EXCLUSIVE: PSU poised to punish prof who proved point with hoax 'dog rape' article, despite receiving global praise for prof

Hundreds of academics, students, and other individuals have sent letters in support of the Portland State University professor who, along with two other academics, used “hoax papers” to expose faulty publishing in several academic journals.

In 2018, three academics decided to challenge esteemed “peer-reviewed” academic journals by producing and submitting false articles with what they thought were ridiculous theses. 

Articles on rape culture being perpetuated in dog parks, fat bodybuilding, and the presence of toxic masculinity in “breastaurants” such as Hooters were all submitted, reviewed, and published by esteemed journals without a shred of fact or verifiable support.

Of the 20 “intentionally broken academic papers” written by the trio, seven were accepted and published in academic journals -- the same journals that students are encouraged to consult when writing papers of their own. Another seven of the 20 were rejected, with the rest pending review before the ruse was uncovered.

Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and Portland State University professor Peter Boghossian documented and announced their hoax project in an interview with The New York Times in October 2018. 

Since then, their work uncovering the errs of academic research has garnered praise and support from thousands of students, academics, and other individuals across the world.

[RELATED: Academic journal duped by author of ‘dog rape culture’ article]

The trio refers to their project as an analysis of “grievance studies,” which encompasses a variety of fields within the humanities, such as LGBT, women, and gender studies. The group’s suspicion going into the project was that certain fields in academia have become more focused on “ideologically-motivated scholarship” rather than the pursuit of fact.

“Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview,” the trio explained in an essay announcing their project. “This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous.” 

“For many, this problem has been growing increasingly obvious, but strong evidence has been lacking. For this reason, the three of us just spent a year working inside the scholarship we see as an intrinsic part of this problem.”

While everyone involved in the hoax studies has received wide praise for their work, not everyone is pleased with the conclusion of the study. Rather than acknowledge a fault within the processes of the academy, there are many who believe the fault lies with the exposers.

Peter Boghossian, the Portland professor, has been placed under investigation and found to be guilty of research misconduct by his employer’s Internal Review Board (IRB). Specifically, he was accused of fabricating data and studying human subjects, specifically the various journal editors, without their consent. Given that the hoax papers were published with unsourced data under pseudonyms, Boghossian’s guilty verdict, while frustrating, was not a surprise to many.

What is still up in the air, however, is Boghossian’s punishment, which currently lies in the hands of the IRB and Mark McLellan, Portland State’s vice president for research and graduate studies.

In an effort to get a peek into the deliberations on Bogossian’s fate, Campus Reform filed a public records request for McLellan’s emails, which produced more than 1,000 pages of records.

[RELATED: Duke research scandal shows ‘need for stricter regulation,’ scholar says]

Almost all of the pages retrieved were of letters sent to McLellan in support of Boghossian’s work. With supporters from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, England, and Canada, McLellan had to set up a separate folder in his inbox to filter through them all.

People from across the world have sent McLellan their thoughts and opinions on Boghossian’s case, such as Richard Dawkins (University of Oxford), Daniel Dennett (Tufts University), and Michael Shermer (Chapman University). 

Most notably, PSU administrators received an email from Alan Sokal, a physicist who currently teaches at New York University. In 1996, Sokal, much like Boghossian and Co., challenged what he believed to be a flawed process within academic journals by submitting an article, ”Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the cultural studies journal Social Text.

Sokal’s article, although tongue-in-cheek and intentionally poorly sourced, was published after being peer-reviewed by the journal editors. Months later, Sokal published a letter outing himself for what happened and criticizing not just the journal, but the loose standards emerging across academia.

“Throughout the article, I employ scientific and mathematical concepts in ways that few scientists or mathematicians could possibly take seriously,” Sokal states, referring to multiple instances where he mentions concepts made of “pure invention” on his part.

“In sum, I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof. Evidently, the editors of Social Text felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject.”

After the 2018 hoax articles were exposed, many began referring to the project as Sokal Squared, or Sokal 2.0, given that the authors in both cases claim to have written the articles as a parody to challenge and ultimately improve the methods being used in academic publishing.

“It seems to me that it would be a grave injustice to punish Professor Boghossian for a violation of the letter of the [Research Misconduct Policy] that did not constitute in any way a violation of that policy’s purpose and which moreover was undertaken with the goal of serving, and which did, in fact, serve the public interest,” Sokal wrote to PSU administrators.

“If anything, Professor Boghossian and his collaborators should be congratulated for raising important issues in a forceful and unconventional manner; and Portland State University should take pride in having such a distinguished public intellectual on its faculty.”

According to the available records, Sokal did not receive a response from the PSU administration.

Concerned individuals also wrote in, criticizing the school’s treatment of Boghossian. One mother, who claimed to have once taken PSU classes, wrote: “I’m sorry to see that nothing has changed. PSU will be removed from the list of colleges I consider for my daughter.”

The editor of a Psychology journal wrote in, declaring their support: “This was clearly a satirical project, meant to expose a lack of academic rigour on the part of a subset of intellectuals. The content of the publications was purposely written in an extreme and outrageous manner. I am professionally dismayed that the content made it through multiple reviewers, an associate editor, and the editor-in-chief of these journals.”

“I speak as a former scientific researcher and as the managing editor of an academic journal with a twenty-year history. As a female in science, I have faced my share of marginalization and discrimination and believe that the fields of gender studies and communication are poised to make vital contributions to our evolution as a society. However, as in all fields, they must contend with staunch review and criticism of their failures, otherwise, their work will eventually be rendered meaningless.”

Dozens of professors from around the world sent in letters, as well, from institutions like Loyola University, University of Houston, University of Southern Mississippi, and the University of Utah.

Christina Hoff Sommers, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and outspoken critic of feminism, also wrote to PSU in January, detailing her opinion on the matter and calling the hoax project an “eye-opening experiment.” 

“These [hoax] results raise serious questions about the methods of several seemingly legitimate academic journals,” she wrote.

[RELATED: Professor claims his university tried to keep him from exposing fraudulent research]

Addressing the accusation of improperly studying human subjects, Sommers had this to say: “This charge is hard to take seriously. By its very nature, the parody rules out the possibility of consent: It is the view of the IRB that academic journals should be shielded from critical or irreverent scrutiny?”

“By punishing Dr. Boghossian, Portland State University would be exposing itself to ridicule,” she continued. “It would also be adding to the silliness Boghossian and his colleagues so successfully exposed.”

Another individual, a self-described gay man and musical theater actor, pointedly wrote, “Any shoddy research done in the name of social justice is destructive to the cause.”

While the investigation into Boghossian’s participation in the hoax papers has concluded, there is no indication as to his punishment.

“I have received overwhelming public support,” Boghossian told Campus Reform. “I’m incredibly grateful for the thousands and thousands of people from all walks of life who have written heartfelt letters supporting me.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Grace_Gotcha