In my previous post, I argued that “refereed” publications do not necessarily signal scholarly value, nor “non-refereed” publications a lack of value—despite the pervasive structural bias in academia based on the assumption that they do. Rather the distinction “refereed or not” is an independent variable that has an approximately random correlation—at least in the networks where I work—with better ways to distinguish between between higher and low quality scholarship: factors such as originality, effort, optimum word counts, readership, contribution to public discourse, and others. Emphatically, “refereed or not” does not reliably correspond to “valuable or not.” It may do so, but only does around half the time. Since getting and keeping an academic job is premised on counting one’s numbers of refereed publications (not reading them!) the situation creates serious distortions in misdirected efforts, crushed morale, and incentivizing weaker work over better.
I did not expect slam dunk support from the New York Times. But opening it last weekend, I read a high-profile story with the clickbait of “dog park sex”. It concerns three writers—a mathematician, philosophy instructor, and journalist—who sought to discredit what they term “grievance studies.” By this they mean a mash-up of identity politics and cultural studies jargon, and they have special animus for the idea that intellectual standpoints and contexts matter in debates about truth and meaning.
These authors wrote twenty fake articles and got seven of them accepted by refereed academic journals. One of their creations began from a premise that sports are “fat-exclusionary”; it valorized “a new classification within bodybuilding” for “fat-inclusive politicized performance.” Another interspersed passages from Hitler’s Mein Kampf with academic jargon.
Another supposedly quantified how often humans in dog parks separated male dogs who were “raping/humping” other male dogs, as compared how often they let similar behavior with female dogs pass. They reported (that is, made up) a 97% rate of people breaking up male-on-male dog sex but only a 32% rate for male-on-female. Since they did not wish to judge from a human-centric standpoint how many of these sex acts were consensual as opposed to rape, how much of this was “oppression based upon (perceived) gender” was unclear.
These writers lied about many of their made-up data sets, as one of the duped editors wrote in to complain. The authors themselves respond that their fabrications were so flagrant that anyone should have understood that they were a joke. In any case, the dog park “findings” were supposedly framed by “black feminist criminology” (thus, on the face of it, trivializing the issue of sexual violence in prisons) and embellished with phrases like “queer performativity…among dogs,” “disrupt[ing] hegemonic masculinities,” and creating “emanicipatory spaces.”
Tellingly, Hypatia (the most respected duped journal, although the authors tried and failed to break into others) accepted a (fake) “critique of ‘unethical’ hoaxes.” The Times offers no details about this critique , but the hoaxsters’ self-report about it seems to presuppose that Hypatia should have easily perceived it as a joke—that ethical objections to a project like their own can safely be mocked as self-evidently bankrupt. Perhaps partially vindicating Hypatia, the Times seems to disagree: the most valuable part of its reporting addresses the ethical issues at stake, touching the morality and probable real-world consequences of such hoaxes.
From Mocking Straw Targets to Real-World Consequences
It is easy to predict two morals that many will draw from this hilarity: First, that “grievance studies” and/or “identity politics” and/or “postmodern theory”—not their most questionable exemplars but their structural essences—fall somewhere between the pathetic and the contemptible. Second, that “adults in the room” concerned for standards must ratchet up their policing of valid vs. illegitimate scholarship. The authors support both these moves. They call for “separating knowledge-producing disciplines and scholars from those generating constructivist sophistry.”
The path of least resistance for such policing will surely not include interrupting the logic of quantification along a “refereed or not” continuum. Far more likely is intensified bean-counting to quantify which refereed journals should weigh more than others. Never mind that the spectrum of “quality or not” is wide across the range of articles that appear in the journals that were duped.
If my predictions prove true, the two aspects of this hoax that actually have potential value—dramatizing the disconnect between the refereed and the valuable, and underlining how a logic of “publish or perish” plus a mania for counting articles (not solely from “grievance studies” but from all fields) distorts the university’s mission—will have catalyzed moves in precisely the wrong, counterproductive, direction. (During the time I was drafting this essay, a thoughtful op-ed appeared in the Times making related points.)
