Hoax With Multiple Targets

Fake article is published, calling for the penis to be seen conceptually, not as a body organ. Debates take off about gender studies and open-access journals.

May 22, 2017
 

When Alan Sokal published a faux article in the journal Social Text in 1996, the target was clear. By getting a leading humanities journal to publish an article with considerable gibberish and lots of humanities jargon, Sokal and his supporters said he illustrated flaws in cultural studies, particularly related to analyzing issues involving science.

On Friday, two scholars published a fake article in the journal Cogent Social Sciences. The authors used their fake piece to satirize gender studies.

The paper is called “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” The paper argues that people should not view the penis as a body organ. “Anatomical penises may exist, but as pre-operative transgendered women also have anatomical penises, the penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct,” the paper says. “We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity.”

“Nowhere are the consequences of hypermasculine machismo braggadocio isomorphic identification with the conceptual penis more problematic than concerning the issue of climate change,” the paper says. “Climate change is driven by nothing more than it is by certain damaging themes in hypermasculinity that can be best understood via the dominant rapacious approach to climate ecology identifiable with the conceptual penis. Our planet is rapidly approaching the much-warned-about [2 degrees Celsius] climate change threshold, and due to patriarchal power dynamics that maintain present capitalist structures, especially with regard to the fossil fuel industry, the connection between hypermasculine dominance of scientific, political and economic discourses and the irreparable damage to our ecosystem is made clear.”

If the language didn’t give the authors away, their biography might have. For example, here is part of it: “While neither [author] uses Twitter, both finding the platform overly reductive, they incorporate careful reading of the relevant academic literature with observations made by searching trending hashtags to derive important social truths with high impact. In this case, their particular fascination with penises and the ways in which penises are socially problematic, especially as a social construct known as a conceptual penis, have opened an avenue to a new frontier in gender and masculinities research that can transform our cultural geographies, mitigate climate change and achieve social justice.”

The authors quickly went public with their hoax and revealed their identities -- they are Peter Boghossian, a professor of philosophy at Portland State University, and James A. Lindsay, the author of four books.

“We wrote an absurd paper loosely composed in the style of poststructuralist discursive gender theory. The paper was ridiculous by intention, essentially arguing that penises shouldn’t be thought of as male genital organs but as damaging social constructions,” wrote Boghossian and Lindsay.

Many of their references were false, they wrote, and the real ones weren’t actually read by the authors.

To the many wondering if the paper was printed just as submitted, they wrote that they received comments from two peer reviewers, both of whom praised the paper. One asked for minor changes. “We effortlessly completed them in about two hours, putting in a little more nonsense about ‘manspreading’ (which we alleged to be a cause of climate change) and ‘dick-measuring contests.’”

In explaining the goal of the hoax, they wrote, “We intended to test the hypothesis that flattery of the academic left’s moral architecture in general, and of the moral orthodoxy in gender studies in particular, is the overwhelming determiner of publication in an academic journal in the field. That is, we sought to demonstrate that a desire for a certain moral view of the world to be validated could overcome the critical assessment required for legitimate scholarship. Particularly, 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 suspicion was justified.”

They also noted concerns they have about open-access publishing that is combined with article processing fees. Some open-access publishers ask for or require such fees as a means to maintain free content. Some colleges and universities, seeking to support open-access publishing, will pay such fees for faculty members. (Boghossian noted that Portland State, where he teaches, has such a policy but that he did not use it because he was publishing a hoax paper.) The hoaxers said that they did not think all open-access publishing was poor, nor that fees necessarily were wrong. But they said that the speedy publication of their paper, with an author fee, raised questions, at least about this publication.

As word about the hoax spread over the weekend, the first wave of reactions came from people who thought the hoax said something about the state of the humanities or gender studies.

But then another set of critiques started to appear, taking issue with those who produced the hoax and with those praising them. This set of critiques argued that this hoax did not come close to Sokal’s. His appeared in Social Text, then and now a widely respected journal in the humanities. Cogent Social Sciences is not a major player in scholarship, these scholars noted, and its business model (taking author payments) makes it suspect.

James Taylor, associate professor of philosophy at the College of New Jersey, wrote on the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians that “it turns out that the joke’s on the hoaxers themselves -- both for failing to spot some very obvious red flags about this ‘journal,’ and for their rather bizarre leaps of logic.” The way the journal charges authors is that red flag, Taylor writes.

“This tells us very little about gender studies, but an awful lot about the perpetrators of this ‘hoax’ … and those who tout it as a takedown of an entire field.” Taylor’s headline for his piece: “Why the ‘Conceptual Penis’ Hoax Is Just a Big Cock-Up.”

Ketan Joshi, an Australian scientist and consultant, wrote on his blog that it is important to remember that many scientists have published hoax articles in science journals -- and that humanities disciplines are not the only ones vulnerable to such attacks. Further, he wrote that “a single instance isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that an entire field of research is crippled by religious man-hating fervor, and that anyone pushing that line is probably weirdly compromised.”

Others are less willing to say that this is simply a case of a compromised open-access publication process.

Notably, the hoax paper was first submitted to NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, which is a scholarly journal published by the Nordic Association for Research on Men and Masculinities, and Taylor & Francis, an international academic publisher of many peer-reviewed journals, most of which are not open access.

NORMA rejected the piece, but when it did so it suggested Cogent Social Sciences might be a good fit. And NORMA’s editors noted the ease with which the submission could go to Cogent Social Sciences, which is also affiliated with Taylor & Francis.

Still others have noted that while there are “predatory” open-access journals that publish only when paid to do so by authors, there are many signs that Cogent Social Sciences is widely considered to be legitimate. For example, it is listed in the Directory of Open-Access Journals, which describes itself as a group of journals that share “a commitment to quality, peer-reviewed open access.”

The sociology blog Orgtheory.net wrote of the connections between Taylor & Francis, NORMA and Cogent Social Science. “So get this: If your article gets rejected from one of our regular journals, we’ll automatically forward it to one of our crappy interdisciplinary pay-to-play journals, where we’ll gladly take your (or your funder’s or institution’s) money to publish it after a cursory ‘peer review.’ That is a new one to me. There’s a hoax going on here, all right. But I don’t think it’s gender studies that’s being fooled.”

Inside Higher Ed reached out to editors and spokespersons for Cogent Social Sciences, NORMA and Taylor & Francis and received no responses.

As of Sunday, after more than 24 hours of online discussion of the conceptual penis article being a hoax, it remains online at the Cogent Social Sciences website.

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