Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Publisher retracts “conceptual penis” hoax article

with 2 comments

File this under “not a surprise.” After the authors of a paper entitled “The conceptual penis as a social construct” confessed it was a hoax immediately after publication, the publisher has retracted it.

The notice is sparse:

This article has been retracted by the publisher. For more information please see the statement on this article.

In that statement, which we covered last week, the publisher said published the paper after choosing reviewers whose “expertise did not fully align with this subject matter.”

We asked co-author James Lindsay what he thought about that explanation:

I can make no statement about the internal processes employed by Cogent (or NORMA), but if they selected reviewers without the right expertise, one has to ask why. They have on their list of specialist reviewers at least five academics (some at top-tier institutions) ostensibly with the relevant expertise. Perhaps it was just an error.

Still, though I can’t comment on the veracity of their claims, the one in question seems at least somewhat far-fetched, as our keywords and designations for the paper should have made it quite clear which experts to match the paper with. Furthermore, the one specialist reviewer who offered comments clearly knows the field better than we do (identified our failure to include poststructuralist discourse analysis, despite claiming to have used it in the abstract) and speaks the language of the field (described our thesis as capturing “the essence of hypermasculinity through a multi-dimensional and nonlinear process”).

Lindsay noted he wasn’t at all surprised to hear the paper had been retracted:

In fact, once we had revealed that the paper was a hoax, the journal contacted us, and I replied with the truth and said it should be taken down. I was not surprised by any of this except that the process takes as long as it does.

Lindsay and his co-author Peter Boghossian have said the purpose of the paper was to expose the weakness in the methods used by social scientists, particularly those who work in gender studies. But others have noted that other fields are not immune to falling for such submissions (take our stories about hoaxes in fields ranging from from philosophy to medicine to urology and math). As a consequence, does the hoax say more about the pitfalls of the publishing industry than the field of gender studies?

Lindsay replied:

There are at least two variables in play here.

On the one hand, the fact of publication of the hoax seems to point primarily to problems in the review process at Cogent Social Sciences which may reach more deeply into a certain tier of open access publishing. Assuming the statements by the two journals in question are true (including NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Studies, which claims to have accidentally offered to transfer our manuscript to Cogent), there are clear problems in the internal processes at some academic journals, and the fact of publication of our hoax points to these. Even so, Cogent Social Sciences advertises a 61% rejection rate for submissions made in 2016, so one is led to believe they are at least selective enough so that the quality of the paper itself retains some relevance to its acceptance.

On the other hand, the status of our hoax as an immediately recognizable satire of much real scholarship coming from gender studies says volumes about the field of gender studies. This, of course, is the power of satire. It only works if it’s recognized for caricaturing what it lampoons. On that mark, our hoax rightly drew a great deal of attention to gender and critical studies scholarship because, as a satire, if nothing else, it says something about the quality of that scholarship.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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Written by Alison McCook

June 2nd, 2017 at 11:14 am

Comments
  • Amar Jesani June 2, 2017 at 2:10 pm

    Here is another perspective on this issue, published in Indian media:
    https://thewire.in/140900/gender-studies-boghossian-sokal-penis/

  • Jose Hopezerro June 3, 2017 at 12:27 am

    Great article! Hilarious read whilst clearly satirical. We need more of these in more magazines like Nature that many think are the top!! Its a real test of the review process indeed and the role of money these days as much as anything about gender studies and the imperial role of the penis in women’s lives as dictated by the genetic urge to create progeny as away to survive.

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