Qualification fraud is rampant. People falsely claim to hold degrees and certifications, even to have published content, just to be considered for competitive opportunities. Why people do this isn’t in question; what fascinates Business Reporter’s resident American ‘blogger is why these people believe they’ll never be found out.
I adore the Internet. Among its many, many faults, our global network of social nonsense and cynically-stoked outrage allows me to observe cultures and organisations that I’d otherwise never have known existed, let alone get to study. My latest glimpse into someone else’s realm involved a kerfuffle within the Romance Writers of America. In particular, a mystery surrounding a missing book with an awful title. Grab some snacks from the break room because this story is amazing.
For background, let me summarize Madison Malone Kircher’s explanation from Vulture: last summer, a writer named Courtney Milan objected to some perceived racist writing in another writer’s published work. In December, industry trade association RWA announced that they were disciplining Ms. Milan for violating their member code of ethics for … reasons. Curiously, Milan was serving as the Chair of the RWA’s Ethics Committee at the time. Ms. Milan stepped down from that position. The RWA held an investigation, then an apparently formed a ‘secret committee’ to perform another investigation, then another committee, then … honestly it all gets confusing. Read Ms. Kircher’s article thoroughly – as if you were studying for a university exam – if you want to get all the details straight.
I want to zero in on one sliver of the drama and I’ll defer entirely to Ms. Kircher’s description of it: ‘On December 26, The Hollywood Reporter obtained a letter signed by 28 RWA members specifically chapter leaders) calling for [RWA president Damon] Suede to step down. Eight members of the board have since resigned, the Times reports, including a former president of the RWA. “After this private information was made public on December 23, it led to an intense backlash online – including the spreading of false information, threats, and personal information. The Board then held an emergency executive session, rescinding the remaining sanctions,” the RWA said in a statement on December 30 following the fallout.’ Wow.
RWA members starting calling for Mr. Suede’s resignation. Then things got even weirder. No, really. As all this was unfolding, author Elizabeth May  was tracking the story in real time. She also started pulling at loose threads in the plot. Somehow, she discovered that Mr. Suede may have falsified an entire book to qualify for his position as the RWA’s president. Not just any book, mind you; a romance novel titled ‘Stud Planet.’
This is the tweet that compelled me to dive all the way down this particular rabbit hole.
This revelation left me fascinated. To be clear, I have no dog in this fight. I’m not a member of the RWA (or any other writers’ organisation). Heck, I don’t have a fiction title to my name at all, let alone a romance. The RWA’s internecine struggle doesn’t affect my life at all. Still – as a leader – I’m riveted by stories of people who cheated their way into power only to be undone by a Google search. What on earth are these people thinking? How can they believe that they’ll never get caught?
I understand the motivation. The job market is highly competitive and often unfair. Sometimes, the only way to get a spot on the career ladder is to steal one: exaggerate your competencies under the ‘fake it until you make it’ strategy. Even if you flame out of your first attempt for insufficient skill, you at least get the title on your résumé and enough experience to try again. I’ve heard pundits, career counsellors, and even HR pros tout the virtues of ‘aiming above your station’ through applying for gigs that you’re only partially qualified for. That, however, is not the same as wholly falsifying a required qualification.
David Wolman wrote an extensive piece on this for WIRED magazine ten years back that’s still an excellent read: ‘Bogus degrees,’ he said ‘are nothing new. Black markets in fake diplomas are known to have existed as far back as 14th-century Europe. Today, so-called diploma mills based in the US sell roughly 200,000 degrees a year to customers around the globe. By some estimates, they sell as many PhDs as are awarded by legitimate American universities. (Heck, if you’re going to get a degree without doing any work, why not make it a doctorate?) Worldwide, the industry is thought to generate as much as $1 billion annually. And the buyers are everywhere – the Pentagon, NASA, fire departments, hospitals – all of them quintessential frauds using fake degrees to pad résumés or score pay raises. In 2003 and 2004, the Government Accountability Office surveyed just a handful of agencies and found 463 federal employees with fraudulent degrees.’ Those are just fake degrees; the number of wholly-invented degrees being claimed on résumés and applications is probably quadruple that.
‘I’m impressed. We’ve never interviewed a candidate with three PhDs before. Mayan literature, economics, and Java programming. Wow!’
I worked alongside one of those frauds when I was in the military. Every commissioned officer is required to have at least a bachelor’s degree. One of our squadron commanders was busted after twenty years of service when a casual background check revealed that he’d never actually finished his undergraduate degree. This fellow was lucky that he was only busted back to staff sergeant (from lieutenant freaking colonel) and wasn’t chucked in the stockade. Given how long he perpetuated his fraud, it would have been unsurprising to see him discharged in disgrace.
