What Was The Real Target of the Latest Academic Hoax?
Recently a pair of philosophers, Philippe Huneman (CNRS / Paris I Sorbonne) and Anouk Barberousse (CNRS / University of Lille), writing under a pseudonym, submitted a nonsense article to the journal, Badiou Studies, which accepted and published it (see this account, which I put in the Heap of Links last week).
The ostensible target of the hoax is Alain Badiou and his admirers. Yet, writing at his blog, Justin E.H. Smith (Paris Diderot University) takes a closer look.
My first reaction to both Huneman and Barberousse’s canular, as well as to Badiou’s ferocious response, was a deep sincere laugh…
But what sort of victory is it? Here my laughter on first reading Huneman and Barberousse’s text quickly gave way to two concerns. One is that the joke is not so much on the abstruse theory-heads, as had surely been the case in the Sokal incident. The joke isn’t on anyone who is committed to any particular ideology or style of thinking at all. The joke is, rather, on the folks running these pop-up online journals with their ludicrously low editorial standards.
Remarkably, the editors of the Journal of Badiou Studies even admitted as much when they complained of Huneman and Barberousse’s ‘dated’ method of attack “in an age when the pressures on independent Open Access publishing include underfunding and time-pressured staff.” In other words, the editors effectively confess that they do not have the resources to produce a decent journal on their own, and so must rely on the good will of the contributors to not send them crap.
But many people who submit to journals are not in a position to know of their own work whether it is crap or not, and for this reason alone a journal that does not have the resources to weed out crap would be doing scholarship a far greater service by simply not existing. The problem is compounded in the context of continental European publishing in English, where often, at every stage of production, from writing to proofreading to publishing, all of the people involved speak English, at best, as a second language. What slipped through at the Journal of Badiou Studies does not in fact look so different from what slips through on a regular basis at Springer or Brill…
It seems to me in other words that what this hoax exposes is not so much Badiou, or his gullible acolytes, but rather the dismal state of publishing today.
Thoughts from others on this assessment of the “state of publishing today,” and other aspects of the hoax, are welcome. I encourage people to read the entirety of Smith’s post, which is, characteristically, interesting throughout.
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This raises some interesting questions for social epistemology and the epistemology of testimony more specifically. Some papers we read are squarely in our main area of study, so we’re peers, or at least experts enough, to tell crap from quality. But other times we read things outside of our specialty, and in order for the whole enterprise of academic scholarship broadly or science more narrowly to function we need to be able to trust (or have evidence that, or it needs to be a reliable process such that – pick your favorite theory) we can know that what we’re about to read is at worst controversial, but not crap. If we can’t know that it isn’t crap, we can’t know what is asserted.* We could, at best, know things within our own range of expertise but nothing else. And if we can’t gain knowledge by testimony from reading what ought to be the best case of testimony for the kind of knoweldge we’re after then, well, the skeptic wins.
Of course there are other things we could know for which peer-reviewed articles are not the best testimony. I think there is bester testimonial evidence for where everyone wants to go to dinner then a peer-reviewed article, but while those are important questions we’re not getting paid to know the answers to those.
*I suppose I’m committed to the following principle you’re free to argue against in further comments: You’re in a position to know that x only if you’re in a position to know that x isn’t crap. That’s the converse from what I asserted in the prose, you may call it the KKNC principle. It may be related to safety.Report
I for one think that Badiou’s reply (and full discosure, I do not pretend to know fully or understand Badiou, or even like what he does) is nevertheless spot on:
“Of course, mathematicians can criticise the metaphysical use I have made, like Plato or Descartes or Leibniz, of their discipline, But they cannot criticise me for not knowing it. It is enough to open Being and Event or The Logic of Worlds, in order to appreciate that I give the entire proof of all the theorems that I mention.”Report
My first response was along similar lines. The parody was really so bad, it says very little about the field of Badiou studies, and very much about the Journal of Badiou Studies.Report
Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers:
Interesting, and I’m glad someone made a list, but I don’t see the Journal of Badiou Studies mentioned there. Predatory publishers seem to be a different problem.Report
What exactly is Smith’s point re: speaking English as a second language being a problem? Does he think that it’s because of non-native English speakers that bad journals exist? What’s with incriminating all of Springer or all of Brill? Assuredly, not all of their journals are equally bad or good. Can we get a non-xenophobic, non-ad hominem argument?Report
You have clearly misunderstood his point if you think the comment was xenophobic. It’s really too bad that silly comments like this are so common when social issues are being discussed. I suggest that you try to interpret others charitably to avoid silly criticisms like this in the future.Report
UG, your knee jerk reaction to pbna’s comments don’t seem particularly generous either. Smith’s remark about the disservice done by journals that lack the resources to “weed out crap” being “compounded in the context of continental European publishing in English, where often, at every stage of production, from writing to proofreading to publishing, all of the people involved speak English, at best, as a second language,” does suggest that being ESL makes one less able to adequately produce and assess philosophical work in English than native speakers. But there are good reasons to think this is false. I’m ESL, but most philosophers I’ve met simply assume that I’m a native speaker because I’m highly fluent, lack a detectable foreign accent, and write well enough to pass. This is the case for many other ESL philosophers I know. As for the rest, though they may sometimes struggle when speaking in English, their written work will be generally indistinguishable from that of native speakers but for the rare odd-ish phrase. In fact, I bet most of us know more ESL philosophers than we realise. In light of this, Smith’s remark smacks of something like a prejudice against the abilities of those for whom English is a second language. Whether that in fact amounts to xenophobia is open for debate (I don’t think it clearly does), but it is nonetheless worth noting, as pbna points out.Report
I think both the hoax piece and the journal Badiou Studies itself belong to the same growing genre of fan (philo-)fiction: https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/fifty-shades-of-badiou-is-fan-philo-fiction-a-genre/Report
Badiou’s philosophy as expressed in his books BEING AND EVENT and LOGICS OF WORLD is an impressive work in progress of pluralist philosophy. There are some major points that I disagree with, but the work as a whole is full of inspiring ideas, analyses and arguments. One of Badiou’s strong points is his ability to take philosophies that are very difficult to argue with, notably those of Heidegger and Deleuze, and bring them into an argumentative field by elaborating another philosophy of comparable scope and depth. To discuss Badiou’s philosophy you can’t just extract de-conceptualised theses and “argue” about them, or exclaim ruefully that they are not open to argument.
