Portland State University Says Hoax 'Grievance Studies' Experiment Violated Research Ethics

Firing Peter Boghossian for failing to get permission from the institutional review board would threaten academic freedom.


Screenshot via Mike Nayna / Youtube

Peter Boghossian, a professor of philosophy best known for his involvement in the "grievance studies" hoax papers, is now in trouble with Portland State University's Institutional Review Board (IRB), which has accused him of violating its policies regarding the ethical treatment of human test subjects in the course of his experiment.

"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," wrote PSU Vice President Mike McLellan in an email to Boghossian, according to Areo.

This charge makes Boghossian sound like Dr. Frankenstein. But the "human subjects" in question are the peer reviewers and journal editors who accepted Boghossian's hoax papers for publication. Their reputations may have suffered as a result of being duped—and they were indeed unwitting participants in the experiment—but their physical well-being was not compromised. Moreover, it may not have been obvious to Boghossian and his co-conspirators that research conducted outside his field, bearing no formal connection to Portland State University, was still subject to IRB approval.

Nevertheless, the professor could face sanctions for his conduct, including possible termination.

Let's back up a bit. The "grievance studies" hoax—also known as Sokal Squared, in reference to physicist Alan Sokal's similar stunt from 1996—was masterminded by Boghossian and two friends: Areo editor Helen Pluckrose and mathematician James Lindsay. The trio, who consider themselves left-wing, were concerned about the state of modern discourse on the left; they had come to believe that academic journals would uncritically accept drivel for publication, so long as the underlying research promoted leftist identity politics.

To prove that that this was a problem, they decided to submit a series of fake papers to prominent publications and see how many would gullibly accept dubious research because it comported with an intersectional or postmodern leftist framework.

Their efforts were worryingly successful. The journal Fat Studies, for instance, published a hoax paper that argued the term bodybuilding was exclusionary and should be replaced with "fat bodybuilding, as a fat-inclusive politicized performance." Another fake, "Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism," was accepted by Affilia, a journal for social workers. The paper consisted in part of a rewritten passage from Mein Kampf.

Two other hoax papers were published, including "Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks." This one caught my eye last June. I mistakenly presumed that it was real: Though many of its conclusions were patently absurd, and the subject—dog-on-dog rape—quite curious, it did not strike me as impossible that a weirdly obsessed and determined researcher could in fact visit dog parks and count the number of canine sexual assaults she witnessed. But the dog rape paper eventually forced Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay to prematurely out themselves, since a Wall Street Journal writer had figured out what they were doing.

Reactions to the experiment were mixed. The Wall Street Journal reporter, Jillian Kay Melchior, headlined her piece, "Fake News Comes to Academia." My own opinion was that Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay had identified some real issues in the peer review process, but the fakes were so elaborately crafted that they did not quite offer proof that grievance studies papers get a free pass. "Rape Culture and Queer Performatively at Urban Dog Parks" wasn't just crap—it was impressive, (seemingly) thoroughly researched crap!

As the only one of the three authors who holds an actual academic position, Boghossian was the most vulnerable to blowback. In October, Portland State administrators initiated a review of his actions to determine whether he had violated university policy. According to the university, faculty who conduct research on human beings are required to gain permission from the IRB. "Generally, research with human subjects includes any data collection about someone that you then plan to present, publish, disseminate, or otherwise share as a contribution to the field of inquiry," the IRB's website says.

Compliance with institutional review boards is a common facet of academic life; universities require assurances that professors are not conducting unethical experiments that harm their subjects. (Of course, since IRBs are change-averse bureaucracies, they often construct unnecessary hoops for researchers—see this amazing Slate Star Codex post detailing Scott Alexander's futile attempts to gain IRB approval for a perfectly benign study.) But it's possible that Boghossian didn't realize he needed IRB approval for this project, since it had nothing to do with his job. (Portland State, I gather, considers all research conducted by its employees to be subject to IRB oversight, so this probably isn't going to work as an excuse.)

Boghossian has declined to comment; he tells me he's "overwhelmed" at the moment and will answer questions at a later date. Pluckrose tells me that she had received hundreds of emails since going public about Portland State's concerns on Saturday, and "is not talking to anyone at the moment."

"We thought they'd try to get him out on some technicality they could claim to be academic misconduct but did not consider this route," she says.

On Twitter, Lindsay opines that seeking the IRB's approval was impossible—administrators would not have sanctioned the project, and this would have risked blowing their cover.

Musa al-Gharbi, a sociology fellow at Columbia University and director of communications for Heterodox Academy, tells me he thought it "highly plausible that had they followed standard protocol, the IRB board would have rejected their proposal for political/ideological reasons."

Al-Gharbi, I should note, is not a blanket cheerleader for the experiment. In fact, he shares my perspective that Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay did not manage to prove the extreme version of their hypothesis:

The claim by the authors (and many other critics of these subfields) is that these journals will publish virtually anything that "falls within the moral orthodoxy and demonstrates understanding of the existing literature," almost purely in virtue of meeting these criteria. This does not seem to be borne out in their results: 77% of their submissions were rebuffed, they failed to publish anything in 66% of the journals they submitted to, and 42% of their papers were never granted so much as an R&R, often despite multiple publication attempts.

Nevertheless, al-Gharbi believes that any failure to seek IRB approval was likely an oversight, and unsurprising given the nature of the work they were doing.

"There is a long tradition within the field of philosophy in carrying out hoaxes like these," he says. "They virtually never involve IRB approval."

Jeffrey Sachs, a lecturer at Acadia University with whom I have often sparred on the subjects of free speech and political correctness, tells me Boghossian's situation is very complicated.

"I want to know a lot more before making a judgment either way," he says.

Sachs told me it certainly looked like Boghossian violated protocol, but that this shouldn't necessarily result in his termination.

"IRB violations do happen from time to time," he said. "They're not common, but they occur. Unless a serious injury was the result, a serious punishment is rarely meted out. Often a warning and greater future scrutiny is all that happens. So it seems to me that [Boghossian] should not be punished heavily at all."

The videographer Mike Nayna, who has documented Sokal Squared on YouTube, claims that Boghossian is still under investigation for falsifying data (i.e., submitting made-up papers to journals).

While I'm far from convinced that submitting elaborate hoax papers was the best way to draw attention to the scholarly deficiencies of "grievance studies," it would be troubling on academic freedom grounds if Boghossian lost his job simply because he did not ask his university for permission to conduct this little experiment.