For the umpteenth time in recent years, it seems, the general public is discovering what has always been the case--that book publishers generally don't do fact-checking. The truth is that, under the industry's normal business model, it simply wouldn't be feasible.
Think about it. A good-sized publishing house brings out several hundred books every year, sometimes more. How many people would it have to hire to do the exhaustive research needed to verify the hundreds or thousands of facts that appear in a typical non-fiction book? And spot-checking wouldn't do. No one is claiming that Pellegrino made up most or even many of the stories in his book--just a handful of them. To avoid a problem like the one Holt is now facing, a fact-checker would have to independently source, say, ninety percent of the information in the book, a task that, even in today's Googlified era, would take weeks.
The Times quotes an Iowa professor named Jeffrey Porter as being critical of Holt, saying, "Maybe the idea of a scoop was irresistible. But somebody should have been skeptical." I'm dubious. Once you accept the notion that accuracy is basically the province of the author, then the publisher can reasonably be expected to catch only egregious falsehoods. Was someone at Holt supposed to call the Australian university where Pellegrino claimed to have earned his Ph.D. to verify his credentials? Human resources people will tell you that most corporations don't perform such due diligence even when hiring an executive for a six-figure job. Are publishers supposed to do this hundreds of times every year?
We all like the idea that, when something bad happens, it should be possible to identify a systemic fix that would prevent similar things from happening in the future. This is why we have been endlessly re-jiggering our airport security systems since 9/11--we want to believe that, with a little extra effort, they can be made perfect. But I for one don't believe it. Nor do I believe that book publishers can reasonably be expected to recognize what is happening every time a credible, experienced author succumbs to the temptation to exaggerate his facts for the sake of an exciting story.