Whether it's a paper on the (purely fictional) midi-chlorians or a scientific "proof" based on a Star Trek episode, there have been a few examples of clearly fabricated studies finding their way into shady (or predatory) journals in the past year or so.
Recently, a physicist, a philosopher, and a Medieval historian decided to take things a step further. The trio submitted 20 fake papers to what they described as the "best academic journals" in the field of cultural and identity studies. They then described their progress in an article published in Areo Magazine.
Their intention: to unmask the sometimes "shoddy standards" accepted for publishing in certain academic spheres.
"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 authors – Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian – wrote.
Papers varied in subject and ridiculousness – from dog parks are rape-condoning spaces to straight men's decision not to self-penetrate using sex toys are signs of homosexuality and transphobia, to educators should counter discrimination by making more privileged students sit on the floor in chains.
Meanwhile, problems varied from poorly thought-out methodologies, bad use of data, ethically questionable practices, and ideologically motivated conclusions.
There were just three rules: "we’ll focus almost exclusively upon ranked peer-reviewed journals in the field", "we will not pay to publish any paper", and "if we are asked at any point by a journal editor or reviewer (but not a journalist!) if any paper we wrote is an attempted hoax, we will admit it."
Surprisingly, despite the utter absurdity of many of their submissions, seven were accepted by journals and four of those have since been published online. Seven more were under review or consideration and two had been resubmitted after some editing. The remaining six had been dumped for being fatally flawed and beyond repair, but had the hoax not been cut short, it is certainly possible that more of the 20 would have made it online.
What's more, the researchers say they recieved four invitations to peer-review others' papers on account of their "exemplary scholarship".
"As we progressed, we started to realize that just about anything can be made to work, so long as it falls within the moral orthodoxy and demonstrates understanding of the existing literature," they added.
But the response from the academic community has been mixed.
Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Harvard, praised the enterprise.
While others – including Jacob Levy, a professor of political theory at McGill University and Kieran Healy, an associate professor of sociology at Duke University – were clearly unimpressed and criticized the methodology.
As Mounk hinted at in his tweet, the trio's experiment was based on a hoax by Alan Sokal, a New York University physicist who, in 1996, wrote and submitted a parody article called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". It was accepted.
However, whether these more recent hoaxes do more to divide (and harm) the academic community than highlight (and help solve) problems in the submission and application process is up for debate.