A pair of skeptical scholars pulled off a hoax publication (in, dare I say it, a “dick” move) to expose problems with the field of gender studies and, ultimately, the peer review and publishing process for scholarly journals.
Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay wrote “3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship” and had the paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences.
They used pseudonyms and a fictitious affiliation for a paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct”. The premise of the paper was entirely made up but the concept – that the male reproductive organ is a symbolic social construct of repression damaging society (or something like that) – fed into the fashionable morality of this liberal subcommunity.
Here are some of the absurdities the authors pointed out about the paper in their feature for Skeptic Magazine.
- They loaded the paper with jargon, nonsense and even allusions to rape (“raping the empty space around him”) in a deliberate attempt to be meaningless and absurd.
- Blaming the “conceptual penis” as a factor driving climate change. (Yes, really.)
- Used auto-generated nonsense quotes and cited them as being from fake papers.
- References were randomly selected and had nothing to do with the topic. Or they were entirely fake.
The publishing journal was the second stop after the authors’ work had been rejected by NORMA: International Journal of Masculinity Studies – a journal by a reputable international academic publisher, Taylor and Francis. However, in their rejection, the NORMA editors suggested that the authors apply to the open-journal Cogent Social Sciences (CSS), also under the banner of Taylor and Francis!
The anonymous reviewers for CSS were approving of the paper with only minor revisions.
The pay-to-publish system (in this case $625) is clearly corrupted. This hasn’t been the first time this has been demonstrated. Certainly, though, not all of these journals are worthless or predatory, but many clearly are. The authors conclude that the ubiquity of garbage journals is damaging the credibility and overall quality of scientific literature, as they will publish any nonsense next to a genuine piece of research. Such journals sell the “illusion of academic prestige” and “take advantage of legitimate scholars pressured into publishing their work at all costs” even if it’s not even worth publishing.
Citing Alan Sokal’s famous hoax of the postmodernist cultural studies journal Social Text, the authors admit that their paper isn’t going to be a death blow to the biased publication of “morally fashionable nonsense” that is praised by an ignorant echo-chamber. Refreshingly frank, the authors state: “…we suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicious was justified.” In other words, they tested the hypothesis that this field was full of crap and the hypothesis was supported by the experimental results.
UPDATE (24-May-2017): Several commenters noted that there were some serious flaws in what the authors did. First, this response notes the following about CSS:
While this open-access journal claims to employ peer review, in fact articles are only reviewed by a single individual and just about all are accepted. And while it is published by Taylor and Francis, a respected publisher, the journal’s website makes clear that it operates entirely independently of Taylor & Francis, and that its publishing model is utterly different from theirs.
But more pointedly, the “suspicion” about the problems with the bias in gender studies was not justified unless the paper itself was part of a pattern. Also, it assumes that the reviewers and journal itself took the paper seriously, which may not be true. They could just be publishing anything meaning that there is no genuine agenda that “maleness is the root of all evil”. There are plenty of examples that support the argument that the cultural studies field is rife with nonsense scholarship, but unless this experiment was done with a control paper of gobbledegook unrelated to male reproductive organs being the root of all evil, they didn’t adequately justify their suspicion about the field. However, the problem with too many garbage pail journals remains a serious problem. Had they stuck to that point, they may have avoided the wave of negative criticism and accusations of bias.
The paper is here if you wish to read it, though that would be a bit of a waste.
For more on deliberate skeptical hoaxes, check out this piece. Personally, I caution against “stings” like this because they often fail or backfire on those who execute them, making so-called “skeptics” look ridiculous.
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