports went against my love of literature so I was forced to make up fake books I didn’t care about.

nobody ever caught on though.

12

thag 07.13.07 at 4:29 pm

Well, maybe youza genius, bryan.

But remember that a) it’s harder to do it in convincing 16th century North Parmesan Dialectic (or whatever),and b) specialists in Italian History may or at least should have slightly higher standards for authenticity than high school english teachers.

Or maybe this was a stunt that just any joe could pull off, and I’m silly to be impressed. I’m doubting it, though.

(I did hear, straight from the horse’s mouth, a story from a teacher at Clemson whose student had plagiarized a lengthy research paper. The teacher felt there was something funny about it, and asked the student to come next Monday with all of his research, note cards, previous drafts, etc. The student turned up on Monday with all of this in hand. Alas, the teacher, over the weekend, had used google and found the original. Note cards, drafts, the whole thing, was an elaborate apparatus of deception cooked up over one panicky weekend. But: it wasn’t on the scale of the Italian Job, nor was it in a foreign language.)

13

Rob 07.13.07 at 4:45 pm

Princeton it is indeed.

I was there during the time and I _definitely_ remember talking about this in the D-Bar on many a night. Thing is, I’m not sure it was a dissertation, but rather a Senior Thesis, and I think it was mostly fake bibliography – so, still impressive in its own way, but the legend grows, evidently. I can only imagine the kid walked and is now an analyst with Bear Stearns…

14

tps12 07.13.07 at 4:53 pm

I like the comments from people who are like “oh no, it’s definitely real…I remember talking about it at a bar.” No offense, guys, but the more people who remember hearing about the event despite not being directly involved, the more likely it’s an urban legend.

15

"Q" the Enchanter 07.13.07 at 4:53 pm

Ah, Berube, upward beyond the outstanding you blogged.

16

JP Stormcrow 07.13.07 at 4:54 pm

In any case, it turns out there is no village.

And then the PhD candidate wakes up and discovers that he is in fact standing in front of his committee stark naked.

The fake village story had merely been a bad dream!!

17

Matthew Gordon 07.13.07 at 4:55 pm

Rob, you’re thinking of an entirely different episode, the undergrad who paid $$$ for somebody to write his thesis, and then turned it in, with the receipt still stuck in it. I thought the name of the person associated with this story was “Stan Dubin”, but googling doesn’t find me anything. He was reputed to have gone on to great fame as an I-banker, always cited in financial rags as a “Princeton dropout,” as if this were a badge of honor. I can’t seem to find any references to it though, and my memory of this is hazy. Kieran probably remembers it better than I do. I do recall one history professor who I knew through the Hillel attesting that it was in fact true, though, and I distinctly recall him being the butt of several jokes in campus humor magazines. In fact, that’s why I remember the name “Stan Dubin”, because he was parodied as “Stunned Ubin” in a fictious letter-to-the-editor. But, alas, the interwebs fail me.

18

Scott McLemee 07.13.07 at 5:11 pm

At Cliopatria, Ralph Luker has pointed out a similar enough case: S. Walter Poulshock’s book The Two Parties and the Tariff in the 1880s from 1965.

Best line: “Moreover, not content with merely citing his spurious sources, Poulshock often larded his footnotes with learned suggestions pointing to new avenues for study so as to impress any and all with his unrivaled mastery of the material.”

Unfortunately for Poulshock, someone decided to take him up on it.

19

thag 07.13.07 at 5:25 pm

wait, is that the Person from Poulshock that curtailed Kublai Khan?

20

Kieran Healy 07.13.07 at 5:26 pm

I like the comments from people who are like “oh no, it’s definitely real…I remember talking about it at a bar.” No offense, guys, but the more people who remember hearing about the event despite not being directly involved, the more likely it’s an urban legend.

No, my memory of this is more specific: talking to friends in the History department about the episode, which was happening right then, and caused the person involved to have her PhD revoked. If I remember right, the person involved had already gotten a job when the fraud was discovered or exposed.

The other case mentioned in this thread involves an undergrad paying to have their senior thesis written by someone else. I’ve heard various versions of that story, but don’t have any real information about it.

