Last September, Peter Boghossian, a philosopher at Portland State University, dropped a thunderous bomb on the academic community: He revealed that he had co-authored 20 bogus articles, most related to gender and queer studies (what critics often deride as "grievance studies"), and submitted them to a range of high-profile journals. Each article knowingly used absurd language to reach ridiculous conclusions, but only six of these satirical pieces were rejected. Seven were accepted, and the rest were deemed publishable but needing revision. In no time, "one of the biggest academic events of the decade"—as New York University's Jonathan Haidt put it—was international news.
The "success" of Boghossian's hoax obviously raises troubling questions about academic standards, peer review, and the general integrity of collegiate intellectual life (or at least some elements within the social sciences). But as the scholarly establishment processes the implications of Boghossian's revelation, an even more interesting, if less expected, question has emerged: Did Boghossian commit academic fraud? By resorting to satire, a mode of expression that purposefully presents false information as truthful in order to make a larger point, did he violate basic professional and ethical standards?
First, to understand why this stunt—reminiscent of the infamous 1996 Sokal Hoax, in which New York University physics professor Alan Sokal published a fake article for the purposes of exposing the allegedly fraudulent foundation of the field of postmodern cultural studies—generated a tidal wave of controversy, consider the fabricated content of Boghossian's articles. One essay, titled "Human Reaction to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon," published (and now retracted) in the prominent journal Gender, Place, and Culture, wondered if "dogs suffer oppression based upon (perceived) gender?" Another, titled "Rubbing One Out: Defining Metasexual Violence of Objectification Through Nonconsensual Masturbation," aimed to "situate non-consensual male autoerotic fantasizing about women as a form of metasexual violence that depersonalizes her" and "injures her being on an affective level." In other words, jargon and nonsense comprised the essence of Boghossian et. al.'s satire.
Boghossian's employer, Portland State University, believes these articles amount to fraud, and correspondingly initiated disciplinary proceedings against Boghossian in November. A Committee of Inquiry determined that, based on an analysis of Boghossian's "dog park" article, his work "represents an unambiguous example of research data fabrication." A month later, Professor Mark McLellan, PSU's vice president of research and graduate studies, drawing on the findings of PSU's institutional review board, the overseeing body in the proceedings, suggested that Boghossian ignored "the rules and regulations of human subjects research." That is, he failed to submit "a human subject protocol for review as is required in the Code of Federal Regulations"—a stipulation almost always reserved for scientists experimenting directly on human subjects recruited for the purpose (not peer reviewers or journal editors).
Over the last few weeks, many of the world's most prominent (mostly male) academics—including Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Haidt, and, of course, Alan Sokal—have come to Boghossian's defense. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, wrote that, upon learning about the review board's investigation into Boghossian's hoax, he "let out a howl of incredulous mirth." Then he asked PSU's McLellan, "Do your humourless colleagues who brought this action want Portland State to become the laughing stock of the academic world?" Finally, he reiterated how "it is the essence of satire that it is not literally true."
Other letters (all provided to Pacific Standard by Boghassian's publicist but not made public) were equally critical of PSU's attack on Boghossian. Haidt argued that to accuse him of data fabrication would constitute "a profound moral error—an injustice—that will be obvious to all who hear about your decision, and that will have bad effects upon the public perception of PSU and of universities in general." Boghossian and his co-authors, he concluded, "are whistleblowers, taking a risk to expose ... fraud."
Dennett, university professor and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, argued in his letter that Boghossian's targets "could learn a few things about academic integrity" from his "fine example," one undertaken "in good faith." And Peterson, who certainly understands what it's like to be at the center of controversy, explained in his defense of Boghossian:
Dr. Boghossian and his colleagues ... did the academic world and the broader community that surrounds it a great favor by pointing out the embarrassing nakedness of the emperor. The fact that he is now being pursued by your institution for "academic misconduct" is nothing but further proof of the absolute corruption characterizing the disciplines he so rightly satirized, pilloried and exposed.
As Boghossian's case proceeds, one imagines that debates will bog down on definitional technicalities—did he violate standards for doing research on human subjects?—and the law's letter versus its spirit over data fabrication: Is it sinister if you fabricate with every intention of revealing that fabrication?
For their part, Boghossian's peers at PSU have made their position clear. A group of anonymous PSU professors wrote an open letter to the student body accusing Boghossian of "violating acceptable norms of research." Noting that his ploy plays into the hands of "credulous journalists mainly interested in spectacle," they warned students that, "some faculty practice education in bad faith right in your own back yard"—something they deemed a "detriment to the university's reputation." Plus, they added, "a faculty member is supposed to be a good colleague." What being a "good colleague" at PSU means remains to be seen. Boghossian's professional fate is still in the university's hands.