Why risk faking a degree? Especially when it’s so easy to double-check? Simple economics. In the USA, a bachelor’s degree is one of the most common discriminators in hiring. I argued in my Business Technology column The Résumé Screener’s Paradox from 2013  that ‘Thanks to online application systems … HR folks are usually inundated with applications. Thousands of strangers clamour to be considered for every open req. There’s no reliable way to accurately screen reams of résumés. Lots of fully-qualified applicants simply never get considered because their qualifications are simply lost amidst the noise.’
As my youngest son discovered when he flirted with dropping out of school, every decent full-time job requires a university degree. No bachelors? Your application is automatically removed from consideration. It doesn’t matter how good you are or what talents you have. Arbitrary barriers make it much easier for an overloaded HR screener to whittle down a mountain of CVs.
So, what’s a struggling up-and-comer to do? Some people buckle down and finish their studies. Some give up and stay in the part-time minimum wage workforce. Some people, however, gamble on that overloaded HR screener being too busy to check and claim to possess a degree … or a certification … or a publication … or some other arbitrary mandatory qualification that they don’t actually have on their application. By the time anyone finds out (they reason) they’ll have made it into the system and it won’t be a big deal anymore.
HR can’t discipline me if I never return to the office. Check and mate.
Maybe that’s what drove Mr. Suede to add a fifth book to his publications listing (if, in fact, that’s what happened). Maybe he felt fully qualified to handle the duties of President of the RWA and believed that four published titles were just as good as the arbitrarily required five. I don’t know. I can understand the motivation, though. I’ve heard the rationalizations from many an applicant. I’ve empathized with strong-but-unqualified candidates over the unreasonableness of these petty barriers. Nonetheless … a standard’s a standard.
According to the New York Times’ Concepción de Leon, Damon Suede resigned from his position effective 9th January. If, in fact, Mr. Suede didn’t publish Stud Planet as he previously claimed, then he has his own RWA member code of ethics situation to deal with. That’s a hell of a position for someone to find themselves in: removed from sitting in judgment over one’s peers for one’s own deceptions. Perhaps he took a desperate gamble and lied. Perhaps he really did write the book and his publisher fouled things up. I don’t know. His story – the RWA drama, not Stud Planet itself – is a cautionary tale worth remembering.
Hmmm. Hang on a minute …
While this story was unfolding I made a joke about how fun it would be to write Stud Planet if it didn’t actually exist. I offered a ridiculous pitch for the plot. Mary Dell read that, and tweeted that she’d read it if I wrote it. Just for her, let’s imagine what a cautionary tale about qualifications fraud might look like if set in a romantic space opera …
Can’t very well let Mary down now can I? Here goes!
Chapter 1. Consequences.
Midshipman Edmonds stood at parade rest in front of the sealed hab module, sweating profusely despite the chill aircon leaking out from under the tent’s door seal. His neck, back, and knees ached from holding the rigid position. His eyes stung where perspiration had escaped the tight grip of his field cap. His T-shirt was equally sodden from the jog over. When the XO of the ground-side military police battalion summons a worthless cadet, the cadet obeys. That had been a half hour or so ago. Edmonds couldn’t tell; removing his hand from behind his back to check his watch would violate drill and ceremonies regulations which a lowly midshipman Would Not Do … Especially when situated directly in front of the hab module’s security camera. He stood rigid, he sweated, he listened to the grumble of ground trucks passing behind him on the trail, and he began to contemplate the likely upsides of death.
“Report, sailor.” The XO’s voice was distorted by the intercom. Edmonds was certain that the speaker was vexed. He snapped to attention, willing some blood to flow back into his aching limbs, swallowed hard, and opened the hab door.
The inside of the semi-rigid structure was far brighter than Edmonds had imagined. Smaller, too. A central ventilation tube ran down its spine. Light ribbons paralleled it on either side. A faded off-white fabric liner reflected the light back on a ring of chipped plastic field desks, each occupied by a soldier in temperate forest camo. Just inside the hab, maybe a third of the way down, a red-headed woman wearing a field jacket with major’s leaves sat at the only desk facing the door. A placard on the front of her desk read “Duty Officer.” Her expression was … inscrutable. Not welcoming. Not angry. Flat.
Seeing no chair or stool, Edmonds stepped stiffly towards the major’s desk, halting precisely a metre before it, snapped to the position of attention and rendered his best imitation of an Army hand salute. “Ma’am! Midshipman Edmonds reports to the Executive Officer!”
