Sokal III: The Latest (and Greatest?) Academic Hoax

Marina Ziemnick

Are you a young academic haunted by the fateful axiom “publish or perish”? If so, I have great news for you. It’s quite easy to get a paper published in an elite academic journal, as it turns out. It doesn’t matter if no one responded to your survey or agreed to be interviewed for your study. Your findings are entirely irreplicable and unverifiable? Not a problem. In fact, your research can even be riddled with factual inaccuracies if you’d like. As an added bonus, you can also bolster your credentials by adding an extra title to your name or perhaps inventing a university position, just for fun. 

What’s the catch, you ask? (Or perhaps, why would I want to publish shoddy work, in an “elite” journal or elsewhere?) To get a paper published, you just have to meet one criterion: your conclusions have to align with the orthodoxy of the day. That is, you need to make it clear that you dislike the right people. As long as you say what the editors want to hear, you can get away with just about anything. 

The extent of the rot at the core of at least one so-called elite academic journal was revealed just this week, when Steven Hayward revealed the latest academic hoax on Power Line. The hoax article was published in Higher Education Quarterly under the title “Donor money and the academy: Perceptions of donor pressure in political science, economics, and philosophy.” Although it has since been retracted via a brief note indicating that “data in the article has been identified as fabricated,” the article went through the journal’s multi-step peer review process and was up for over a month before the hoax was uncovered. 

Hayward noticed numerous signs that the article was a hoax, including improbably high survey response rates and references to foundations that do not exist. However, Hayward said that the biggest clue came from this “extraordinary claim” in the abstract: 

Receiving funding from right-wing sources has not only a statistically significant positive effect on perceived pressure to promote “right-wing” causes and candidates, but the effect size is large to very large. Right-wing money strongly appears to induce faculty and administrators—including those who self-identify as members of the right—to believe that they are pressured to hire and promote people they regard as inferior candidates, to promote ideas they regard as poor, and to suppress people and ideas they regard as superior. [emphasis in original quotation]

If you’ve been following campus politics for any length of time, you know why this claim set off alarm bells for Hayward. Right-wing causes haven’t been popular on campus for a long, long time. If faculty and administrators feel pressured to hire and promote inferior candidates for political reasons, all signs indicate that the pressure comes from the left, not the right. In a 2018 study of “8,688 tenure track, Ph.D.-holding professors from fifty-one of the sixty-six top ranked liberal arts colleges,” NAS member Mitchell Langbert found that “78.2 percent of the academic departments in [the] sample ha[d] either zero Republicans, or so few as to make no difference.” Langbert warned that political homogeneity on college campuses was problematic because “it biases research and teaching and reduces academic credibility.” He even noted that the “publish or perish imperative…contributes to left-oriented groupthink.” Clearly Langbert was on to something.

This isn’t the first time that an academic journal has found itself embroiled in scandal after publishing a hoax article. In 1996, Alan Sokal sent in an article filled with nonsensical, postmodern jargon for publication at Social Text, a prominent cultural studies journal. When he revealed the article was an intentional parody, the incident became known as the “Sokal Affair.” More recently, in 2018, Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose had seven sham papers accepted at supposedly peer-reviewed journals for their important contributions to the grievance studies research factory. They lovingly referred to their project as “Sokal Squared” in honor of Alan Sokal’s original hoax. It is no accident that the initials of the pseudonyms under which the Higher Education Quarterly article was published—Sage Owens and Kal Avers-Lynde III—spell out SOKAL III. 

The unmasking of Higher Education Quarterly builds on the legacy of these dissidents from the academic orthodoxy—and it isn’t over yet. After the hoax was revealed, Sage Owens tweeted from her definitely-real Twitter account: “Can you find the other 15?” If the tweet is accurate, this may be the biggest scandal in the academic journal industry thus far. 

You can get back to writing that paper if you want. Or, you can start perusing the latest issues of “elite” academic journals. There’s no telling what you might find. 

Marina Ziemnick is a Communications Associate at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Kelly L, Public Domain

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