Publisher blames bad choice of reviewer for publication of hoax paper on penis as “social construct” 

Less than a week after publishing a much-discussed hoax paper, a scholarly publisher has acknowledged that it had chosen reviewers for the paper whose “expertise did not fully align with this subject matter.”

The subject matter: that the penis should not be considered an anatomical organ, but more as a concept – “a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct.” Upon publication, the authors immediately admitted the paper was a prank, arguing that its publication illustrates a lack of intellectual and scientific rigor in some social sciences, especially gender studies. But others have questioned whether it really demonstrates that at all.

In response to the revelation of the hoax, Taylor & Francis associate editorial director Emma Greenword published a statement about the process that led to this entanglement:

We understand the authors’ intention was to question the field of gender studies, and the fact it came to be published in one of our journals is disappointing and has led us to conduct a thorough investigation.

According to Greenwood, that investigation revealed that following on the paper’s rejection by another Taylor & Francis journal, the submission was “inadvertently” referred by an internal electronic system designed to facilitate referrals to other journals. In response to this debacle, Greenwood wrote that the publisher is taking steps to minimize the chances “of such a situation happening again.”

Ultimately, Greenwood wrote, the problem lay in peer review:

The article was received by a Senior Editor and sent out for peer review as is standard. Two reviewers agreed to review the paper and it was accepted with no changes by one reviewer, and with minor amends by the other. On investigation, although the two reviewers had relevant research interests, their expertise did not fully align with this subject matter and we do not believe that they were the right choice to review this paper.

The paper, entitled “The conceptual penis as a social construct,” was published on May 19, in Cogent Social Sciences. Simultaneously, authors James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, who submitted the bogus paper using the names Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle, revealed their hoax on the Skeptic website. Calling it a “Sokal-style hoax” in reference to a similar prank that physicist Alan Sokal pulled in 1994, Lindsay and Boghossian wrote:

This paper should never have been published. Titled, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” our paper “argues” that “The penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct.” As if to prove philosopher David Hume’s claim that there is a deep gap between what is and what ought to be, our should-never-have-been-published paper was published in the open-access (meaning that articles are freely accessible and not behind a paywall), peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences. (In case the PDF is removed, we’ve archived it.)

Regarding their manufactured paper, Lindsay and Boghossian wrote:

The reviewers were amazingly encouraging, giving us very high marks in nearly every category. For example, one reviewer graded our thesis statement “sound” and praised it thusly, “It capturs [sic] the issue of hypermasculinity through a multi-dimensional and nonlinear process” (which we take to mean that it wanders aimlessly through many layers of jargon and nonsense). The other reviewer marked the thesis, along with the entire paper, “outstanding” in every applicable category.

In their Skeptic post, Boghossian and Lindsay noted:

…we wrote an absurd paper loosely composed in the style of post-structuralist discursive gender theory. The paper was ridiculous by intention, essentially arguing that penises shouldn’t be thought of as male genital organs but as damaging social constructions.…We assumed that if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal.

Lindsay and Boghossian’s revelation of their hoax met immediate pushback, primarily from researchers and others who pointed out that Cogent Social Sciences looks like a “pay for publication” journal. Phil Torres, writing at Salon, reported that the two authors paid $625 for placement of their paper in the journal.

Lindsay tweeted today following the journal’s statement that

If the problem is 100% the journal (in this case), little else could have drawn this much attention to the pay-to-publish academic crisis.

Although the authors have argued that acceptance of the hoax paper suggests weakness in the methods used by social scientists, particularly those who work in gender studies, Torres and others also have noted that other fields are not immune to falling for such hoax submissions – and as such, the hoax says more about the pitfalls of the publishing industry than the field of gender studies. Indeed, readers will by now be familiar with many of the hoaxes that have crossed our desks, affecting journals in fields ranging from philosophy to medicine to urology – and even math.

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9 thoughts on “Publisher blames bad choice of reviewer for publication of hoax paper on penis as “social construct” ”

  1. I have read the paper and conclude that although the authors intended to write a hoax paper, their paper adheres to the standards of the field and is coherent. The authors do not believe in what they’ve written, and I think it is interesting to consider that a satire piece such as this may actually portray a valid perspective despite their intentions. Their work highlights differences between the natural and social sciences. I am not uncomfortable with the notion that the social sciences are more in line with philosophy in that what the subjects treat are personal ideas. In some sense one’s personal philosophy is far more important than what objective science can study, and I don’t dismiss the utility of that which is personal. Simply because the authors are well trained in academic writing, they were able to put together this satire in a manner that it could successfully become a part of the academic discourse of gender studies. Its absurdity does not mean that no others may find it valid.

    I realize perhaps that my opinion is not a popular one at the moment, but I find real differences between natural and social sciences, and these do not make me value social sciences any less.

    1. I agree. I have, when provoked, mentally referred to an annoying person by the anatomically gendered terms of dickhead or bimbo depending on their behavior, regardless of their gender. I’ve used gendered and ungendered body parts as social constructs for years in my internal dialogues. However, I try not to refer to (gender neutral) assholes as such to their faces because I am an academic and a lady.

    2. I agree that the most interesting thing about this attempted hoax is that they inadvertently made valid arguments. These authors are so certain that the fields in question are “nonsense” and themselves lack so much knowledge of it that their article is weirdly valid in some ways (missing sources aside). Stealing a friend’s comment, there are many logical phallacies in their analysis of their own hoax. The way the US left the Paris Agreement also makes the climate change argument feel within reason…

  2. My flabber is still ghasted that Taylor & Francis chose a name for their OA imprint (“Cogent”) that sounds so much like something that predatory OMICS-wannabees in Hyderabad might come up with.

  3. All Lindsay & Boghossian managed to expose with this is their own lack of understanding of cultural theory and its practices.

    1. If, as Marcan asserts, Lindsay & Boghossian have a lack of understanding of cultural theory, then the fact that their hoax paper was accepted is even more of a black-eye for that field. It seems to me that L&B must have a pretty sophisticated understanding to produce a hoax paper that would pass muster. What they lack is respect for the highly politicized field of Gender Studies. Let one of the regular authors of Cogent Social Sciences produce a published hoax paper in a chemistry or physics journal.

  4. I am struck by the difficulty in discriminating between hoax and what passes for social science in some fields. Our tolerance level for nonsense has gotten pretty high.

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