In their scathing report on how Rolling Stone and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely botched “A Rape on Campus,” a feature about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, staff at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism noted the story may have done damage to the very cause its authors wanted to aid. “Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better,” Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz wrote. “Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.”

This idea is old and widespread — David Lisak, a psychologist who studies sexual assault, dates one of its most prominent and influential expressions all the way back to 1847. And in the wake of “A Rape on Campus,” it’s critically important not just to continue to push back against the misconception that false reports are common, but to think more carefully about where fabricated allegations come from and the best way to respond to them. False reports of rape do exist, of course, though they are often a sign of a different kind of crisis that merits serious intervention and sympathy. Cases of true, malicious fabrications by people who are neither mentally ill nor facing some other disaster should be taken seriously and punished by law. But those cases shouldn’t be used as a weapon against people who make a terrible mistake in a desperate bid for aid.

Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah Nicksa and Ashley Cote, in their 2010 review of academic studies that tried to determine the rate of false reports of rape, identified a critically important problem: a profound disagreement on what counts as a false allegation. Their review of the literature reveals just how hard it is to agree upon a definition of a false allegation.

In some studies, “A case can be classified as ‘baseless’ if, for example, a victim reports an incident that, while truthfully recounted, does not meet, in the eyes of investigators, the legal definition of a sexual assault,” Lisak and his colleagues write. “This classification is clearly distinct from a case in which a victim deliberately fabricates an account of being raped, yet the ‘unfounded’ category is very often equated with the category of ‘false allegation.'” A 1992 study of 302 rape reports made to law enforcement conducted by the British Home Office drew a distinction between cases that were “no-crimed” — or neither investigated further nor  prosecuted — from reports that were determined to be false allegations. A 2005 study by the same organization dealt with alleged assaults that were classified as false reports that were deemed not credible because the alleged victim was mentally ill, intoxicated, or told inconsistent stories, which can be a sign of trauma.

And Lisak and his colleagues noted that not all false reports are filed by the supposed victims: in a 1977 study of Toronto rape cases found that of 12 allegations (out of 116 total) “in which there appeared to be evidence that a rape did not occur…only 7 (6%) were false reports actually made by alleged victims themselves; the other 5 were filed by someone other than the victim (e.g., a relative or boyfriend).”

One of the studies Lisak criticizes is E.J. Kanin’s 1994 study of rape allegations in a town of 70,000 people. He classified as false reports allegations where the police told him an accuser had recanted, a methodology that lead him to conclude that 41 percent of rape allegations were fabrications. But even if you ignore the issues with Kanin’s methodology (and the extreme age of his report) and accept those figures, the study ought to give pause to people who believe that hordes of malicious women are fabricating rape charges that lead to innocent men being prosecuted.

Kanin accepted that 45 allegations of rape were false, and sorted them into three categories: 56 percent “served the complainants’ need to provide a plausible explanation for some suddenly foreseen, unfortunate consequence of a consensual encounter, though only half of those women actually named an alleged attacker. Another 18 percent of those cases seemed to stem from an accuser’s need for attention, and in none of those instances was any particular person accused of rape. And Kinan classified 27 percent, or 12 cases, as retaliation against a specific man. In academic literature, Kinan is viewed as an unsympathetic analyst who is far too deferential to the police. And it’s not unreasonable to conclude that his outlier figures give the misleading impression that fabricated rape claims are common. But even he concluded that “false accusations can be viewed as the impulsive and desperate gestures of women simply attempting to alleviate understandable conditions of personal and social distress,” including a fear of being unable to obtain an abortion after consensual sex or a violent home situation.

More recently, Quinnipiac University School of Nursing professor emeritus Barbara Moynihan told me that service providers and law enforcement need to look below the surface of an implausible-seeming rape allegation to see what’s motivating a potential victim’s distress.

“How many times have people said ‘I was raped by the system’? They’re not talking about sexual assault. But they’re using that to describe their feelings of helplessness and powerlessness,” Moynihan argues. “Maybe they’re using a term to describe something that isn’t sexual assault, but makes them feel totally powerless, vulnerable, that makes them feel like they’ve been raped. You begin by believing, until you find cause not to believe that particular statement, and then you say, ‘Can you talk a little more about it?’…It’s saying ‘What else is going on?’ A person wouldn’t just walk into a police station and just say ‘I was raped.’ What else is happening? ‘They just threw my furniture out of my house and evicted me, I didn’t think the eviction was going to happen so fast.’ You need to create a situation in which a person can talk about it.”

As Drs. Kimberly Lonsway and Lisak, in collaboration with retired police Sgt. Joanne Archambault, wrote in a 2009 briefing for the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, “many ‘real’ false reports involve only a vaguely described stranger, so the victim can receive the caring attention of law enforcement officials and social service providers without the fear that someone will be arrested. Clearly, these cases can be extremely frustrating for criminal justice professionals, but they are probably best handled with appropriate referrals for social services rather than prosecution for filing a false report.”

It would be irresponsible to speculate which category the subject of “A Rape on Campus” falls into without further hard evidence. But the people who are concerned about the harm she may have done to the reputations of a group of young men shouldn’t compound the damage she’s caused by invoking her to discredit other people who may be in desperate need of help.