Exposing the Failure of Peer Review

(p. A15) The existence of a monthly journal focused on “feminist geography” is a sign of something gone awry in academia. The journal in question–Gender, Place & Culture–published a paper online in May whose author claimed to have spent a year observing canine sexual misconduct in Portland, Ore., parks.
The author admits that “my own anthropocentric frame” makes it difficult to judge animal consent. Still, the paper claims dog parks are “petri dishes for canine ‘rape culture’ ” and issues “a call for awareness into the different ways dogs are treated on the basis of their gender and queering behaviors, and the chronic and perennial rape emergency dog parks pose to female dogs.”
The paper was ridiculous enough to pique my interest–and rouse my skepticism, which grew in July with a report in Campus Reform by Toni Airaksinen. Author Helen Wilson had claimed to have a doctorate in feminist studies, but “none of the institutions that offers such a degree could confirm that she had graduated from their program,” Ms. Airaksinen wrote. In August Gender, Place & Culture issued an “expression of concern” admitting it couldn’t verify Ms. Wilson’s identity, though it kept the paper on its website.
All of this prompted me to ask my own questions. My email to “Helen Wilson” was answered by James Lindsay, a math doctorate and one of the real co-authors of the dog-park study. Gender, Place & Culture had been duped, he admitted. So had half a dozen other prominent journals that accepted fake papers by Mr. Lindsay and his collaborators–Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University, and Helen Pluckrose, a London-based scholar of English literature and history and editor of AreoMagazine.com.
The three academics call themselves “left-leaning liberals.” Yet they’re dismayed by what they describe as a “grievance studies” takeover of academia, especially its encroachment into the sciences. “I think that certain aspects of knowledge production in the United States have been corrupted,” Mr. Boghossian says. Anyone who questions research on identity, privilege and oppression risks accusations of bigotry.
. . .
The trio say the bias in favor of grievance-focused research was so strong that their hoax papers sailed through peer review, acceptance and publication despite obvious problems. The data for the dog-park study, Mr. Lindsay says, “was constructed to look outlandish on purpose. So asking us for the data would not have been out of sorts. It would have been appropriate, and we would have been exposed immediately.”
One hoax paper, submitted to Hypatia, proposed a teaching method centered on “experiential reparations.” It suggested that professors rate students’ levels of oppression based on race, gender, class and other identity categories. Students deemed “privileged” would be kept from commenting in class, interrupted when they did speak, and “invited” to “sit on the floor” or “to wear (light) chains around their shoulders, wrists or ankles for the duration of the course.” Students who complained would be told that this “educational tool” helps them confront “privileged fragility.”
Hypatia’s two unnamed peer reviewers did not object that the proposed teaching method was abusive. . . . Hypatia didn’t accept the paper but said it would consider a revised version.
. . .
Mr. Boghossian doesn’t have tenure and expects the university will fire or otherwise punish him. Ms. Pluckrose predicts she’ll have a hard time getting accepted to a doctoral program. Mr. Lindsay said he expects to become “an academic pariah,” barred from professorships or publications.
Yet Mr. Lindsay says the project is worth it: “For us, the risk of letting biased research continue to influence education, media, policy and culture is far greater than anything that will happen to us for having done this.”

For the full commentary, see:
Jillian Kay Melchior. “Fake News Comes to Academia; How three scholars gulled academic journals to publish hoax papers on ‘grievance studies’.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018): A15.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Oct. 5, 2018.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.