The internet has been ablaze with tales of dishonest writers who are paying for fake reviews, authoring reviews of their own work, or writing negative reviews of competitors’ books. Should we be surprised? I think we’ve all come across a book for which there are incongruous five or one star reviews, usually by a reviewer who has never rated any other book or only rates books by a single author. The extent to which these fake reviews stem from authors should not be a surprise either, at least not according to research on the connection between creativity and dishonesty.
In a study published earlier this year, researchers from Harvard and Duke explored the “dark side of creativity,” finding that “a creative personality and an activated creative mindset promote individuals’ ability to justify their unethical actions. In turn, this increased ability to justify potential unethical actions promotes dishonesty.” While this study did not focus on authors, there is no doubt that writers tend to be a creative bunch and those trying to make a living off of their writing have a major incentive to lie, cheat, and steal. The publishing world is highly competitive, and the more positive reviews a book receives, the more likely it is to sell. Thus, to some authors, the costs of dishonesty seem remote (“who’s going to find out?”) and easily justified (“everybody’s doing it!”), while the benefits appear weighty (“I need to make a living!”).
This selfishness ultimately cheats consumers and may harm the publishing industry, especially when authors resort to bashing their competitors’ work, as British author R.J. Ellory has admitted doing.
To deter authors from using their creativity to cheat, Amazon, publishing houses, and the public must change the cost-benefit analysis. Amazon should better police its reviews, possibly by only counting verified purchase reviews in determining the average rating and whether or not its algorithms recommend a book, and the public should not let authors who cheat off the hook so easily. Dishonest behavior should reflect negatively on an author’s reputation: publishing houses should not reward such behavior with contracts and the public should not buy that author’s books.
Anecdotal evidence suggests authors shooed out of publishing as a result of ethical scandals are drawn to the legal profession. Remember Stephen Glass, the journalist at the New Republic who was found to have fabricated facts? Well, he received his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center and is currently awaiting admission to the California bar, which (understandably) has given him a hard time on the “character and fitness” criteria for admission. Then there’s Kaavya Viswanathan, who was an undergraduate at Harvard when I was at the law school there. She’s the one who received a sizeable book deal as a teenager, perhaps when she did not have the requisite maturity to understand the seriousness of plagiarism, and was caught having copied passages from other books (she claimed it was unintentional). She also went on to attend Georgetown’s law school, and at one point had a summer internship at one of the more prominent law firms in DC.
I believe that it is entirely possible for fabricators and plagiarists to reform themselves. At some point, everyone deserves a second chance. Nevertheless, I don’t think the addition of people with such a history to the bar does much to improve the public perception of lawyers. A Gallup poll revealed that only 19% of respondents rated the honesty of lawyers highly or very highly, below even bankers, the people responsible for the Wall Street collapse. Maybe the public is right; maybe fabricators and plagiarists fit right in.