Hoax articles raise questions of academic ethics, rigor

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Over the course of 10 months between 2017 and 2018, three academics—including Portland State philosophy Prof. Peter Boghossian—submitted a series of hoax articles to various academic journals in an attempt to expose bias in the scholarly fields they refer to as “grievance studies.”

Boghossian and his colleagues—mathematician James A. Lindsay and Areo magazine Editor Helen Pluckrose, who has an academic background in English literature and history—said the articles were intended to satirize and reveal a lack of academic rigor in fields broadly described as cultural and identity studies, including gender and sexuality studies, race and ethnicity studies, fat studies and sociology.

The authors, who referred to the hoax as an academic project in “reflexive ethnography,” said they submitted “outlandish or intentionally broken” articles under pseudonyms in an attempt to see whether “absurd or deeply unethical” concepts would be able to pass muster in the peer-review process.

Of the 20 articles submitted, seven were accepted by academic journals, six were rejected outright and seven were still in the peer-review process when the project came to an end. In the Areo article, the authors also stated they had received four invitations to peer-review other papers “as a result of [their] own exemplary scholarship,” but they rejected these invitations due to ethical concerns.

From the accepted articles, four were published online before the hoax was exposed. These included an article published in Sexuality & Culture suggesting “potential socially remedial value for encouraging male anal eroticism with sex toys;” an ethnographic study of so-called breastaurants such as Hooters published in Sex Roles; a fat studies article advocating for the introduction of a category for “fat bodybuilding” into the sport of professional bodybuilding; and an analysis of “human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity” among dogs at public parks in Portland published in Gender, Place & Culture. All four articles have since been retracted by their respective journals.

“Something has gone wrong in the university—especially in certain fields within the humanities,” Boghossian, Lindsay and Pluckrose wrote in an Areo article. “Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators and other departments into adhering to their worldview.”

“Because open, good-faith conversation around topics of identity such as gender, race and sexuality…is nearly impossible, our aim has been to reboot these conversations,” the authors continued. “We hope this will give people—especially those who believe in liberalism, progress, modernity, open inquiry and social justice—a clear reason to look at the identitarian madness coming out of the academic and activist left and say, ‘No, I will not go along with that. You do not speak for me.’”

Boghossian, Lindsay and Pluckrose stated they chose to call their project to a premature halt after their “dog park” article attracted skeptical attention on social media in journalistic publications. However, they said their results indicate deep flaws within these academic fields.

“Although purposely biased and satirical, our papers are indistinguishable from other work in these disciplines,” Boghossian said in a press release. “This is a big problem as this scholarship is taught in universities, taken up by activists and misinformed politicians and journalists about the true nature of our cultural realities.”

PSU student Bode Smith, a film studies major and member of the PSU Freethinkers student group, said he could see the potential benefits of the project, but it shouldn’t be seen as a dismissal of humanities disciplines altogether.

“I personally like what [they] did. I don’t think there’s any harm in it at all,” Smith said. “Is there any critique happening within women’s studies? Basically everybody who’s there already has an [agreed-upon] logical precept…and they just run unchecked because outsiders basically aren’t in the conversation at all in the academic environment, so [in that regard], I think that it’s doing something that could be sort of informed, but shouldn’t be seen as complete dismissal either.”

Freethinkers member Blake Horner said she agreed there were issues with bias in humanities fields. “A lot of these humanities are ripe for exploitation from people who have an ideological stance,” she said.

Critics, however, have accused the trio of engaging in dishonest academic practices. In an opinion piece published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Carl T. Bergstrom called the project indefensible and accused Boghossian, Lindsay and Pluckrose of fabricating data and failing to obtain required Institutional Review Board approval for research with human subjects.

The IRB, managed at PSU through the Office of Research and Graduate Studies, regulates academic research involving human subjects and approves or rejects proposed research methods based on both regulatory and ethical considerations. With some specific exceptions, most published research involving the collection of data about human subjects requires an IRB review.

Boghossian did not respond to a request for direct comment.

Lydia McLeod, a first-year transfer student at PSU majoring in psychology and Spanish, is currently taking Boghossian’s critical thinking class as a cluster course. She said Boghossian sometimes references his complaints about academia and the university in class.

“He doesn’t say explicitly what his problems are really, but I know he doesn’t like it,” McLeod said. “He talks about how he’s getting in trouble with [PSU], and that he can’t talk about protected classes.”

“He emphasizes a lot in class how people have attached their identities to their opinions, so it becomes really difficult to have a conversation with people because they just start getting upset and [offended] instead of discussing facts,” she continued.

McLeod said she found Boghossian’s approach to teaching critical thinking valuable, but she didn’t agree with everything he said in class. “One thing he did teach me is don’t 100 percent believe everyone, which has taught me to not believe him.”

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