21

Alan Bostick 07.13.07 at 5:29 pm

I understand that glas flows very slowly over long periods of time, and that this is why very old panes of glass in the windows of old buildings are thicker towards the bottom than the top.

22

John Emerson 07.13.07 at 5:44 pm

In Sinology there are several such stories. “The City of Light” purports to record the travel experiences of a 13th-century Jewish Italian merchant named Jacob d’Ancona. Almost certainly fake.

Gavin Menzies “1421: The Year China Discovered the World” is not a forgery, but I think that a forged map has shown up backing it. (The fake Vinland map showed up bundled in with a genuine manuscript pertaining to the Mongols, “The Tartar Relation”.

Neither of the above was academically legit (though the Vinland map did get serious attention) but Sir Edmund Backhouse, d. 1944, was a recognized authority whose works are now recognized to be almost all fiction (or forgery) by a very talented and learned guy.

23

Kieran Healy 07.13.07 at 5:48 pm

and that this is why very old panes of glass in the windows of old buildings are thicker towards the bottom than the top.

And why the floors of very very old buildings are covered in pools of glass.

24

fardels bear 07.13.07 at 5:49 pm

There was a western historian who constructed an entire fake town called Rock Ridge. He got away with it because the only route was a toll road:

25

ozma 07.13.07 at 6:03 pm

No one commented on the brilliant title of this post!

26

bi 07.13.07 at 6:25 pm

The world needs a computer program which can generate fake historical theses.

27

Delicious Pundit 07.13.07 at 6:31 pm

A friend has asked about a story…

Scott, was that “friend”…you?

28

JakeB 07.13.07 at 6:34 pm

There’s also W.P. Kinsella’s _The Iowa Baseball Confederacy_, in which the narrator attempts to get a Ph.D. in history by doing a dissertation describing the history of the league, but unfortunately noone else has ever heard of it. They encourage him to seek a degree in creative writing, but he’s too certain it existed.

29

JP Stormcrow 07.13.07 at 6:42 pm

The world needs a computer program which can generate fake historical theses.

Why? The various “wingnut welfare” think tanks aren’t generating them fast enough?

30

Scott McLemee 07.13.07 at 6:43 pm

Delicious Pundit: No, I’m not asking for information via an imaginary friend. Appealing as that sounds, in a sit-com sort of way.

31

bi 07.13.07 at 7:09 pm

JP Stormcrow: Two words — Alan Sokal.

32

Brett Bellmore 07.13.07 at 7:14 pm

It’s not a perfect match, but Bellesiles’ fraud certainly is relevant: Won the Bancroft award for a work based at least in part on records long since destroyed. Would have been a better story, though, if he’d gotten the award before he was shown to be a fraud.

33

kenny vloggins 07.13.07 at 7:26 pm

MICHAEL BELLESISLES!!!

34

Ben Alpers 07.13.07 at 7:48 pm

Yes, it’s definitely a Princeton PhD candidate in History, just a little after my time (I got my PhD from that department in 1994). And the story, as told above, is essentially correct.

As for the kid who paid for his senior thesis, also a Princeton History Department story that took place while I was teaching there as a Lecturer in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t my student, FWIW. Rumor (that I can’t 100% confirm; I never actually knew if this detail was correct) was that the receipt indicated that he had paid $25,000 for his senior thesis, which made all of us un-(and under-)employed recent PhDs wonder if we were looking for work in the wrong places ;-).

35

"Q" the Enchanter 07.13.07 at 7:52 pm

“No one commented on the brilliant title of this post!”

Alright, I’ll do it. The title of this post is brilliant.

36

tom s. 07.13.07 at 8:16 pm

“The world needs a computer program which can generate fake historical theses”

There is one already. Some guy in a bar the other night told me all about it. Can’t quite remember the name of it though…

37

Nick 07.13.07 at 8:16 pm

If the story is real, it seems odd that no commenters have given us a link. When I was a grad student, the story of a faked dissertation by a Ph.D. candidate in my department made it into national newspapers and science journals. Perhaps fraud in the humanities isn’t national news, but surely so bizarre a story would have made it into local papers with online archives.

