Elaborate hoax speaks to flaws in academic review process, says expert

Three academics have pranked their colleagues, publishing fake papers in prestigious gender, race, and cultural studies journals.

Pranksters had fake articles published in gender and race journals

Students walk through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)
Listen23:31

Read Story Transcript

Three academics have pranked their colleagues, publishing fake papers in gender, race, and cultural studies journals. According to Deborah Poff, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics, the hoax is yet another example of the fallibility of peer-review — the primary vetting process for academia on a whole.

Since last year, Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian have submitted 20 fake articles to left-leaning academic journals. Seven were accepted and four were published before their hoax was discovered.

The prank articles used academic jargon to mask a completely absurd premise. One that was actually published posited that a person's disposition towards rape culture and homophobia could be understood from how they reacted to dogs "humping."

Helen Pluckrose and her team hoped to confirm and reveal what they perceive to be a trend of "highly-subjective, interpretive, and unwarranted conclusions" in studies relating to identity politics.

"You can accept that this is happening without, you know, denying a need for scholarship on the basis of race gender and sexuality. We can do this properly," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

These are all human beings writing and doing research. Of course it's fallible.-  Deborah  Poff , editor-in-chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics

But Deborah Poff says the issue of bias extends far beyond the areas of study targeted by Pluckrose and her colleagues. 

Like all academic papers, Pluckrose's fakes were submitted to peer-review, and Poff says the hoax was enabled by the error-prone nature of that process.

"Most academics think peer-review is the gold standard and don't want to abandon it," said Poff.

"Well, these are all human beings writing and doing research. Of course it's fallible."

Poff says the limitations of peer-review have long been documented, and "there's nothing new" about what was revealed by Pluckrose's hoax. 

"In the 1970s and '80s there were a number of sociologists of science who were manipulating names — whether they were female names as a first author, male names — and trying to show there was bias in review."

"People were proving this a long time ago."

Peer-review jobs mostly unpaid

Poff is also the vice-chair and chair-elect of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), an organization dedicated to improving the ethics of publishing.

She says one intervention that can improve the accuracy in review processes is to have authors submit their raw research, and for that data to be held in an accessible archive, "so that there is a check on whether people make up data, fudge data, or do something unethical with their data."

But she also suggests we should have a little faith in the system, especially considering most academics who do peer-reviews are motivated only by an investment in the work itself. Most peer-review positions are unpaid.

"[They] do it as service to the profession, and they do it for free and most of them do a very responsible job," she said.

This segment was produced by The Current's Geoff Turner and Danielle Carr.