Scholarly Scandal, Academic Principles and Public Trust

How the recent journal hoax helps us reflect on core academic principles.

October 12, 2018

I entered graduate school with a head full of critical race and gender theories inspired by bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, James Baldwin, Cornel West and others of this general school. These theorists not only explained to me much of the world, but also helped me understand my own experience as a brown guy who had grown up in the white western suburbs of Chicago. In reading them, I realized just how much my life had been about navigating around white supremacy. In that way, my undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois were not only illuminating, but also enormously liberating. For that, I am forever grateful.

My doctoral dissertation at Oxford University began as a study of how a group of young South Asian Ismaili Muslims in London constructed their identities. I brought the race and gender theories I had studied in the United States across the pond, mixed them with a little Stuart Hall, and fully expected the people I was studying to fit neatly into the frame. After all, I was a young South Asian Ismaili Muslim whose experience was significantly illuminated by these theorists, shouldn’t people who looked and prayed like me (albeit in London rather than the suburbs of Chicago) respond similarly? 

My dissertation advisor, Professor Geoffrey Walford, encouraged this approach. At this stage of the game, he would tell me, theory helps you shape your research questions, illuminates avenues of inquiry, and provides you with various hypotheses to test. There’s no harm in starting with the theories that resonate with you the most. 

For the first six months of my fieldwork, I asked my subjects in every way imaginable, both directly and indirectly, how racism and sexism had impacted their lives. I didn’t quite get blank stares, but pretty close. So I asked their parents. Then I asked their friends. Also, I asked their siblings. Nada.

Racism was just not the same kind of formative experience for them as it was for me.

Dejected, I showed my field notes to my dissertation advisor, and about wailed at my obvious failure as a qualitative sociologist. That’s when he delivered probably the most important academic advice I’ve gotten in my life:

I understand that as an advocate against racism, you want to find examples of it everywhere you look. But as an academic, you are actually not supposed to be looking for ways to prove your theories about the world right. Rather, you ought to be looking for ways to prove them wrong. And when you find that a set of theories are inadequate to the world, you should delight. The task of the researcher is not to fit the world into a worldview, but rather to discover and describe parts of the world hitherto unknown to theorists, and thereby improve theory.

I have come to see that meeting with my advisor as my initiation into academic values, at least of the research-oriented kind. Here is how I would summarize those values: 

Academics are rigorous about research design, pit bulls when it comes to hunting down new evidence, and extremely slow to come to conclusions. We do not confuse correlation with causation, we disdain speaking in generalities (because exceptions are all around), we are constantly qualifying statements and pointing out contingencies, and we take great care to speak with precision. Above all, we do not fall in love with our own conclusions and go evidence-hunting to support them.

None of what I am saying is a dismissal of the critical race and gender theories that so explained my personal world and influenced my worldview. It is only a recognition that those theories don’t explain all of the world, at least not the part that I was researching in my doctoral program. So I had to work harder, explore new theories, ask different questions, think more deeply about the human experience.

In other words, I had to be an academic.

This practice of rigor and consideration is key to the trust that the public gives us. That trust manifests itself in employment features (for those who are fortunate) that are virtually unknown elsewhere: lifetime appointments, unparalleled expressive freedoms, nothing that resembles what other humans would call a boss. 

It was in this direction that my attention turned when I read about the recent hoax afflicting a set of identity-oriented academic journals. In quick summary, the hoax involved three professors who produced twenty papers (one every two weeks or so) using language that resonates with identity-oriented fields but entirely fictional research processes. A remarkable number of the papers were accepted for publication. This piece both summarizes and offers context:

I know there’s been a lot of talk about whether or not the hoax was ethical. I find that an interesting question, and also feel no need to add my voice to that conversation.

I think what the hoax revealed is the willingness of a set of journals, at least for this set of papers, to overlook shoddy research processes in favor of conclusions they wanted to advance.

If this incident is a window into a larger problem - and I’m not sure it is – it jeopardizes something very significant: public trust.

Make no mistake, the public puts a lot of trust in scholars, highlighted by the unique features of faculty appointments, and more importantly by the high regard traditionally given to the views of academics. Illustrations of this abound: academics are frequently quoted as ‘experts’ in journalistic articles, consulted by leaders in policy circles and government positions, and called on to give public talks and serve on educational panels.  

The basis for this public trust, I believe, are the academic principles I highlighted above. When those principles are compromised, an erosion of public trust may well follow. 

I am probably describing the research-oriented parts of the academy more than the theory-oriented ones, but as my dissertation advisor suggested, theories must, now and again, submit themselves to the reality of the world, with special emphasis on the parts of the world that challenge the theory.

This scandal is embarrassing. That’s ok. It happens. Great basketball players miss shots they should have made. Great hitters sometimes strike out when the game is on the line (I’m looking at you, Chicago Cubs). Great chefs occasionally make bad dishes. We’re human, we make mistakes.

There is something worse than the occasional embarrassment for a journal: the loss of public trust in a sector that ought to have a lot of it.

Are we not seeing signs of this erosion? Confidence in higher ed has declined by nine percent in just the past couple years according to a recent Gallup survey. Perhaps we can use this moment of embarrassment constructively, as an opportunity to return to the values that are core to what it means to be an academic: rigor, precision and judiciousness.  


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