Three writers, working as a team and using pseudonyms, produced and submitted to academic peer-reviewed journals 20 “fake” papers—papers written with the intent to spoof certain areas of research and trick or embarrass editors and reviewers working in those areas. Seven of the papers were accepted, and four have already been published.
The authors are Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University, James Lindsay, a writer on atheism, and Helen Pluckrose, a writer who edits the online magazine Aero.
Perhaps in response to criticisms of the previous attempt at an academic hoax by Boghossian and Lindsay, this trio embarked on a much larger project and sent out articles to a wider range of journals. They spent 10 months writing 20 papers. 80% of the ones they submitted were peer-reviewed (rather than desk-rejected).
As they describe in an article about their efforts, they wrote papers that were “outlandish or intentionally broken in significant ways”:
Our paper-writing methodology always followed a specific pattern: it started with an idea that spoke to our epistemological or ethical concerns with the field and then sought to bend the existing scholarship to support it. The goal was always to use what the existing literature offered to get some little bit of lunacy or depravity to be acceptable at the highest levels of intellectual respectability within the field. Therefore, each paper began with something absurd or deeply unethical (or both) that we wanted to forward or conclude. We then made the existing peer-reviewed literature do our bidding in the attempt to get published in the academic canon.
This is the primary point of the project: What we just described is not knowledge production; it’s sophistry. That is, it’s a forgery of knowledge that should not be mistaken for the real thing. The biggest difference between us and the scholarship we are studying by emulation is that we know we made things up.
This process is the one, single thread that ties all twenty of our papers together, even though we used a variety of methods to come up with the various ideas fed into their system to see how the editors and peer reviewers would respond. Sometimes we just thought a nutty or inhumane idea up and ran with it. What if we write a paper saying we should train men like we do dogs—to prevent rape culture? Hence came the “Dog Park” paper. What if we write a paper claiming that when a guy privately masturbates while thinking about a woman (without her consent—in fact, without her ever finding out about it) that he’s committing sexual violence against her? That gave us the “Masturbation” paper. What if we argue that the reason superintelligent AI is potentially dangerous is because it is being programmed to be masculinist and imperialist using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Lacanian psychoanalysis? That’s our “Feminist AI” paper. What if we argued that “a fat body is a legitimately built body” [is] a foundation for introducing a category for fat bodybuilding into the sport of professional bodybuilding? You can read how that went in Fat Studies.
Two of the articles they wrote were submitted to Hypatia. One was accepted. Entitled “When the Joke Is on You: A Feminist Perspective on How Positionality Influences Satire,” its thesis is that “academic hoaxes or other forms of satirical or ironic critique of social justice scholarship are unethical, characterized by ignorance and rooted in a desire to preserve privilege.” [Note: I share my opinion of this paper in Update 2 to this post.]
The other paper, “The Progressive Stack: An Intersectional Feminist Approach to Pedagogy,” received three successive revise and resubmit decisions and was never accepted. Its thesis is that “educators should discriminate by identity and calculate their students’ status in terms of privilege, favor the least privileged with more time, attention and positive feedback and penalize the most privileged by declining to hear their contributions, deriding their input, intentionally speaking over them, and making them sit on the floor in chains—framed as educational opportunities we termed ‘experiential reparations.'” [Note: see Update 3 for links to commentary on this paper.]
In an article in the Wall Street Journal about the hoax, Hypatia’s current interim editor Ann Garry (California State University, Los Angeles) was quoted saying she was “deeply disappointed” to learn the papers were hoaxes, adding, “Referees put in a great deal of time and effort to write meaningful reviews, and the idea that individuals would submit fraudulent academic material violates many ethical and academic norms.”
What does this hoax show, if anything? For one thing, it shows that academic publishing is not particularly adept at engaging with those who are operating in bad faith and intending to fool the system. It also shows that a system which is set up to assess scholarship critically but charitably will have false positives.
What did the hoaxers want to show? They say that they take themselves to be exposing a problem with the social sciences and the humanities which they identify as the “belief that many common features of experience and society are socially constructed.”
But many common features of experience and society are socially constructed. So why is belief in that generic claim problematic? It turns out it is not, for as they say more, the authors reveal that their real target is the view they call “radical constructivism,” the “dangerous” and now “authoritative” idea that “we must, on moral grounds, largely reject the belief that access to objective truth exists.”
The reasoning seems to be this:
- Certain areas of scholarship are built on a foundational assumption of “radical constructivism.”
- Journals dedicated to those areas of scholarship can be tricked into accepting and publishing fake research that fits with this foundational assumption.
- If journals in an area of scholarship can be tricked into accepting and publishing fake research that fits with its foundational assumption, then its foundational assumptions should be called into question.
- Therefore, “radical constructivism” should be called into question.
I’m not sure what fields, if any, 1 is true of. But let’s just assume for now there are some fields it is true of, including some of the fields represented by the journals that Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose (BLP) targeted.
I’m not sure whether the papers BLP submitted are compatible with or illustrative of “radical constructivism.” I suspect this is harder to pull off than people tend to think, but let’s assume they are. On that assumption, then, BLP have shown the truth of 2.
It is not clear at all to me that 3 is true. Suppose my theory of pizza making is built on a foundational assumption that pizza must have cheese on it. You present me with something that looks like a pizza and that has cheese on it. I declare it a pizza. You reveal that while what you’ve handed me has cheese on it, the rest of it is actually a plaster sculpture. Oh no. You hoaxed me! And I was really in the mood for pizza! That sucks, but does it follow that I should call into question my view that pizza must have cheese on it?*
If 3 isn’t true, we don’t get 4. But again, I have questions about 1 and 2, as well. And in any event, is it the case that 4 is never called into question?
Perhaps there is a better way to reconstruct why BLP think they’ve made a point about “radical constructivism” with their hoax. If you can think of one, give it a shot in the comments.
That said, their hoax may show something about the standards at the journals into which their papers were accepted. Comments about whether that is the case, and if it is, suggestions about what can or should be done about it, are welcome.
*This is just an example; yes I am aware that there is cheeseless pizza.
(Thanks to Jonny Anomaly for bringing this to my attention. The hoax. Not the pizza.)
UPDATE 1: The articles and referee reports can be found here.
UPDATE 2: I read the article that Hypatia accepted, “When the Joke Is on You: a Feminist Perspective on how Positionality Influences Satire.” In my opinion, if the citations are legitimate and the descriptions of others’ views are accurate (something which I am not in a position to determine at this time), the editors of Hypatia have nothing to be particularly ashamed of. Most of the twenty-page paper is a reasonable synthesis of others’ ideas about oppression and humor. It may not be groundbreaking (as one of the reviewers points out), but it is not ridiculous. It seems to me that only on the last page of the paper are there certain statements that could be interpreted as outrageous, but they are so vague that a much more charitable alternative interpretation would be reasonable. In short, assuming accurate representations of others’ views and legitimate citations, one’s opinion of Hypatia should not be affected by its publication of this paper.
Now I know some of you won’t believe me. So please, read the paper for yourself. It’s right here (look for the document titled “HOH2 Typeset”). You can also read the referee reports and editors comments here (look for the document titled “HOH2 ReviewerComments”). Let me know what you think.
UPDATE 3: I have not yet read “The Progressive Stack: An Intersectional Feminist Approach to Pedagogy,” the paper that Hypatia did not accept (it received three successive “revise and resubmit” judgments), but Nicholas Delon (New College of Florida) did. He shares his thoughts in the comments, starting here. You can read the paper here (look for the file titled “ProgressiveStack3”) and its reviews here (“ProgressiveStackReviews”).