38

Scott McLemee 07.13.07 at 8:19 pm

I am going to thank you both, Ozma and Q, and hope that this is not the “irony” I keep hearing so much about.

39

Paul 07.13.07 at 8:22 pm

Nick, do you have a link to–or perhaps more particulars about–the story of your colleague’s faked dissertation?

40

Henry 07.13.07 at 8:37 pm

41

Nick 07.13.07 at 8:48 pm

Paul,

Here’s one from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

http://chronicle.com/che-data/articles.dir/art-43.dir/issue-48.dir/48a03006.htm

42

Nick 07.13.07 at 8:50 pm

followup to myself;

Granted, not every case of student fraud involves such a well-known advisor, but the story that Scott summarized is so tasty that I’d be really surprised if it wasn’t reported somewhere.

43

jackd 07.13.07 at 9:09 pm

A friend of mine and his co-conspirator once drafted the charter and sundry other details for the medieval Italian town of Carrega, although I believe its fictional status was acceptable for the (academic?) purpose.

And on the subject of interesting theses – another friend’s classmate wrote her Art History thesis on a previously unstudied Renaissance painting. Quite the coup, of course, but the reason it had been unstudied was that it resided in the classmate’s ancestral manse and had never been exhibited in public. I believe there was a family agreement that it would be loaned to a museum once the thesis was approved and the daughter graduated.

Ben Alpers’ assertion aside, I find it difficult to believe that a candidate could generate sufficient detail and plausible falsehoods (about why key confirming evidence was missing, e.g. a map) to fool the PhD committee. Surely by the mid-1990’s there would have been the expectation that the candidate would have provided photographs or photocopies of the original materials.

44

Njarl 07.13.07 at 9:11 pm

“If the story is real, it seems odd that no commenters have given us a link.”

One reason this story is interesting is precisely because Princeton (as well as the unhappy department that hired the forger) managed to cover it up. Even in our media-is-everywhere culture, a few scandals are actually contained.

Let’s try to remember that the story is embarrassing to almost everyone involved — and particularly to the adviser who didn’t detect the forgery. This gives the grad students who uncovered the forgery an incentive to keep quiet. Who wants to embarrass a senior professor in their own department?

It’s also possible that some commentators on the thread could provide more details, and even names, but have chosen not to do so.

45

jacob 07.13.07 at 9:20 pm

Surely by the mid-1990’s there would have been the expectation that the candidate would have provided photographs or photocopies of the original materials.

No one has ever challenged the authenticity or truth of my work, but I certainly have never been asked to provide photographs or photocopies of any original materials. Remember that historians go off for months, sometimes years, at a time, look at thousands of pages of documents, and take notes, usually in pencil. No one in their right minds would expect copies of documents. Hell, the archives I’m working in now as a rule forbids digital cameras and charges 50 cents a page for copying. If my grad program expects visual evidence, they’ll have to cough up a much larger research grant.

Am I wasting my time to mention that Michael Bellesisles is entirely irrelevant to this discussion–that fabricating some (by no means all) of his evidence is hardly the same thing as making up a fictional town?

46

abb1 07.13.07 at 9:24 pm

Russian crackpot-historian Anatoly Fomenko says everything is a hoax. Jerusalem, Rome and Constantinople are the same place, Jesus was born in the 12th century, the christian bible is older than the old testament.

47

Dan Simon 07.13.07 at 9:53 pm

Surely by the mid-1990’s there would have been the expectation that the candidate would have provided photographs or photocopies of the original materials.

Perhaps the candidate explained that the originals had since sunken into the ground, inside a library whose architects had failed to take into account the weight of its books?

48

joeo 07.13.07 at 10:38 pm

$40 will get you a sad copy of the book in mentioned in comment 18:

49

joeo 07.13.07 at 10:41 pm

second attempt on the link:

TWO PARTIES AND THE TARIFF IN THE 1880’S
POULSHOCK, S. WALTER
INSCRIBED ”TO MOTHER WITH LOVE, WALT”

50

eb 07.14.07 at 12:03 am

Possibly more surprising than the lack of names or links on this thread is that there doesn’t seem to be any discussion of this story anywhere else on the web.

