Fake News Comes to Academia

How three scholars gulled academic journals to publish hoax papers on ‘grievance studies.’

 

Fake News Comes to Academia
ILLUSTRATION: CHAD CROWE

The existence of a monthly journal focused on “feminist geography” is a sign of something gone awry in academia. The journal in question—Gender, Place & Culture—published a paper online in May whose author claimed to have spent a year observing canine sexual misconduct in Portland, Ore., parks.

The author admits that “my own anthropocentric frame” makes it difficult to judge animal consent. Still, the paper claims dog parks are “petri dishes for canine ‘rape culture’ ” and issues “a call for awareness into the different ways dogs are treated on the basis of their gender and queering behaviors, and the chronic and perennial rape emergency dog parks pose to female dogs.”

The paper was ridiculous enough to pique my interest—and rouse my skepticism, which grew in July with a report in Campus Reform by Toni Airaksinen. Author Helen Wilson had claimed to have a doctorate in feminist studies, but “none of the institutions that offers such a degree could confirm that she had graduated from their program,” Ms. Airaksinen wrote. In August Gender, Place & Culture issued an “expression of concern” admitting it couldn’t verify Ms. Wilson’s identity, though it kept the paper on its website.

All of this prompted me to ask my own questions. My email to “Helen Wilson” was answered by James Lindsay, a math doctorate and one of the real co-authors of the dog-park study. Gender, Place & Culture had been duped, he admitted. So had half a dozen other prominent journals that accepted fake papers by Mr. Lindsay and his collaborators—Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University, and Helen Pluckrose, a London-based scholar of English literature and history and editor of AreoMagazine.com.

The three academics call themselves “left-leaning liberals.” Yet they’re dismayed by what they describe as a “grievance studies” takeover of academia, especially its encroachment into the sciences. “I think that certain aspects of knowledge production in the United States have been corrupted,” Mr. Boghossian says. Anyone who questions research on identity, privilege and oppression risks accusations of bigotry.

Beginning in August 2017, the trio wrote 20 hoax papers, submitting them to peer-reviewed journals under a variety of pseudonyms, as well as the name of their friend Richard Baldwin, a professor emeritus at Florida’s Gulf Coast State College. Mr. Baldwin confirms he gave them permission use his name. Journals accepted seven hoax papers. Four have been published.

This isn’t the first time scholars have used a hoax paper to make a point. In 1996 Duke University Press’s journal Social Text published a hoax submission by Alan Sokal, a mathematical physicist at New York University. Mr. Sokal, who faced no punishment for the hoax, told me he was “not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment,” adding that “professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust.”

But he also said he was criticizing an academic subculture “that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside.” He concluded: “How can one show that the emperor has no clothes? Satire is by far the best weapon; and the blow that can’t be brushed off is the one that’s self-inflicted.” Messrs. Lindsay and Boghossian were already known for a hoax paper titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” which they published in the journal Cogent Social Sciences last year under the names Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle.

Such hoaxes are unethical, and The Wall Street Journal doesn’t condone them. The Journal expects op-ed contributors to be truthful about their identities and research, and academic journals also rely on the honesty of their authors.

But the trio defended their actions, saying they viewed the deception not as a prank but as a “hoax of exposure,” or a way to do immersive research that couldn’t be conducted any other way. “We understood ourselves to be going in to study it as it is, to try to participate in it,” Ms. Pluckrose says. “The name for this is ethnography. We’re looking at a particular culture.”

Each paper “combined an effort to better understand the field itself with an attempt to get absurdities and morally fashionable political ideas published as legitimate academic research,” Mr. Lindsay wrote in a project summary. Their elaborate submissions cited and quoted dozens of real papers and studies to bolster the hoax arguments.

One of the trio’s hoax papers, published in April by the journal Fat Studies, claims bodybuilding is “fat-exclusionary” and proposes “a new classification . . . termed fat bodybuilding, as a fat-inclusive politicized performance.” Editor Esther Rothblum said the paper had gone through peer review, and the author signed a copyright form verifying authorship of the article. “This author put a lot of work into this topic,” she said. “It is an interesting topic, looking at weight and bodybuilding. So I am surprised that, of all things, they’d write this as a hoax. As you can imagine, this is a very serious charge.” She plans to remove the paper from the Fat Studies website.

