A trio of writers who describe themselves as left-leaning but decry the academic influence of political correctness, identity politics, and what they call "grievance studies" conducted an experiment: Could they fool scholarly journals into publishing hoax papers masquerading as legitimate scholarship?
The answer, it turns out, was yes. Seven journals accepted the fake papers, which were written by James Lindsay, a mathematician; Helen Pluckrose, editor of Areo; and Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University.
Four of the papers have been published, according to The Wall Street Journal:
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.
In addition to the papers on fat studies, feminism spirituality, and neoliberal choice feminism, Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian also found a home for a fourth paper, "Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks."
This paper, which was published in Gender, Place and Culture, attracted my attention in June. While the title sounded absurd on its face, its author, the fictitious "Helen Wilson," purported to have compiled an impressive amount of data regarding her observations of canine sexual aggression at dog parks. Wilson claimed to be affiliated with the Portland Ungendering Research Initiative, which had a domain name but no operating website. As I wrote at the time, many of Wilson's conclusions were unwarranted, and the whole thing was written in incomprehensible social-justice gobbledygook, but the underlying data seemed to have some potential meaning, even if the author was applying it poorly:
Wilson spent 100 hours in three dog parks, where she made note of a whole bunch of times when one dog humped another. When the humping was male-on-male, owners intervened in the overwhelming number of cases. But when the humping was male-on-female, owners were far less likely to stop it. This, the study suggests, might say something about the owners' internalized homophobia and their willingness to overlook female victims of sexual assault.
At Areo, the authors claim that the dog park study's shortcomings should have been glaringly obvious because the statistics were "improbable," and advanced "highly dubious ethics including training men like dogs." The statistics may have been improbable enough that the journal should have asked for raw data, but it's not unthinkable that a very determined researcher obsessed with this topic could have done what Wilson claimed. As for the ethics involved, we-should-train-men-like-dogs is indeed a silly proposition, but researchers should feel comfortable exploring and testing crazy premises. Now who's being too P.C.?
My point is that I'm not sure this proves what Pluckrose, Boghossian, and Lindsay think it proves. They seem to believe they have shown that academic journals will accept complete garbage as long as it's intersectional progressive garbage. But at least in the case of the dog park study, this was well-disguised garbage.
This is not the first time Boghossian and Lindsay have declared victory after finding a home for shoddy scholarship. In 2017, they succeed in publishing a nonsense paper, "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct." But the chosen venue was essentially an academic vanity press that would only take their work if they paid a fee. Ultimately, this said more about the quality of pay-to-publish journals than it did about the gullibility of academic publishers.
The new scam is a lot more impressive: Seven hoax papers accepted for publication is a lot. This raises legitimate concerns about the academic publishing process, and much of the ridicule the "grievance studies" attract is deserved.
But it's also true more generally that if you work very, very hard at fooling people, you will often succeed—and not just in academia.