Also: This case involves documents/citations requested and not found, among other things.

51

Syl 07.14.07 at 12:48 am

The story is definitely correct and took place at Princeton, although I never heard the part about actually making up an entire village (just the archival material). As I remember it, there was another juicy aspect to this. The person who uncovered the fraudulent dissertation was himself uncovered to be a fraud who had faked letters of recommendation to get into Princeton in the first place. This was a case of one cheater recognizing another.

52

Kieran Healy 07.14.07 at 2:24 am

I checked with a friend of mine who was in the program around that time, and they confirmed the story as true — that the archive was a fabrication , etc.

53

albert 07.14.07 at 5:42 am

OT question for Brett or others about Bellesiles. If he got his award in (April) 2001, what was known about his misconduct before that date?

54

thuringwethil 07.14.07 at 7:40 am

“The world needs a computer program which can generate fake historical theses”

Well there is one that will generate fake Computer Science papers. It can be found here.

55

Jon H 07.14.07 at 7:45 am

” specialists in Italian History may or at least should have slightly higher standards for authenticity than high school english teachers.”

Maybe it’s a risk factor of excessive specialization.

“I’m afraid I didn’t catch the fraud – my work is on the next valley over”.

56

John Emerson 07.14.07 at 9:51 am

If someone emails me the names involved, I’ll post them here while preserving the anonymity of my source. Who was the adviser? Who was the fraud? Who was the other fraud who discovered the original fraud?

People like that make the Mafia look bad, and the Mafia shouldn’t protect them.

57

Nabakov 07.14.07 at 5:58 pm

Wait til y’all discover this post and the consequent thread comments were all just fictional too.

58

anonymous 07.14.07 at 6:06 pm

The Mafia will speak for ourselves…

59

eb 07.14.07 at 9:43 pm

Or maybe full details will come out years from now in a post entitled: “Apocrypha Now Redux.”

60

Dan Simon 07.15.07 at 2:19 pm

Come to think of it, I seem to recall reading somewhere about a math PhD. candidate whose defense of his thesis, in which he proved various properties of some highly obscure class of mathematical object, was going swimmingly until one of the committee members asked whether the class could be shown to be non-empty…

Anyone hear this one? Is it apocryphal? How does it compare with Scott’s/Kieran’s example?

61

Jonathan Goldberg 07.15.07 at 6:47 pm

Like others, I would like actual names and other verifiable details before taking this as known to be true. I don’t see any obligation on anyone’s part to keep it secret.

I saw a related, although much less juicy, case back in the 1970s. It involved a graduate student named William Spear in the now-defunct Sociology Departement at Washington University in St. Louis. He finished his dissertation, was awarded his PhD, and obtained a teaching post at St. Louis University. However, along the way he cleared up an incomplete in a history seminar taught by a visiting professor named John Brewer (in answer to your question, yes) by forging Brewer’s name on a change of grade form.

He was caught because he boasted about his feat to some of his students at SLU. One of them took him seriously enough to check. His degree was revoked and he was fired.

62

Chris 07.16.07 at 3:50 am

In Australia,in the nineties, an Indian researcher at the Mental Health Research Institute came up with a very impressive article on seasonality in schizophrenia, showing that people born in winter were at considerably higher risk. His employers – the Institute’s Board of Management – did, however, have two questions:

1) How did you get 2,785 research subjects (all figures approximate recreations) when the MHRI files only include 578?
2) On closer examination, the otherwise unrecorded Swiss university you say you got your degree from appears to be housed on a vacant lot; is there anything here we should know about?

He moved on. Which was, however, only the start of the story. When last heard of he was occupying a similarly senior position at an American research institution, from whence he kept a close track of the conferences and seminars given by every academic on the Board that sacked him, and from whence he would send anonymous alerts to the drug squads of the country where the conference or seminar was to be held, alerting them that a known drug kingpin would be traveling there under a false passport in the name of Professor Q.

There’s a lesson in that, I’m sure.

63

John Emerson 07.16.07 at 4:27 am

Chris: name?

64

LarryC 07.18.07 at 9:03 am

This Princeton story fairly reeks of an urban legend.

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