Ethics in Publishing: A slippery slope

The ‘Sokal Squared’ hoax is the latest scandal to hit academic publishing.

On 2 October 2018, James A. Lindsay (mathematician and ‘renegade gender scholar’), Peter Boghossian (professor of philosophy at the Portland State University), and Helen Pluckrose (editor-in-chief of Areo) revealed, in an essay titled ‘Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship’, how they had called out what they believe is a growing problem in academia: ‘scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances’.

peter boghossian
Peter Boghossian, one of the three authors of the essay ‘Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship. Source: Image used used under the creative commons license. 

Their experiment was similar to the one carried out by Alan Sokal in 1996. The physics professor(at New York university) submitted an article to the journal Social Text to expose the declining intellectual standards in academia and, as Mara Beller said, ‘as a brilliant parody of the postmodern nonsense rampant among the cultural studies of science’.

Stand-up comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan interviewed Lindsay and Boghossian for his podcast episode, titled ‘Exposing Social Justice with Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay’, where Lindsay and Boghossian explain what they did and why they did it.

For those who are not familiar with the controversy, Lindsay, Boghossian and Pluckrose wrote twenty ‘scholarly’ articles in ten months; of these, seven were accepted and four were published.

The three decided to write papers in the fields of ‘cultural studies’, ‘identity studies’ and ‘critical theory’, clubbing these three fields under ‘grievance studies’ ‘because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity’.

They then submitted these papers to the most respected peer-reviewed journals, with the highest impact factor within the aims and scope of the papers they were writing, in these fields of scholarships. However, they ‘had to take the project public prematurely and thus stop the study, before it could be properly concluded’.

Once their ‘deception’ came to light, the paper that received the most press was ‘Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity in Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon’. ‘What we wanted to get to was a conclusion, and then we made up all the c*** in between to get to it. The conclusion was “Feminism should train men the way we train dogs, to get rid of rape culture”,’ said Lindsay.

However, the work in this paper was lauded as ‘exemplary scholarship’ by Gender, Place & Culture, the Taylor & Francis online journal which published it. The paper was recognised for its excellence and was one of the twelve lead pieces that the journal published as part of honouring the occasion of its 25th year of publication.

This highlights the point that the authors were trying to make: that the peer-review system that should filer out biases is inadequate in the field of ‘grievance studies’.

This fiasco comes hot on the heels of Tumour Biology, a Springer publication, having to retract 107 published papers over fake peer reviews in 2017. Which then begs the question: as future publishing professionals, how can we combat issues around ethics in publishing?

While academic publishing does, on the whole, have a system that works as a gatekeeper against unethical practices, this is not always true for other branches of the vast tree that is the publishing world. Arguably, the publication and disseminated of scholarly work that is unethical – in its inception as well as in the process of its review – has dangerous and far-reaching ramifications, but this cannot negate the importance of rigorous checks on all work that is published.

For instance, in August 2018, Rodale Books had to recall a cookbook, Tales of a Forager’s Kitchen, authored by blogger Johnna Holmfren, after critics warned that some of the ingredients in the recipes could prove to be a danger to people’s health.

In this case, it was the job of the editor of the book, and of the publishing house, to ensure that the recipes and ingredients were checked by a nutritionist or dietitian to avoid a health and safety hazard.

Which brings me back to my question: how do we ensure that rigorous checks and reviews become the norm at any publishing enterprise? Should ethics studies be compulsory in schools so that everybody – whether they become a publisher or a scholar/author – recognises the importance of it?

There’s certainly no easy answer. But given the critical nature of the problem, there certainly should be.


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