Stated another way, we could add two more vectors—”grievance studies or not” and “frivolous arguments with fake evidence or not—to the set of independent variables that I suggested in my last post. This extends my argument about the ways that merely being refereed tells us little about quality.
The Cultural Work of This Hoax
Sadly a continuum, “grievance studies or not,” is not helpful. The hoaxsters proved that parts of “grievance studies” are lame. Congratulations, everybody already knew that, just as they knew the same about parts of… well, how shall we label the other pole of this continuum? Does “complacency studies” sound precise enough to our hoaxsters?
Still, as Donna Haraway famously said,
“Some differences [read: grievances] are playful [read: not without interest but possibly trivial] and some are poles of world-historical domination. Epistemology [read: the exercise of academic judgment] is about knowing the difference.” (From her “Manifesto for Cyborgs” reprinted in many places.)
So perhaps we could re-configure a bankrupt “grievance studies or not” vector into something with actual value: “Grasping Haraway’s points or not.” I have long felt this was implied in my “quality or not” continuum but I see no harm in splitting it out for emphasis.
History Repeats Itself as Farce
Anyone who was in academia in the 1990s grasps immediately that this hoax is a retread of the “Sokal Affair.” This concerned a physicist who pranked the journal Social Text with a piece that in the Times’s summary “mix[ed] postmodern philosophy with the theory of quantum gravity.” More precisely, Sokal mixed quantum theory with an abstruse straw version of Haraway’s feminist analysis of the cultural politics of science.
Now as then, our hoaxers consider themselves to be “on the left”—and for this reason feel proud to use deceit and mockery toward what they see as the greater good: defending warranted truth claims against pathetic “critical constructivism.” In practice, Sokal revealed that he either failed to understand Haraway or did not care to debate her strengths and weaknesses with honesty, nuance, or generosity.
Similarly, this quote (from Twitter, cited by the Times) seems well matched to the recent evidence: “What strikes me is…[the stunt’s] fundamental meanness….No attempt to intellectually engage with ideas you disagree with; just trolling for lulz.”
Poisoning the Well: Editing
There are everyday consequences from the undertows created by such trolling and lack of collegial respect. For example, once I was asked to referee by a journal that falls midway between top-ranked venues and the targets of this hoax—what the Times calls “interdisciplinary journals in highly niche fields” such as Fat Studies and the Journal of Poetry Therapy. I was unsure whether (option A) I was reading a novice graduate student’s poorly executed but sincere and, if revised, promising exploration of a hot-button media discourse. This engaged with levels of irony which were open either to highly disturbing or passably commendable interpretations. Conversely (option B) I wondered if a Sokal wannabe was pranking the journal. If so, to trumpet the disturbing ironies out of context would have been explosive. I keep the details vague because a revised version of the article was published, and I believe the author was sincere. Still I advised the journal to reject the article until they could be certain they were not being “Sokaled.” By extension I fear that I bitterly and unjustly insulted a young author.
Another time I could not tell whether (option A) a young scholar had received bad advice when, for background evidence, s/he used a textbook that I know well and proceeded (in good faith) to paraphrase it clumsily—or (option B) whether this was simple cut-paste-rephrase plagiarism. My call came down to a coin flip in a context where accusing this young academic could have done serious damage to her career.
In such contexts, it matters a great deal whether scholars can work from a baseline presumption of trusting the good faith of colleagues and interlocutors—as opposed to constantly being on the defensive against “trolling for lulz” or transforming ourselves into police with a mission of hunting cheaters.
Poisoning the Well: Classrooms
Relatedly, the interpersonal flows that make teaching energized and resonant can take on a sickening weight if, every time a student writes a lucid and interesting sentence, one must ponder whether to check for plagiarism, rather than being happy for the student’s brilliance and the joys of engagement .
