How the Hoax Got Published

Publisher blames faulty peer review and automated system for forwarding articles from one journal to another to explain publication of piece on the male organ as a concept rather than anatomy.

May 25, 2017

How could a journal publish that?

That's the question many asked when they learned that Cogent Social Sciences, a peer-reviewed journal, had published “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” The paper argues that the penis, contrary to popular opinion, should not be viewed as an organ of the human body. “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.” (While the article has been removed from the journal's website, an archived version may be found here.)

The authors of the paper quickly came forward to say that it was a hoax -- designed to focus attention on the field of gender studies and the part of open-access publishing in which authors pay fees (as is the case at Cogent Social Sciences). In the days since the hoax became public, many have asked for answers from the journal and from Taylor & Francis, a major academic publisher with which Cogent Social Sciences is affiliated.

On Wednesday, Cogent Social Sciences published a statement with its take on the situation. In the statement it blamed a faulty referral system for Taylor & Francis journals as well as poor peer reviewing.

When the authors revealed their hoax, they said that they first submitted their piece to NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, which is a scholarly journal published by the Nordic Association for Research on Men and Masculinities, and by Taylor & Francis. NORMA rejected the piece, but when it did so it suggested Cogent Social Sciences might be a good fit. (Journal transfers are common among publications that are part of large publishing organizations, and allow editors to suggest appropriate homes for a piece.)

Wednesday's statement from Cogent Social Sciences and Taylor & Francis said that the referral to Cogent Social Sciences was made "inadvertently."

One of the editors of NORMA, Ulf Mellström, a professor at the Center for Gender Studies at Sweden's Karlstad University, said via email that the referral was apparently automatically generated as part of the rejection process. Of the paper, he said that "we thought it was sheer nonsense" and that the intent was an outright rejection. NORMA didn't realize the automatic referral system was in place and has asked Taylor & Francis to remove it, Mellström said.

As to how Cogent Social Sciences handled the piece, the statement from that journal said, "The article was received by a senior editor and sent out for peer review as is standard. Two reviewers agreed to review the paper and it was accepted with no changes by one reviewer, and with minor amends by the other. On investigation, although the two reviewers had relevant research interests, their expertise did not fully align with this subject matter and we do not believe that they were the right choice to review this paper."

Further, the statement outlined three steps now being taken by Cogent Social Sciences: "We are working closely with the academic editorial teams of all our journals to review our processes and make changes where necessary to minimize the risk of such a situation happening again. We are reviewing our academic editor and peer reviewer education program to ensure editors and peer reviewers are fully equipped with the skills they need to assess whether a paper is fit for publication. We are working with colleagues at Taylor & Francis to examine our peer review systems and workflow so that articles deemed unsuitable for publication cannot be transferred inadvertently to another journal’s submissions system."

Via email, James Lindsay, one of the authors of the hoax paper, said, "I am glad the journal has taken the paper down and is committed to improving its standards …. If this contributes to a body of evidence that the hoax was published by a journal with problems in their peer review process … then as that evidence mounts, we will follow it and conclude that our hoax has primarily drawn attention to the problem of standards in some open-access journals."

As to gender studies, he said, "Contrary to many of our critics, we do not claim that our hoax 'proved' that gender studies has a problem. The belief that there is a problem precedes, not follows, the hoax. We hope the increased attention on gender scholarship either vindicates the field, if it has no problems, or initiates the housecleaning it needs, if it does."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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