Research misconduct findings for hoax articles prompt disciplinary review

Ten days after the Wall Street Journal released a report on hoax articles submitted by Portland State Philosophy Professor Peter Boghossian and his colleagues, the university formally initiated a committee to investigate whether Boghossian had engaged in research misconduct.

The result of that investigation found at least one article constitutes “an unambiguous example of research data fabrication…[and] a clear violation of the policies of your employer,” according to letters from Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies Mark McLellan.

Boghossian has come under fire after he and his colleagues—mathematician James A. Lindsay and Areo magazine Editor Helen Pluckrose—attempted to expose bias in certain scholarly fields broadly described by the authors as cultural and identity studies.

In a YouTube video “PSU Accuses Peter Boghossian of Ethical Misconduct,” published on Jan. 5, Boghossian read an Oct. 12 letter from PSU’s Institutional Review Board notifying him of its decision to review at least one hoax article. He also discussed the implications of the reviewal with his colleagues. “I think they will do anything and everything in their power to get me out, and I think this is the first shot in that,” Boghossian said in the video.

It is currently unclear what form disciplinary action will take. The video also refers to “a further charge relating to falsification of data” currently under review.  

“You don’t pull someone before the IRB to slap their wrists,” Boghossian said in the video. “It doesn’t happen.”

According to Pluckrose, Boghossian is currently restricted from performing any human-subjects research until he has completed an appropriate training protocol administered by the assistant vice president for Research Administration.

Associate Vice President for University Communications Chris Broderick said over email that IRB reviews and accompanying letters are confidential, noting “Peter Boghossian has released some of that on his own.”

Boghossian did not respond to comment and interview requests as of press time.

He had previously described the hoax articles as “reflexive ethnography,” and the question at hand was whether these articles constituted actual research, which includes specific procedures for prior approval, particularly when research involves human subjects.

“Research misconduct is very narrowly defined as either fabrication (making up data or results and reporting them), falsification (manipulating research materials, equipment or processes or changing or omitting data or results) or plagiarism (appropriating the ideas or words of others without attribution),” read a statement released by Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies Mark McLellan.

McLellan stated in a Nov. 27 letter to Boghossian, “The Committee unanimously agreed that the ‘dog park’ article represents an unambiguous example of research data fabrication.”

The dog park article referred to one of the 20 articles Boghossian submitted, titled “Expression of Concern: Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon.”

Boghossian had been asked to turn over all research materials related to the article as part of the IRB’s review process. The article was originally published in the journal Gender, Place, and Culture, which later retracted the article after failing to confirm the author’s identity.

Seven of the 20 articles submitted were accepted by academic journals, with six being rejected and an additional seven still in the peer review process before the project was discovered.

Pluckrose referred to a letter sent to Boghossian on Dec. 14 in which PSU notified Boghossian that his hoax articles met the federal definition for academic research, which include standards and protocols for prior review that must be followed, especially in cases of research involving human subjects.

Those standards were not met, according to a follow-up letter on Dec. 21 in which McLellan informed Boghossian, “Your efforts to conduct human subjects research at PSU without a submitted nor approved protocol is a clear violation of the policies of your employer.”

The committee’s findings have been escalated to PSU President Rahmat Shoureshi and Provost Susan Jeffords. According to the university’s policy on research misconduct, there is a 30-day period for Boghossian to request a review by the university president of the committee’s findings.

Reached over email, American Association of University Professors Executive Director Phil Lesch confirmed the university is required to provide the AAUP with copies of any complaints from the president that could lead to disciplinary action against a professor more severe than a verbal reprimand.

“PSU-AAUP has not received any such complaints regarding Peter Boghossian,” Lesch said.

Boghossian has appealed to his significant online following to submit letters to McLellan on his behalf and has posted several responses from academics, students and other individuals.

High-profile supporters of Boghossian include Professor of Psychology at Harvard University Steven Pinker, Oxford University Professor Emeritus Richard Dawkins and Alan Sokal, author of a 1966 hoax article that has been referenced as an inspiration for the articles submitted by Boghossian and others.

According to a report in The Washington Times, in a Dec. 14 letter to McLellan, Sokal concluded Boghossian “should face no disciplinary action whatsoever for his project.”

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