On the question of Badiou’s “postmodernism”: Badiou’s thesis is that the pluralism of the postmoderns is no big new final discovery, but constitutes merely a rather evident starting point for new analyses. Badiou has in common with the postmoderns the idea of pluralism. He differs from them with his theory of Truths. Huneman and Barberousse are content to group Badiou with the postmoderns without arguing their point. I think, as on several other points, that this is parallel is only partially true. But to prove their point they would have to analyse Badiou’s theory of Truths. Publishing a parodic imitation in an obscure para-academic journal is certainly not arguing at the right level, but taking the easy way out.Report
I think people who are not fluent in English should not be solely responsible for producing English-language journals. If that’s xenophobia, then I suppose I’m guilty as charged. Anyhow I myself work in a French-language environment as a non-native speaker, and I certainly know when I need to turn to native French speakers to take care of linguistic tasks for which I am not qualified. What is this? Autoxenophobia?Report
I’m sorry, but this was not your claim in the original post. You wrote: “The problem is compounded in the context of continental European publishing in English, where often, at every stage of production, from writing to proofreading to publishing, all of the people involved speak English, at best, as a second language.” This doesn’t say anything about fluency, but about having English as a second language. Worse, you’re referring not only to editors or proofreaders, but academics who contribute to the journal as authors and reviewers. Nobody denies that having native speakers doing proofreading is a good idea. But the original post implies that academics who have English as their second language are incapable of “weeding out crap”. So while it might not be all the way xenophobic, it is telling of some of the diversity issues faced by our profession.
Of course my reading of the original post might be flawed, seeing as us ESL academics have problems weeding out crap and all.Report
I agree that pbna was too quick to infer xenophobia in your case, but that’s not to say the inference was baseless, since exaggerated doubts about foreigners’ language competency is a common manifestation of xenophobia. In this case, while I don’t think you’re xenophobic, I do wonder how well your generalisation about the linguistic capabilities of non-native speakers is supported by your experience working in French as an non-native speaker. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s right at all to assume that ESL speakers are not fluent in english–as the slide between your initial claim that the prevelence of ESL philosophers in the Europe context compounds the problem and your subsequent claim that those “who are not fluent in English should not be solely responsible for producing English-language journals,” suggests.Report
We might also ask why Huneman and Barberouse felt the need to punch down like that. What good justification is there for attacking a relatively new, online, open-access journal that’s engaging the work of a senior French philosopher, unless you have some sort of problem with the philosopher? But then, why attack the journal studying him? Why not attack the philosopher himself? This reeks of petty academic politics. Leiter certainly took it as an opportunity (in one of his posts, he insinuated that the journal itself might be a hoax) to engage in academic boundary policing. When the hoax was exposed, they retracted the article (FFS, medical journals do this all the time when peer-reviewed articles turn out to be significantly flawed, or to contain faked data, and the like. There’s no story here).
But it’s curious that nobody wants to talk about the motivations of the hoaxers and what that says about our profession.Report
If the quality of the journal is so low that it will publish nonsense, that seems to be the sort of thing that’s worth exposing.
The more important question is how prevalent low-quality journals are and to what degree they are being read and taken seriously. Hoaxes like this certainly don’t prove that there is something awry with Badiou. It doesn’t show something awry with philosophy though. How extensive the problem is remains an open question.Report
Lots of journals print nonsense, much of which survives peer review. Peer review is kind of a crapshoot. For example, one study found that in neuroscience, agreement between reviewers was no higher than would be expected by chance alone (http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/123/9/1964.short). Springer and IEEE had to remove over 120 papers that were written by a computer designed to produce gibberish (http://www.nature.com/news/publishers-withdraw-more-than-120-gibberish-papers-1.14763). I can’t find the reference, but I remember reading within the last year or so that famous papers would often fail peer review subsequently. PNAS discovered that, when looking at the top 3 medical journals, that they desk rejected 12 of the 14 top-cited manuscripts in the study (and the other 2 failed peer review: http://www.nature.com/news/publishers-withdraw-more-than-120-gibberish-papers-1.14763).
So I don’t think anything more than an apology and retraction was in order.
But the question is still why two senior academics felt it necessary or worthwhile to bash on a fledgling journal trying to establish itself. “They publish crap” might be a necessary, but not sufficient reason for that. (this, btw, distinguishes the present case from the Sokal hoax, if one wants to defend that, as Social Text was much more established and widely read at the time).Report
A few belated thoughts – THE BADIOU DICTIONARY: against the postmodern self-hoax: https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2016/08/10/the-badiou-dictionary/Report