An institutional review board (IRB) at Portland State University has found that Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at the school, ought to have obtained IRB approval before conducting a project of submitting hoax articles to academic journals.
According to an article at Inside Higher Ed, the IRB determined that the project, which Boghossian worked on with James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose (neither of whom work for universities), constituted research involving human subjects—journal editors and reviewers—and was thus subject to university policy that “all research involving human subjects conducted by faculty, other employees and students [on campus] must have prior review and approval by the IRB.”
The university has not yet decided on any disciplinary action for Boghossian.
Steve Joffe, who works on research ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, has a reasonable discussion of the case on Twitter in which he concludes that if the research counts as federally funded or if Portland State applies the Common Rule to all research at the school, then:
this was human subjects research, probably non-exempt (because the most relevant exemption category, for survey research, can’t be used if the research poses reputational risk, which IMO this does). If so, then research required IRB review and approval—potentially expedited, and potentially with waiver of the requirement for informed consent (research could not have been done if informed consent was required). Stepping back from the regs, this makes ethical sense too; IMO it’s good to have some peer review of an activity that might pose risks, including nonphysical risks, to others (best in that case that investigators not be judge and jury of their own case). Some might want things to be different, I understand, but to paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense, you go to science with the regs you have, not the regs you wish you had.
I also think that if the research indeed counts as human subjects research, then Jeffrey Sachs (Acadia) is basically correct here:
1) Yes, Boghossian violated PSU’s research ethics and should be punished. 2) No, he should not be fired. In fact, the punishment should be very mild (e.g. a warning, attending a tutorial on research ethics).
We have human subjects research protections for important reasons, and while our means for such protection—institutional policies—are inherently blunt and imperfect, when the criteria for their application are met, then we should apply them.
The hoax was silly, as a research project it was poorly constructed, and it did not show what its authors smugly took it to show. But these things do not count in favor of a more severe punishment for violating research policies.
The way to show that the hoax was stupid is to argue that the hoax is stupid, and the way to show that the researchers involved are mistaken or wrongheaded is by refuting them—not by twisting procedural rules to punish them.
(Thanks to several readers for bringing this news item and various sources to my attention.)