A hoax paper for the Journal of Poetry Therapy describes monthly feminist spirituality meetings, complete with a “womb room,” and discusses six poems, which Mr. Lindsay generated by algorithm and lightly edited. Founding editor Nicholas Mazza said the article went through blind peer review and revisions before its acceptance in July, but he regrets not doing more to verify the author’s identity. He added that it took years to build credibility and get the Journal of Poetry Therapy listed in major scholarly databases. “You work so hard, and you get something like this,” he said. Still, “I can see how editors like me and journals can be duped.”

Affilia, a peer-reviewed journal of women and social work, formally accepted the trio’s hoax paper, “Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism.” The second portion of the paper is a rewrite of a chapter from “Mein Kampf.” Affilia’s editors declined to comment.

The trio say they’ve proved that higher ed’s fixation on identity politics enables “absurd and horrific” scholarship. Their submissions were outlandish—but no more so, they insist, than others written in earnest and published by these journals.

Gender, Place & Culture, for instance, published a 2017 paper that wasn’t a hoax analyzing the “feminist posthumanist politics” of what squirrels eat. This year Hypatia, a journal of feminist philosophy, published an analysis of a one-woman show featuring “the onstage cooking of hot chocolate and the presence of a dead rat.” The performance supposedly offers “a synthaesthetic portrait of poverty and its psychological fallout.”

The trio say the biases in favor of grievance-focused research was so strong that their hoax papers sailed through peer review, acceptance and publication despite obvious problems. The data for the dog-park study, Mr. Lindsay says, “was constructed to look outlandish on purpose. So asking us for the data would not have been out of sorts. It would have been appropriate, and we would have been exposed immediately.”

One hoax paper, submitted to Hypatia, proposed a teaching method centered on “experiential reparations.” It suggested that professors rate students’ levels of oppression based on race, gender, class and other identity categories. Students deemed “privileged” would be kept from commenting in class, interrupted when they did speak, and “invited” to “sit on the floor” or “to wear (light) chains around their shoulders, wrists or ankles for the duration of the course.” Students who complained would be told that this “educational tool” helps them confront “privileged fragility.”

Hypatia’s two unnamed peer reviewers did not object that the proposed teaching method was abusive. “I like this project very much,” one commented. One wondered how to make privileged students “feel genuinely uncomfortable in ways that are humbling and productive,” but not “so uncomfortable (shame) that they resist with renewed vigor.” Hypatia didn’t accept the paper but said it would consider a revised version. In July it formally accepted another hoax paper, “When the Joke Is on You: A Feminist Perspective on How Positionality Influences Satire”—an argument that humor, satire and hoaxes should only be used in service of social justice, not against it.

Ann Garry, an interim editor of Hypatia, said she was “deeply disappointed” to learn that the papers, which went through double anonymous peer review, may be hoaxes. “Referees put in a great deal of time and effort to write meaningful reviews, and the idea that individuals would submit fraudulent academic material violates many ethical and academic norms,” she said. “It is equally upsetting that the anonymous reviewer comments from that effort were shared with third parties, violating the confidentiality of the peer-review process.” Wiley, Hypatia’s publisher, is investigating in accordance with industrywide ethical guidelines, she said.

After I contacted Gender, Place & Culture about the dog-park hoax paper, I received a statement from Taylor & Francis Group, the journal’s publisher. Tracy Roberts, publishing director for the humanities and social sciences, said that after postpublishing checks raised questions about the author’s identity, the editors launched an investigation several weeks ago. “Helen Wilson” never responded to their queries. “We are now in the process of retracting this article from the scholarly record,” the editorial team said in a statement.

Mr. Boghossian doesn’t have tenure and expects the university will fire or otherwise punish him. Ms. Pluckrose predicts she’ll have a hard time getting accepted to a doctoral program. Mr. Lindsay said he expects to become “an academic pariah,” barred from professorships or publications.

Yet Mr. Lindsay says the project is worth it: “For us, the risk of letting biased research continue to influence education, media, policy and culture is far greater than anything that will happen to us for having done this.”

Ms. Melchior is an editorial page writer at the Journal.

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