As is now widely known James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian submitted a fake paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” which was published in Cogent Social Sciences. They then loudly trumpeted this fact in the pages of Skeptic magazine, concluding “that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil“, and that there are problems with the “open-access, pay-to-publish model” of academic publishing. They made clear that in their view the publication of their paper primarily shows that here are serious problems in “the entire academic enterprise collectively referred to as “gender studies” and that the fundamental problem that the publication of their article exposed was the lack of integrity of gender studies.
This “hoax” then went viral, leading to lots of gleeful mockery of gender studies, feminists, and lots of hearty Internet back-slapping.
But what was lost in all of this self-congratulation was a simple fact: This hoax failed miserably. And recent revelations show just how badly it failed… for there’s no evidence that anyone was fooled into believing that this paper was real. To repeat, in case you missed this: THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT ANYONE WAS FOOLED INTO BELIEVING THAT THIS PAPER WAS ANYTHING BUT NONSENSE.
But there’s now a whole lot of evidence that a lot of people–including many self-professed “skeptics”–fell hook, line, and sinker for the false claim that this was a successful hoax.
Let’s back up. Lindsay and Boghossian wrote a short paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” that made absolutely no sense, but which, they thought, would appeal to the moral and political views of persons in gender studies. They then submitted it to NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Studies. According to Lindsay and Boghossian’s report, NORMA rejected it but its editors “thought it a great fit for the Cogent Series, which operates independently under the Taylor and Francis imprimatur”. Lindsay and Boghossian then submitted the paper to Cogent: Social Sciences. Cogent then accepted the paper after requiring minor revisions, and published it as a Sociology Research Article. At this point Lindsay and Boghossian wrote their piece for Skeptic declaring that while this shows that there are problems with the pay-to-publish model “our question about the fundamental integrity of fields like gender studies seems much more pressing nonetheless.”
The purported “success” of this hoax was challenged right from the start. I noted that rather than successfully publishing a hoax paper in a genuine Gender Studies journal they had, in fact, been rejected from an unranked journal, and then had published in a pay-to-publish journal in sociology. This tells us nothing at all about gender studies. Developing this criticism Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber noted that their research design was “fundamentally inept”. You can’t show both that gender studies will publish any “fashionable nonsense” and at the same time show that a pay-to-publish journal will publish anything. And Ketan Joshi noted that “Most people, whether they’re part of the skeptic community or not, can recognise that a single instance isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that an entire field of research is crippled by religious man-hating fervour, and that anyone pushing that line is probably weirdly compromised.”
Neither Lindsay nor Boghossian bothered to respond to any of these criticisms, and they were drowned out by the anti-gender studies fervour that their “hoax” generated.
These criticisms are still sound. But recent revelations show that this “hoax” was even more of a failure than was first suspected.
We’ve now heard from one of the editors of NORMA, Ulf Mellstrom, of the Center for Gender Studies at Karlstad University in Sweden. Professor Mellstrom notes that rather than being fooled by the piece he had his fellow editor “thought it was sheer nonsense” and summarily rejected it. So, why did he say that it would be “a great fit” for the Cogent series, as Lindsay and Boghossian claimed? He didn’t. The letter that Lindsay and Boghossian received was automatically generated by the submission software used by Taylor and Francis and sent without the editors’ knowledge. That this was an auto-generated letter was obvious from its text. So, Lindsay and Boghossian’s claim that the editors of NORMA “thought it a great fit for the Cogent Series” is simply false. Now, maybe Lindsay and Boghossian are not aware that letters can be automatically generated, and so really thought that they had received a personal (albeit rather oddly phrased and stilted) letter from NORMA‘s editors. But this is unlikely. It seems, then, that their account of their interaction with NORMA was intended to mislead.
Note that so far no-one has been fooled by their attempted “hoax”.
The paper now goes to Cogent: Social Sciences. And it goes out to peer review. And they’re required to make minor revisions. And the paper is accepted! Hurrah for Lindsay and Boghossian! Doesn’t this show that the editors and reviewers of Cogent: Social Sciences were fooled?
Not necessarily. Recall, Cogent: Social Sciences is a pay-to-publish journal. (It’s also not a gender studies journal, so why Lindsay and Boghossian think that publishing in it could show anything about gender studies is puzzling.) And as I noted earlier there are a lot of red flags waving wildly calling into question its legitimacy. (It is very “author friendly”, it notes that it doesn’t reject papers just because they will have no impact, and so on.) But surely even a pay-to-publish journal will have some standards, right? And didn’t they receive a revise and resubmit, which indicates that the paper was refereed in some fashion?