The major’s return salute was perfunctory. Up close, she seemed fatigued. Edmonds made out dark circles under bloodshot eyes. She put him back in parade rest with a curt growl … and let him wait. Unable to look down, Edmonds tried to focus on neon lines and icons on the Friendly Forces Tracker screen on the far wall.
There was a shuffling sound as the major arranged some flimsies on her desk. More waiting. Edmonds felt the chill of the hab AC straight run down the back of his collar. His shoulder blades began to cramp.
“Why are you here, Mr. Edmonds?”
“Ma’am! To further my academic progress and to serve the Navy, ma’am.”
“Really? How noble. Are you sure it wasn’t to escape the omnipresent surveillance at the Academy and perhaps wrangle a little … ‘after hours’ romance?”
The chill running down Edmonds’s spine had less to do with the hab chiller than it did with the Duty Officer’s prescient insight. He attempted to swallow his fear. He failed.
“That possibility … might … have entered into my summer programme selection process … ma’am.”
The hab module went silent. Behind the major, all of the ops centre techs paused in their typing to listen. The pause stretched until Edmons was sure that he’d both died and been petrified.
“Hm.” The major’s pitch rose just a smidge, softening the suggestion of irritation. “Points for honesty, Mr. Edmonds. Let’s see if your integrity holds. What made you think that this expedition to the rim would resemble an episode of the Love Boat?”
Edmonds recalled his Army liaison briefer’s lecture: the Navy might own the vastness of space, sailor, but the Army owns everything with dirt on it. Do not piss off the officer commanding a ground expedition because they do not have time for your nonsense.
Right, he thought. Go for broke.
“Ma’am, I heard about the expedition from our MS-4 class commander. She clued us in that the ‘stud planet’ was so far outside the wormhole nexus that things were …” he could feel the major’s gaze skewer him “more relaxed. She told us that if we wanted an opportunity to … recreate … that this was the best chance that we’d …” He felt his throat close before he could finish.
“This planetoid was set aside by the Exploration Corps for xenobotanist student field trips. It was terraformed to Mars standard flora and fauna for training science officers, not for reenacting ‘Adam and Eve and the Apple’s forbidden secrets’ after reveille.”
“This is a training ground for xenobotanists. Do you actually have any professional interest in planetary survey, Mr. Edmonds?”
“Er … no ma’am.”
“Just in select mammals, I take it.”
“Mmm hmm. And have you actually passed your survey corps qualification studies?”
“I … ah …” DARNIT! “No, ma’am.”
“It says on your Officer Records Brief that you have.”
“I … exaggerated … my academic qualifications to …”
“To qualify to participate in the summer programme. Right.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Edmonds decided that he’d be just fine with one of the soldiers shooting him and dumping his body in the nearest drainage ditch. That would be fine. Just fine.
“Were you aware that we have network access out here on the periphery?”
The last piece fell into place. They’d somehow looked up his transcript. Through three wormholes. Edmonds felt blood draining from his face. He tried to speak. He tried to keep his eyes from tearing shut. He shook his head.
“‘Stud Planet’ … Did it ever occur to you that your upperclassmen might have yanking your chain?”
Edmonds felt violently nauseous. “Yes, ma’am. About thirty second ago.”
“Hm. Good. Maybe you’re not completely useless.”
Edmonds dared a swift glance down as the major twisted on her stool to address one of the broad-shouldered non-coms in the back of the hab. He snapped his gaze back into the middle distance immediately.
“Sergeant Liu? Take Mister Edmonds to his new additional duty assignment.” She turned. Edmonds snapped to the position of attention, anticipating the order. “Mister Edmonds, on the command of ‘fall out,’ you will follow Sergeant First Class Liu to the ground truck where we’ve quarantined your fellow ‘lovesick lonelies.’ You’ll assume temporary command of the work detail and perform such tasks as Sergeant Liu directs. Do you have any questions?”
Edmonds took two half-steps back, performed a half-right face, and posted beside the burly soldier. SFC Liu grinned at him and grinned maliciously. “Follow me, sir. Romance and adventure await.”
 For disclosure’s sake, I own three of Ms. May’s books and follow her on Twitter. That’s how I learned about this mess in the first place.
 No longer online; currently only available in Why Are You Here?
[This content is copyrighted by me just in case some lunatic publisher out there thinks this idea is silly enough to expand into an entire project.]
Pop Culture Allusion: Damon Suede, Stud Planet (a book that might or might not have existed prior me to me taking a crack at it here)