No doubt a half-determined reporter could expose a great deal of plagiarized bullshit turned in for A grades, analogous to what the hoaxsters did with these journals. And no doubt the problem of plagiarism is real. But a point I have stressed on this blog is how the logic of abstract quantified assessment, in practice, mainly functions to transmute valid learning priorities into something cruder. In practice, almost all the time, more such assessment results in a faster race to the bottom in standards. Teachers face pressure to dumb down classes and offer students maximum benefit of doubt—which in turn makes it easy to game the system as plagiarists or otherwise. (And who cares, as long as students produce the desired numerical result anyway? Isn’t that all anyone notices? Is this not what I described before, the lived transmutation of what “good student” and “successful teacher” mean in practice?) In such a context, a hoax designed to expose plagiarism—even if not solely intended as “trolling for lulz”–-may function to deepen an overall rot.
Standards and Double Standards
Let us now emphasize something we could easily forget. Standards are not solely an issue in niche journals for people with “grievances.” I also referee for top-of-the-field journals. From time to time I have rejected manuscripts not because I found them insincere, nor lacking in fine prose or non-plagiarized citations—but because they had no intellectual “value added” or, worse, they contributed to a train of thought that was unfortunate in the first place. Perhaps they started from half-true premises and floated along in a wrongheaded way on a stream of habit. Safely hedged in these premises—let’s shift our metaphor to “stuffy” and imagine authors suffocating but unaware that they need to break windows to let in fresh air—they reinforced a minor point that dovetailed with regrettable habits of thought.
Such writing is more typical than no in the world of non-hoax, non-marginal-journals. Also typical, in my experience, is learning that a negative referee reports—if centered on rationales like the one I just offered, based on the idea that quality work should do more than grind forward in a mediocre way—have been overruled.
Moreover, there are tangible career risks in reviewing harshly, supplying less-than-ecstatic book blurbs, or failing in other ways to enact the maxim “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.” In today’s job market there is little margin of error, and one can easily be swept into a riptide. Consider how grade inflation is rampant and no one can change it alone (one can’t give F’s for work that would earn B+’s in competing courses—if you try your course will soon wither away). Or consider how the harshest thing you can say in a recommendation letter (unless you want to be read implying blunt non-recommendation) is “although X was not in my highest cohort, s/he was well within my top 15 percent.”
A variant of this dynamic helps explain why our hoaxsters succeeded. Yes, indeed, there are self-described refereed journals that do not always publish high-quality work. Everyone knows this. But the question is what to do about it that doesn’t make things worse.
Back to the Big Picture: Refereed Vs. Quality
The Times provoked me to write by throwing gasoline on the fire burning in my previous post, which is related to the question I just posed. Both sides of the coin I’ve noted—mixed quality in niche journals and mediocrity in establishment journals—underline my key point: the distinction between interest/quality/value and the lack of it, and the distinction between refereed and not refereed, don’t run together. They have a random correlation.
So my core argument is unchanged, but perhaps the dog park cases make it more concrete. Also, we have added the variable of “grasping Haraway’s points or not” to beef up my earlier “quality or not” continua—a worthy cause!
Quality is the key issue—how to defend spaces for worthy intellectual exchange. Everyone can agree to valorize brilliant interventions in top journals. No one wants to wade through more bullshit in niche journals. But after this, what is quality? Is it something stultifying or wrong-headed, but with many footnotes, in a prestigious journal? Is it something published in a niche journal with fewer footnotes but thoughtful innovations, letting some air into a stuffy room?
Simply sorting refereed or not is blind to this, and it introduces crazy distortions. We need our schools to move toward a more defensible way of setting priorities. This is not the mind-set of counting beans and policing cheaters. It is a mind-set of building collegial trust and seeking warranted quality in response to needful priorities in particular social contexts.
Just as a hoax by students (seeking “lulz” through exposing plagiarism that is already an open secret) might well make classroom dynamics worse, so also this latest hoax seems likely to enflame the dual trends of non-collegial meanness and intensifying the tendency to sort articles into abstract categories instead of reading them. It makes the serious problems it mocks more entrenched and distracts from what is needed.
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