A trio of scholars have come clean about a year-long effort to publish fabricated papers related to identity politics, a project trumpeted by many as an indictment of political correctness in gender studies and related fields.
But those fields’ defenders say that the hoax illustrates a far broader problem: that many disciplines are peppered with shoddy scholarship. And even the authors say that their stunt doesn’t make any conclusions about gender studies, per se.
“We don’t claim that the particular postmodern epistemological and ethical problems we are looking at are worse than any other problem in academic publishing,” Helen Pluckrose, a scholar of religious writing and one of the hoaxers, told BuzzFeed News by email.
Pluckrose and two other scholars — Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University, and James Lindsay, a mathematician and author — managed to get seven phony papers accepted for publication into peer-reviewed journals, from one that asked whether men who penetrate themselves with dildos will have less transphobia, to another finding that men who go to Hooters exhibit a “unique masculinity.” The elaborate hoax was cut short when their study on rape culture at dog parks was outed by a Twitter account and the Wall Street Journal (and then retracted by the academic journal that published it).
The trio targeted what they pejoratively call “grievance studies,” which includes, among other fields, gender studies, queer studies, fat studies, and critical race theory. They say their success exposes academia’s troubling slide from objective, scientific truth in the name of social justice.
“[T]hese scholars are like snake-oil salespeople who diagnose our society as being riddled with a disease only they can cure,” the trio wrote on Tuesday in Areo Magazine, where Pluckrose is editor-in-chief. “In this way, politically biased research that rests on highly questionable premises gets legitimized as though it is verifiable knowledge.”
The article was praised by some. “Is there any idea so outlandish that it won’t be published in a Critical/PoMo/Identity/”Theory” journal?” Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker tweeted. Jeffrey Beall, a retired expert in academic publishing at the University of Colorado Denver, told BuzzFeed News that the hoax worked partly because academia is biased toward the political left. “This is what happens when you have one-party rule in higher education,” he said.
But other experts — in linguistics, philosophy, gender studies, and biology — told BuzzFeed News that they thought the stunt was poorly conceived and politically motivated.
Yes, these critics said, there are major problems with peer review in studies of gender, race, and other facets of identity politics — just like psychology, nutrition, and many other fields of scientific research. But the trio made no attempt to test whether the fields they call “grievance studies” have a particularly egregious problem. They set out from the get-go to prank these disciplines but not others.
“For all of the hoaxers’ emphasis on scientific rigor, their experiment doesn’t have a control,” said Sarah Richardson, a professor of the history of science and of studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University. “By their own standards, we can’t scientifically conclude anything from it.”
Hoaxes in academic publishing are nothing new. Most famously, in 1996 the physicist Alan Sokal of New York University published a spoof paper in the journal Social Text claiming that quantum gravity — a field of study that could unlock our understanding of fundamental particles and forces — is a social and linguistic construct.
Sokal submitted his nonsensical paper to satirize postmodern philosophy — and in particular, its misappropriation of the language of his own discipline, physics. More recent hoaxes have exposed lax standards of peer review across low-quality journals in disciplines from biomedicine to computer science by submitting obviously flawed papers, some consisting of gibberish written by bots.
Last year, Boghossian and Lindsay added to the genre by publishing a fake study, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” in the journal Cogent Social Sciences. It claimed, among other things, that “manspreading” is akin to raping empty space and that the penis is “the conceptual driver behind much of climate change.” Critics pointed out that all the pair had shown was that one poor-quality journal was prepared to publish one poor-quality paper (which was swiftly retracted).
The larger project revealed this week began as an attempt to publish similar nonsense on a larger scale. Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose started by submitting flagrantly nonsensical papers. But all six of these were rejected without even making it to peer review.
“[N]othing like ‘The Conceptual Penis’ would have been published in a highly regarded gender-studies journal,” they wrote in the Areo article. “In believing that some might, and on having said so in the wake of that attempt, we were wrong.”
So they set about writing subtler hoaxes. Carefully phrased to match the language of the fields they were satirizing, the papers nonetheless used implausible statistics, made claims not warranted by the data, or relied upon ideologically motivated analyses.
Some of the studies were submitted under fake names, others by their accomplice Richard Baldwin, a former champion bodybuilder and professor of humanities at Gulf Coast State College in Florida.
The hoaxers were outed before their experiment was complete, leaving five papers still under consideration for publication. (On Wednesday, Lindsay tweeted that one of these had just been rejected.) In all, the trio wrote 20 sham papers and had seven accepted (two after being rejected at the first journal they were submitted to).
“We managed to get seven shoddy, absurd, unethical and politically-biased papers into respectable journals in the fields of grievance studies. Does this show that academia is corrupt? Absolutely not. Does it show that all scholars and reviewers in humanities fields which study gender, race, sexuality and weight are corrupt? No,” the authors wrote. But it does point to a problem, they argued. “We shouldn’t have been able to get any papers this terrible published in reputable journals, let alone seven.”
Critics have disputed the trio’s claim that they set out to test scholarship “at its highest levels” by submitting the fake papers to “leading” journals. “I didn’t recognize many of the journals they hoaxed,” Richardson said.
BuzzFeed News looked at the ratings of the journals in the database Journal Citation Reports (JCR), which ranks journals according to how often the papers they publish are cited in academic literature. Four of the journals that accepted the trio’s papers were ranked 5th, 8th, 24th, and 27th out of 42 journals in women’s studies in 2017. The other three were not listed in the database at all.
We also found little evidence that the problem of bogus scholarship identified by the trio was “reaching into sociology,” as they claimed. They submitted papers to three publications categorized in the JCR as sociology journals. All three papers were rejected.
In some cases, the label “leading” applied only because the trio had defined a field so narrowly that vanishingly few journals would meet the description. For example, the researchers described Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work as a “leading feminist social work journal.” In fact, it is the only journal in the JCR database falling into the categories of both women’s studies and social work.
Pluckrose countered that these journals do publish influential work — even Hypatia, the lowest-ranked of the journals they duped. “If you reject Hypatia as an influential producer of knowledge, you necessarily dismiss much influential feminist philosophy and feminist epistemology,” she said. “Of course, we do not object if people do dismiss this kind of feminist epistemology and feminist philosophy.”
Because the trio fabricated data (including fake assessments of the genitals of nearly 10,000 dogs), purposely mimicked the language of genuine papers, and responded positively to reviewers’ comments to get papers published, some critics suggested the hoax had more in common with notorious examples of scientific fraud than prior examples of spoof papers.
“It’s less similar to Sokal (which was breezy gibberish) and more similar to the many instances of scientific misconduct involving effortful and intentional deception, in my mind,” Ketan Joshi, a science communicator working in data science in Australia who wrote a popular critique of the conceptual penis paper, told BuzzFeed News by email.
Others raised a more philosophical objection. The hoaxers began their project with the assumption that certain ideas are patently, laughably absurd. But some worry that this is a cynical bias and an affront to academic freedom and intellectual progress.
“I’m a philosopher by trade — we have people in my discipline wondering whether you can actually know that there are tables, indeed whether strictly speaking tables can be said to exist at all,” said Liam Kofi Bright, a philosopher at the London School of Economics who has studied scientific fraud.
“I think it would be a real shame to lose that sense that even apparently absurd conclusions may turn out to be true and so are worthy of real inquiry and thought.”