Two decades after NYU mathematical physicist Alan Sokal shook up the academic world by getting a hoax paper ("Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity") published in a prominent cultural studies journal, a pair of academic writers revealed on Friday that they had pulled off a "Sokal-style hoax" on a peer-reviewed social science journal. Here's what's going on.
Boghossian and Lindsay submitted a paper titled "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct" to Cogent Social Sciences, a peer-reviewed, open access journal — and it got published. Writing for Skeptic, they described the paper as "ridiculous by intention" and filled with fake sources:
Assuming the pen names “Jamie Lindsay” and “Peter Boyle,” and writing for the fictitious “Southeast Independent Social Research Group,” we wrote an absurd paper loosely composed in the style of post-structuralist 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.... This already damning characterization of our hoax understates our paper’s lack of fitness for academic publication by orders of magnitude. We didn’t try to make the paper coherent... After completing the paper, we read it carefully to ensure it didn’t say anything meaningful, and as neither one of us could determine what it is actually about, we deemed it a success.
As Boghossian and Lindsay wrote in their Skeptic piece, the hypothesis behind the hoax paper was that " if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal."
With that hypothesis seemingly confirmed, critics of gender studies and the social sciences have applauded the hoax for exposing the field once again:
[It] makes a point far more important than any paper in that journal: it shows that over the past 21 years since Sokal’s hoax, the social sciences remain rife with obscurantist nonsense—an academic miasma. Of course, not all people or areas in social science or the humanities are full of such nonsense, but cultural studies, including women’s studies, are particularly prone to the toxic combination of jargon and ideology that makes for such horrible “scholarship.”
While the publication of Boghossian and Lindsay's paper is damning for Cogent Social Sciences, is it an indictment the entire academic field? After the hoax began making the rounds, pushback started circulating as well.
As Ketan Joshi points out in his critique of the hoax, while Boghossian and Lindsay, like Sokal, targeted the social (ie. "soft") sciences with their article, the "hard" sciences have fallen victim to similar hoaxes in the recent past — including a paper written entirely in autocorrect that was accepted by a nuclear physics conference, and a paper about a fake lichen:
These hoaxes are consistently presented in a meaningful context – as being valuable demonstrations of a worrying shift to predatory journals, and a consistent lowering of standards in these journals. These hoaxes do not demonstrate the wholesale failure of biology, or computer science, or medicine. There is no ideological skew against mailing lists in the computer sciences; nor is there a anti-lichen religious fervour in biology. To suggest that this is the case, based on each of those instances alone, would be completely weird.
Writing after the lichen debacle, Berkeley molecular biologist Michael Eisen pointed the finger at the shoddiness of peer-review in general:
[P]eer review is a joke. If a nakedly bogus paper is able to get through journals that actually peer reviewed it, think about how many legitimate, but deeply flawed, papers must also get through. Any scientist can quickly point to dozens of papers – including, and perhaps especially, in high impact journals – that are deeply, deeply flawed.
Boghossian and Lindsay point out in Skeptic that Cogent Social Sciences appears on the Directory of Open-Access Journals, which is a fair point — scholars are supposed to consult the DOAJ when trying to find a good quality journal to submit their work to. But as Joshi points out, the DOAJ is not infallible:
[W]ith regards to the aforementioned hoax science paper about lichen, it was noted that “for DOAJ publishers that completed the review process, 45% accepted the bogus paper”.
And as James Taylor notes at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, the first journal the hoax paper was submitted to wanted nothing to do with it — and redirected the authors to the "pay what you want" Cogent Social Sciences:
The first journal that Boghossian and Lindsay submitted their hoax paper to, and that rejected it, was NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Studies. This journal doesn’t even hit the top 115 journals in Gender Studies. So, what happened here was that they submitted a hoax paper to an unranked journal, which summarily rejected it. They then received an auto-generated response directing them to a pay-to-publish vanity journal. They submitted the paper there, and it was published. From this chain of events they conclude that the entire field of Gender Studies is “crippled academically”. 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 take down of an entire field.
The success of Boghossian and Lindsay's hoax paper is a very good reason to stop submitting or reading Cogent Social Sciences (which likely won't be a problem, as prominent sociologists don't seem to have heard of it), but the fault appears to lie more with the frailties of peer review than the frailties of the social sciences.
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