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Home / Bleeding Hearths Libertarians / Why the “Grievance Studies” Hoax Was Not Unethical. (But it’s not very interesting, either.)

Why the “Grievance Studies” Hoax Was Not Unethical. (But it’s not very interesting, either.)

Summary:
A lot of people are now having quite a bit of fun at the expense of “Gender Studies,” “Fat Studies,” “Feminist Social Work,” and similar fields after the revelation that several hoax papers have been published in their academic journals. But not everyone is amused. Ann Garry, the interim editor of Hypatia (one of the spoofed journals) stated that “Referees put in a great deal of time and effort to write meaningful reviews, and the idea that individuals would submit fraudulent academic material violates many ethical and academic norms.” She also complained that it was “upsetting” “that the anonymous reviewer comments from that effort were shared with third parties, violating the confidentiality of the peer-review process.” The first of these criticisms was echoed by a reporter for

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A lot of people are now having quite a bit of fun at the expense of “Gender Studies,” “Fat Studies,” “Feminist Social Work,” and similar fields after the revelation that several hoax papers have been published in their academic journals.

But not everyone is amused. Ann Garry, the interim editor of Hypatia (one of the spoofed journals) stated that “Referees put in a great deal of time and effort to write meaningful reviews, and the idea that individuals would submit fraudulent academic material violates many ethical and academic norms.” She also complained that it was “upsetting” “that the anonymous reviewer comments from that effort were shared with third parties, violating the confidentiality of the peer-review process.” The first of these criticisms was echoed by a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education who claimed that some academics held that this hoax simply demonstrated “bad faith and dishonesty” on the part of its perpetrators.

But these criticisms don’t hold up to scrutiny.

The hoax papers were certainly submitted dishonestly. But why should this matter? The whole point of the peer review process is to assess the merits of a paper without the reviewer knowing anything about the author. The author’s sex, institutional affiliation, academic pedigree, or political views should all be irrelevant to a reviewer’s assessment of the work that was submitted. The author’s intentions in writing and submitting her work should also be irrelevant to a referee’s assessment of its quality.

But perhaps this misses the critics’ point. Perhaps what’s wrong with hoax submissions is that they deliberately waste the time of editors and reviewers. (This seems to be one of Professor Garry’s concerns.) But if that’s the problem then a lot of submissions would be unethical. Consider a person who thinks that a particular line of argument is interesting and pursue it to its logical conclusion—even though she thinks that the conclusion that it leads her to should be rejected. Or a person who is under pressure to publish, and so submits work that she thinks is sub-par hoping that its referees won’t share her misgivings. Or a person who pursues an idiosyncratic line of argument for her own amusement, and then submits it just to see what will happen. These people could also be held to be wasting others’ time by submitting work that they think is flawed.

A purist might say that such submissions are unethical—that one should only submit work only when one thinks that it cannot be improved further, or (more weakly) when one thinks that to expend further effort would reap only diminishing returns. But this line of argument might have the perverse effect of linking publication to a person’s degree of confidence rather than her ability to contribute.

Moreover, the objection that the hoaxers wasted others’ time overlooks the fact that they did this for a purpose—to show that it is easy to publish low-quality work in certain academic fields if it conforms to certain ideological expectations. If the hoaxers are successful in this endeavor then a double-edged response could be given to the objectors. First, the value of exposing this feature of academic publishing in certain fields could outweigh the value of the time that the editors and reviewers lost by engaging with the hoax articles. This first point would be reinforced by recognizing that if it is the case that the editors and reviewers were typically engaging with low-value work then to the extent that this is so then value of time they spent engaging with was low to begin with.

So, was there anything to be gained from the success of this hoax? Well, not much. Of the journals that accepted hoax papers only two (Hypatia and Sex Roles) could be considered  mainstream academic journals. (The others were Fat Studies, Gender Place and Culture, Sexuality and Culture, Journal of Poetry Therapy, and Affilia. The latter two, while peer-reviewed, aren’t really academic outlets at all but seem aimed at practitioners.) And while the paper that Hypatia accepted wasn’t very interesting or original (the core idea was that humor should not be used to oppress, but to counteract oppression) it made a reasonable argument and appears to draw on the relevant literature. The paper accepted by Sex Roles is a different story. While it wasn’t nonsense, it was a very poor quality paper indeed—purported personal experiences dressed up as ethnography.

At best, then, the hoax shows that some poor-quality papers sometimes get published in marginal academic journals, and sometimes (but less frequently) get published in mainstream journals. That’s it. But this isn’t very surprising. After all, while peer-review if often held up as the gold standard of academic gate-keeping we have to keep in mind that low-performing academics have peers too. Just like the “Conceptual Penis” hoax that the same hoaxers made much to-do about last year this hoax thus doesn’t tell us anything at all about the overall quality of the academic subfields targeted.

But even though this hoax doesn’t reveal anything new about academic publishing—and so has very limited value—should we condemn it for wasting editors’ and reviewers’ time?

No—and for a simple reason that the hoaxers might agree with. Hoaxes such as this can be useful as a check on academic complacency: If editors and reviewers were aware that papers could be hoaxes this might encourage them to be more vigilant and careful in their assessment of submissions. And that can only be a good thing. Rather than focusing on the bad-faith submissions of the individual hoax papers we should instead focus on the (putatively) good-faith attempt to motivate editors and reviewers to strive for high academic standards.

PS: I’ll also note that the editors and reviewers appeared to have enjoyed the hoax papers, and so (until the revelation that they’d be fooled!) didn’t themselves consider their time to have been wasted!

PPS: Much merriment is being had at Afflia’s acceptance of a paper that is a partial re-writing of Mein Kampf . However, the account of this given by the hoaxers is rather dishonest. Their re-writing of the text was so extensive that even a side-by-side comparison of the texts failed to show much similarity between them. Moreover, the part of Mein Kampf in question was making rather general claims about how to respond to (perceived) oppression. But to read the hoaxers’ account of things you’d think a Nazi diatribe had been published by a feminist journal with just a few words changed. And that’s not the case at all.

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Author: James Taylor

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