Letters: When the Production of Knowledge Gets Messy

Readers debate the implications of an academic hoax.

Stan Honda / Getty

What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia

Last week, Yascha Mounk described what happened when “three scholars—James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian—wrote 20 fake papers using fashionable jargon to argue for ridiculous conclusions, and tried to get them placed in high-profile journals in fields including gender studies, queer studies, and fat studies.” Not all the papers were published— but those that were, Mounk concluded, “expose the low standards of the journals that publish this kind of dreck” and show “the extent to which many of them are willing to license discrimination if it serves ostensibly progressive goals.”

While Yascha Mounk’s article is all very pertinent, it overlooks several depressingly mundane realities: the extreme pressure on academics to publish; the growing number of academic journals intended to accommodate these pressures; the increase in submissions to these journals; the subsequent decrease in available time by editors (usually other academics) to carefully vet submissions or to find peers (still other academics) willing and able to provide timely review of submissions. Academics are so busy churning out material for publication or churning out the publications themselves there’s barely anyone left to give submissions the scrutiny they need prepublication. As a result, peer review gets honored more in breach than in practice, and our academy, like our politics, begins to flounder in a morass of deceit, malignant competition, and gobbledygook.

Jane Hunt
Concord, N.H.

The fact that a journal publishes a bad paper does not mean that the journal itself, or all the other papers in the journal, or indeed all the other papers in the same field are equally bad. I have never heard of any publication (from broadsheets to academic publications) that didn’t publish at least one terrible article. Consider the now-disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield’s famous article that unjustifiably linked autism with the MMR vaccine. This was published in none other than the highly prestigious The Lancet: one of the oldest and most highly respected medical journals in the world. Unlike the current affair, it was not widely concluded from that affair that there was something wrong with The Lancet, let alone medical science more generally. Why—unless commentators are driven by, for instance, conservative political agendas—should the current affair be any different? I think the real story here is that editors and peer-reviewers are human, and sometimes make human errors. Moreover, peer-reviewers are working for free, and are increasingly pressured for time due to wider changes in how universities are run. This surely makes errors of judgement more likely. Perhaps it would be more helpful to focus on that.

Robert Chapman
Bristol, United Kingdom

Mounk fails to consider that peer-reviewers are probably also individuals working full-time jobs, teaching anywhere between 50 to 100-plus students, serving on multiple committees, while doing their own research and also trying to publish. This standard is expected in academia because the humanities are increasingly undervalued and academics must prove themselves.

Is overwork an excuse for mistakes? No, of course not, but it does suggest that people are human, and publishing is not some bastion of perfection or ultimate truth. As an undergrad, I had a professor who always told us to take our brain with us when we read critics and scholarship. Yes, not all scholarship published is excellent. Take your brain with you. As a professor with my doctorate, I tell my students the same thing.

Scholarship is also constantly changing. Arguments come and go. There are some subfields that pop up and disappear in two years or five years, while others continue developing. Academia is and should be a testing ground. The production of knowledge is not a perfect science. It can be messy at times. In fact, if you are asking interesting questions, it probably is messy. That also means that not everything is perfect or a perfect representation of truth. There is a lot of testing. Yes, there are biases, but please show me any human endeavor that is completely objective and unbiased.

Sarah E. Kruse, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor, Department of English and Cultural Studies, Bryant University
Providence, R.I.

There can be some value to publishing seemingly outrageous ideas. After all, all ideas seem outrageous at first. Sometimes it’s only by putting them out there for discussion that we can start to separate the important innovations from the truly outrageous.

Still, if nothing else, this should be a warning to certain publications and people with certain perspectives that we are all vulnerable to the tendency to overlook obvious BS when it comes wrapped in clothing to which we’re sympathetic.

Mitch Hart
Lewisburg, Pa.

You dismiss complaints about the general failure of peer-reviewing, stating, “There are many fields of academia that have absolutely no patience for nonsense.” This sidesteps the issue: Presumably all fields of academia lack patience for nonsense. The problem is whether journals have the ability or manpower to spot that nonsense.

Daniel Greenwald
Munich, Germany

Thanks for this article. I have had a long career in the medical-laboratory field, plus some limited experience with submitting papers and such. Years ago, I lamented to colleagues how gobbledygook some of the journals had become, and I proposed a solution: Every peer review should be followed up with an instructional review. What I meant was this: Because teaching requires that the teacher is able to both understand a topic and break it down into simple, understandable terms that follow logical paths, if a topic cannot be taught, it probably warrants a rewrite. I don’t care if it is a novel gluco polysaccharide or a gender study, it ought to make some sense to people with a mid-level understanding of the subject.

Dayna Vance
Kitchener, Ontario

I was very interested in the (deliberate) scientific hoax reported on in this article, but I felt in the end that the article itself never quite made it to the point. The beginning of the article sets up the history behind the hoax and describes, probably in more detail than most readers wanted, some of the content of the hoax articles. Several more lengthy paragraphs were devoted to explaining why it was “intellectually dishonest” to extend the essential conclusion of the study to other fields outside those targeted, and also why it was equally disturbing for those fields to be defended as if the results revealed by the hoax weren’t an issue.

However, very little time was spent on what this hoax actually means for the fields in question, or for society on a larger scale. And isn’t having that discussion the entire point of these scientists’ having perpetrated the hoax in the first place?

Kara Krelove
Phoenix, Ariz.

I don’t speak for queer studies, fat studies, or any of the journals that these fake papers were submitted to, but I don’t think this is an audacious hoax. It looks more like a serious act of research misconduct to me. These professors freely admit that they deliberately pretended to be people they were not. They submitted for scholarly publication materials and arguments that they knew to be wrong or false. And they represented elements of work created by another (Adolf Hitler) as their own. What they did ranges from plain wrong to just nasty.

Carl R. May, Ph.D.
Professor of Medical Sociology, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
London, United Kingdom

I admire Yascha Mounk’s writing and ideas, so it frustrates me to see him fall in line with the new “Sokal Hoax” perpetrators. What Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian are trying to do is not to improve the disciplines, but to delegitimize them. If they had truly cared about improving the rigor of the fields, they would argue for that openly, instead of wasting the time of their peers who reviewed the work for those journals (many of them, after all, advising that they not be published). I’m amazed that Mounk can chuckle with glee over what the three “exposed” about academia, but then turn and hand-wring about the “intellectually dishonest” way that conservatives have used their hoax to attack the humanities. Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian are equally dishonest, or they would have launched straightforward arguments against the silliness they decry, or better yet, launched a new journal to collect more rigorous scholarship in those fields, and attack the scholarship they dislike—openly and honestly.

In the humanities, published academic works can rarely be described as “true” or “false.” Instead, as Mounk surely knows, what authors usually seek is to push forward an interpretation of things we already know—a new way of looking at the world. If you are looking for solid facts, go to the encyclopedias. Academic journals exist to promote new and exciting ideas, and then it is the job of other academics to incorporate these ideas into their own work, attack them, or ignore them. In my own, more traditional field of European history, when I peer-review proposed articles and book manuscripts, I am not really acting to judge whether the authors are correct or not, but simply whether the manuscripts are well argued, backed by evidence, and interesting. An article or book can be provocative and, by being denounced by others, push the discipline forward. Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian could have done that, but they decided to try to make themselves look clever and their opponents look silly instead, dragging down all of the humanities with them.

Scott K. Taylor
Associate Professor of History, University of Kentucky
Lexington, Ky.