Well, no. Back in 2014 the Australian computer scientist Peter Vamplew submitted a paper entitled “Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List” to the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology. The paper consisted of nothing more than the phrase in the title repeated over and over again. He received a revise and resubmit: “They told me to add some more recent references and do a bit of reformatting.” Sound familiar? Lindsay and Boghossian only had to make “a few relatively easy fixes” before the paper was accepted. Just as it’s highly unlikely that anyone actually seriously read and reviewed the paper Vamplew submitted, so too does it seem unlikely that Lindsay and Boghossian’s paper was subject to anything close to genuine peer review. It’s far more likely that the “review” was done in-house at Cogent, and consisted of a one or possibly two Cogent employees offering a few comments that appear in the general vein of the paper’s text. And if this was so, then nobody at Cogent was fooled either. With their eyes on the publication fees they just didn’t care enough about the content of the paper to read it.
Now, Lindsay and Boghossian might point to the statement that Cogent issued yesterday, which states that:
“The article was received by a Senior Editor and sent out for peer review as is standard. Two reviewers agreed to review the paper and it was accepted with no changes by one reviewer, and with minor amends by the other. On investigation, although the two reviewers had relevant research interests, their expertise did not fully align with this subject matter and we do not believe that they were the right choice to review this paper.”
But to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that, wouldn’t they? After all, it’s unlikely that Cogent will issue a statement saying “The article was received by a Senior Editor and, as is usual, he emailed it a couple of our other employees and received back their dummy reviews. After a bit of dickering with the authors we agreed to publish it for $625–a bargain, since our usual rate is $1300!”
So, again, we have no evidence at all that anyone was fooled by this attempted hoax.
However, that no-one was fooled by Lindsay and Boghossian’s paper doesn’t mean that no-one was taken in by their hoax. A lot of people were… as it confirmed their biases against gender studies and so they quickly endorsed Michael Shermer’s (mistaken) view that this attempted hoax “exposed” the “extreme ideologies” of gender studies. Among those fooled were Robert Verbruggen of the National Review, Matt Ridley writing in today’s The Times, James Barrett at The Daily Wire, Andy Ngo at The College Fix… and many, many, others. (Appropriately enough, Reason was NOT fooled! And nor was Salon, The Daily Nous, or Daniel Drezner writing for The Washington Post.)
So, what can we learn from this failed hoax? Three things, I think.
- Critical thinking actually matters! A few moments’ reflection should have shown anyone that having a paper published in a pay-to-publish journal in Sociology tells us nothing at all about the intellectual rigor of Gender Studies. (The fact that an unranked journal in gender studies rejected the paper outright should have hindered the rush to judgment even further.) Indeed, as I mentioned in my initial post that anyone would think it did is bizarre. And, as Henry Farrell pointed out, you can’t show both that pay to publish journals will publish anything, and also that since one published your hoax paper on gender studies that gender studies is bunk. (It’s thus rather embarrassing that Peter Boghossian claims “critical thinking” is his academic specialty. I just hope that no-one follows his line of reasoning, and from the fact that “one philosopher seems not to be able to think critically” concludes that “No historians seem to be able to think critically.” That would be both fallacious, and unfair to historians!)
- We should take to heart the observation of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont that we shouldn’t accept something just because it seems to confirm our prejudices. People who dislike gender studies shouldn’t have accepted Lindsay and Boghossian’s misplaced claims concerning the “success” of their attempted hoax without actually thinking whether it actually showed what they claimed it to show. That they did tells us that ideologically-driven thinking doesn’t just exist on the Left. There was plenty on display this week on the Right, and (ironically) among self-proclaimed “skeptics”
- The evolution of this story shows how a failure to check sources can result in the propagation of false claims. From the (misleading, but technically true) claim that this paper was published in a peer-reviewed journal the story escalated to the claim (in a national British newspaper) that this paper had been published “in a leading journal” to “widespread acclaim”.
In brief–don’t rush to judgement, subject claims that seem to confirm your views to just as much scrutiny as you expend on those that seem to discredit them and always check your sources!
And never take a class on critical thinking from Peter Boghossian.