A hoax revealing that academic journals had accepted fake papers on topics from canine “rape culture” in dog parks to “fat bodybuilding” to an adaption of Mein Kampf met with applause and scorn in the fall. Fans of the project tended to agree with the hoaxers that critical studies scholars will validate anything aligned with their politics. Critics said that the researchers acted in bad faith, wasting editors’ and reviewers’ time and very publicly besmirching academe in the process: the story was covered by nearly every major news outlet.
Now the controversy has flared up again, with news that one of the project’s authors faces disciplinary action at his home institution. Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University and the only one of three researchers on the project to hold a full-time academic position, was found by his institutional review board to have committed research misconduct. Specifically, he failed to secure its approval before proceeding with research on human subjects -- in this case, the journal editors and reviewers he was tricking with his absurd but seemingly well-researched papers. Some seven of 20 were published in gender studies and other journals. Seven were rejected. Others were pending before the spoof was uncovered.
“An IRB protocol application should have been submitted to the Office of Research Integrity,” reads a determination letter from Portland state’s IRB dated last month. “University policy requires that all research involving human subjects conducted by faculty, other employees and students [on campus] must have prior review and approval by the IRB.”
Boghossian had previously been notified that the university had referred misconduct concerns about the canine "rape culture and queer performativity" paper published in Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, in particular, to the IRB.
But was the “Sokal Squared” project, as it was dubbed, after physicist Alan Sokal’s postmodern gobbledygook hoax of 1996, really research? It stalled after The Wall Street Journal wrote about it in October. Boghossian and his collaborators, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, did write up their own conclusions, quicker than planned, in Aero Magazine.
The IRB determined that the project, as discussed in Aero, was research since it was “a systematic investigation designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.” The determination letter continued, “The publicly available information about the project clearly indicates an iterative and systematic approach to performing the work, with an intention of generalizing the results.”
Additional claims of data falsification are pending, according to information from Boghossian’s supporters. Disciplinary action is possible, if not likely.
Boghossian said in a statement that Portland State, "like many college campuses, is becoming an ideological community and I’ve demonstrated that I don’t fit the mold. I truly hope the administration puts its institutional weight behind the pursuit of truth but I’ve been given no indication that’s what they intend to do.”
He and his supporters also released a YouTube video about the ethics charge, in which he first appears in a bathrobe reading an invitation to a meeting with the university’s IRB.
“I think that they will do anything and everything in their power to get me out. And I think this is the first shot in that,” he says to the camera.
It’s not immediately clear who “they” are. But a number of Boghossian’s campus colleagues didn’t like his methods. Some said so in an anonymous letter to the student newspaper, the Vanguard.
“The ‘hoaxes’ are simply lies peddled to journals, masquerading as articles,” wrote the group of about a dozen professors. “They are designed not to critique, educate or inspire change in flawed systems, but rather to humiliate entire fields while the authors gin up publicity for themselves without having made any scholarly contributions whatsoever. Chronic and pathological, unscholarly behavior inside an institution of higher education brings negative publicity to the institution as well as the honest scholars who work there. Worse yet, it jeopardizes the students’ reputations, as their degrees in the process may become devalued.”
Later in Boghossian’s recent video, he’s featured discussing the matter with his collaborators, who agree that there was “no way” to get the informed consent typically required by review boards from the journal editors involved in the "audit.”
Mark McLellan, Portland State’s vice president for research and graduate studies, said in a statement that the IRB is responsible for ensuring that the university complies with federal codes on research integrity. But he said he could not otherwise comment on a private personnel matter.
Weighing Academic Freedom and Academic Integrity
Some high-profile academics have come to Boghossian’s defense. Among them are Sokal and Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He said in a letter to Portland State that finding Boghossian guilty of research misconduct was a misuse of the idea, an affront to academic freedom and fodder for critics of academe.
“It saps the credibility of the university just when it is under attack from demagogues and know-nothings,” Pinker wrote. “As a professor who frequently interacts with the press and public, I have often been asked, ‘Why should we trust anything coming out of a university, like the claim of global warming? Everyone knows that universities allow only a narrow range of politically correct dogma, and punish anyone with a contrary opinion.’ Your action, which surely will get lavish coverage in right-wing media, will make life harder for those of us who defend universities against this charge.”
Joel Christensen, an associate professor of classical studies at Brandeis University, criticized Boghossian and his team’s methods and approach to racial issues, in particular, in an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed last year. He said this week that he and his co-author on that piece, Matthew Sears, an associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of New Brunswick, had been discussing the investigation against Boghossian because they’d both been contacted by an Australian media agent collecting and circulating letters on Boghossian's behalf (the same person contacted Inside Higher Ed).
Christensen said the idea didn’t sit well with him. He also noted that those who have submitted letters thus far include Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, whose work has proved “polemical” of late.
Over all, Christensen said he and Sears believe that Boghossian “wants to have it both ways.” That is, publicly presenting his project as a “rigorous study that exposed flaws in the peer-review system" while also “claiming that the hoax wasn't a genuine study, and therefore IRB approval doesn't apply.”
“We think that he did commit academic fraud, by design, and that some professional sanctions might be warranted,” Christensen continued. Boghossian and his colleagues “did misrepresent themselves, they did falsify their evidence and they did commit a serious infraction of research misconduct by deceiving these editors, wasting the time of the readers and then publicly slandering the journals and their fields. It is the right of any university to investigate fraud perpetrated by its employees.”
Still, Christensen said, “We doubt that this rises to the level of an offense warranting termination. And the bar for professional sanctions should be very high in the case of an academic with academic freedom.”
Ivan Oransky, Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University’s Arthur Carter Journalism Institute and co-founder of Retraction Watch, said, “Whatever Boghossian was trying to prove -- and whether his approach could have proven it is also the subject of debate -- the ends don't obviate the need for human-subjects protections and good research practices.”
He added via email, “There are similar arguments for those who say, ‘But another group replicated the results!’ after it's become clear that findings were the result of misconduct or extreme sloppiness. That logic doesn't hold, either.”