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Hoax Scholarship By Academics

What Ever Happened to the Fundamental Value of Academic Integrity?

Having taught at the college level for over 30 years, I thought I had seen it all but along comes hoax scholarship – papers written by academics solely to get publications without regard to the accuracy of statements/facts in these papers. The reality that some of the publications accepted the papers speaks volumes about what’s wrong with the quest for published research under the guise of academic scholarship.

In an expose in The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk, a lecturer on government at Harvard University, reports that it all started in the late 1990s when Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, began a paper that was published by setting out some of his core beliefs: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded “eternal” physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative knowledge of these laws by hewing to the “objective” procedures and epistemological structures prescribes by the (so-called) scientific method.”

Don’t bother reading it again. It’s nonsense.

Sokal went on to “disprove” his credo using somewhat politically correct language: “Feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ‘objectivity,’” he claimed. “It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.”

Sokal’s paper was published in the then-respected academic journal, Social Text. Why, you might ask? My guess is the paper was so confusing and difficult to discern his ideas that the reviewers figured Sokal was the smartest guy in the room and published the paper on that basis. Delivering paper-PERMISSION

This became known as the Sokal hoax and critics claimed that postmodern discourse is so meaningless that not even “experts” can distinguish between people who make sincere claims and those who compose deliberate gibberish.

Fast forward to the current where three scholars – James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossain -- wrote 20 fake papers using politically correct language to argue for ridiculous conclusions and tried to get them published in prestige journals in fields including gender studies.

The authors sought to rerun the Sokal hoax so let’s be clear their motivation was not to get unreliable papers published. By the time they reported the hoax publicly, seven of their articles had been accepted for publication. Seven more were still under review and six were rejected.

The issue is not the validation of gender studies/gender study research or any other emerging field of academic research. This can happen anywhere. I once read a paper in accounting where the professor claimed debits do not always equal credits. Huh?

Those in the academy know about the “publish or perish” environment. It creates an incentive to have anything published, regardless of the academic rigor or validity of its claims, in order to move up the ranks to full professor. It also has led to maximizing published research by sending the same paper to two or more journals with the hope of getting more than one “hit.”  I once read several papers of an academic up for tenure that were virtually the same except for different titles.

The pressure to publish has also spawned boutique publishing houses, some of which are connected to academic conferences where if you pay the registration fee and an amount of money to have the paper published in the conference journal, you have another published paper. Most academic institutions see right through this but some do not perhaps because those on the tenure and promotion committee have done the same thing. They don’t want to devalue their own work.

The moral of the story is that it’s become harder to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong in academic research. Honesty and respect for oneself and others has fallen by the waist side much like civility and ethical behavior in our society. People are driven by self-interest, not the truth; carelessness, not due diligence; and they fail to take personal responsibility for their work. They claim the pressure to publish made them do it. This is a far cry from the fundamental value of the academy – academic integrity.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 5, 2018. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and Like his page.