A massive hoax involving 20 fake culture studies papers just exploded in academia

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a physicist, a philosopher, and a medievalist got together and decided to hoax cultural studies journals with a score of fake research papers.

The story is familiar, but this time the joke is far bigger. Their intention was to expose the shoddy standards that count for publishing in certain academic fields – but not everybody is convinced this is the solution we all need.

It’s fair to say that Portland State University assistant professor of philosophy Peter Boghossian and mathematician James Lindsay aren’t exactly fans of the emerging fields of cultural and identity studies.

Last year they wrote a paper on the ‘conceptual penis’ as a social construct and successfully saw it published in a social science journal.

The research was a complete sham, and the paper’s wording reflected the convoluted, dense language they associated with the field. Its publication – the pair argued – showed these journals will accept just about anything that seems to fit.

The conceptual penis hoax was far from the first to make a statement about the lack of critical review in certain ‘critical’ cultural research fields.

Just over 20 years ago, New York University mathematician Alan Sokal famously had his nonsense paper Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity published in an academic journal of postmodern studies.

An occasional hoax paper here and there stirs heated debate, but Boghossian and Lindsay saw a need to cast a wider net.

Last year, the two joined forces with Helen Pluckrose, the editor-in-chief of the current affairs magazine, Areo, and “exile from the humanities“, and produced what one journalist referred to as Sokal Squared.

The trio scaled-up operations to press out 20 hoax papers over a space of 10 months in parody of what they refer to as grievance studies. These were then sent to what they argued were the “best academic journals in the relevant fields“.

Most of the papers were inspired by some form of progressive political ideology, such as the role of patriarchy in modern society or the influence of imperialism.

“Sometimes we just thought a nutty or inhumane idea up and ran with it,” the writers explain.

“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.”

Had they not felt a need to go public, says Pluckrose, they would have gone even further.

Of those 20 papers, seven were accepted, with four since published online. The other three might have seen light of day as well, given more time.

The remaining 13 hoax articles included seven that were still under some sort of review or consideration by the end of the hoax, with two having been resubmitted following a revision.

That left six which were thrown on the scrap heap.

The team also received four invitations to peer-review for the journals – a rather striking proposition, given their lack of credentials, and a strong indicator of why their fiction passed as rigorous research.

Few would argue that peer-review is perfect, or that some fields don’t have more of a problem with their academic standards than others. The question now is how such hoaxes serve to fix what is evidently a concerning problem.

Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy agrees there’s a problem with nonsense being published, but doesn’t see much good in picking on single fields.

The Replication Crisis has indeed been big news in recent years, and not just among the humanities.

Rather than shaming journals into doing better or dismissing entire fields, researchers are collaborating across disciplines, taking a hard, critical look at what’s causing the problem and finding practical solutions.

To Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay, the flaw is fundamental to the studies themselves.

“The problem is epistemological, political, ideological, and ethical and it is profoundly corrupting scholarship in the social sciences and humanities,” they write.

Whether such hoaxes will heal these corrupting influences, contribute to divisions that perpetuate them, or provide new avenues to improve cultural research, is yet to be seen.

Perhaps future sociologists will have the right tools to give us a sound answer.

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