Another “Sokal” hoax? The latest knockoff calls into question the integrity of an academic journal

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The legacy of legendary academic prankster Alan Sokal lives on.

The newspaper Higher education quarterly published a study last month, claiming to show that donations from right-wing benefactors spur academics to promote similar conservative causes and candidates. The authors are listed as “Sage Owens” and “Kal Avers-Lynde III” – initials which spell SOKAL III. It didn’t take long for online sleuths to unmask it as a hoax.

The Higher education quarterly paper appears to be the latest imitation of Sokal’s infamous 1996 prank, in which he tricked the newspaper social text by posting an article which he later revealed to be entirely a joke.

Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, has been hailed by conservative critics of higher education for sending the progressive political views taking hold in academia. Sokal’s original hoax also raised a host of questions about the integrity of the peer review process that remain as relevant today as they were 25 years ago.

Among the glaring problems with the Higher education quarterly article is that the authors are not affiliated with the University of California, Los Angeles, as listed.

“After reading it, I had my doubts,” said Robert K. Toutkoushian, professor of higher education at the University of Georgia and member of the editorial board of Higher education quarterly. For one thing, Toutkoushian said, the newspaper cited a survey of professors that got an 83% response rate, which seemed highly unlikely. “Good luck getting 5% of the teachers to respond,” he said.

Toutkoushian did not review the article and said his role on the editorial board was largely ceremonial, but he saw no evidence that the journal’s article review process was deeply flawed. Toutkoushian, who served as editor of the newspaper Research in higher education from 2011 to 2020, these problem papers slip through the cracks because it is impossible to verify all the data. In this case, however, the publisher could also have raised questions about the authenticity of the identity of the authors.

The review’s editors did not respond to a request for comment. Wiley, the newspaper’s publisher, initially did not respond to a request for comment. Late Wednesday, a rep for Wiley said, “Higher education quarterly takes research integrity incredibly seriously and is moving quickly to remove the article, given that the data has been identified as fabricated and the authors have not disclosed their true identities.

But one of the alleged authors of the article responded to an email from The Chronicle, writing that the newspaper “should be embarrassed” to accept such obviously shoddy work. “No referee asked to see our data,” the alleged perpetrator wrote, using the name Sage Owens, from [email protected] email address. The author declined to provide further identifying details.

“No arbitrator reviewed whether the list of universities was real,” the author said in his email. “No referee has noticed that Forbes’ ratings can’t be correct. Every page contains glaring errors, but the central error is that the regression model is completely wrong.”

Two other journals immediately rejected the article, the email author wrote, not because of the study’s flaws, but because it lacked an international focus.

“Peer review does not protect against fraud,” the person wrote. “That should protect against nonsense and bullshit. In this case and in others, it is not.

Doubtful authenticity

Whereas Higher education quarterly failing to notice the problems with the article, other researchers and a non-profit entity quickly raised questions about the veracity of the study.

Jasmine Banks, Executive Director of UnKoch My Campus, said his organization received an email from the person claiming to be Sage Owens asking the group to promote the study. UnKoch My Campus lists its mission as investigating the influence on higher education of the Charles Koch Foundation and other conservative donors.

Banks said her group has a protocol for identifying the authenticity of such work so it doesn’t foster the kind of misinformation she and her team are trying to prevent on campuses. After UCLA confirmed that none of the perpetrators were affiliated with the university, the organization launched an investigation to determine who was behind the effort, Banks said.

Banks also fears the hoax will target his organization by seeking to spread misinformation and undermine the work of academic researchers.

Sokal said the purpose of his article, titled “Transgressing Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravityaimed to expose the carelessness, the absurd relativism and the intellectual arrogance of “certain enclosures of the academic humanities”.

Like Sokal, the perpetrators of this latest hoax also want to make a political point. “People will think this proves what they want it to prove,” the author wrote in the email to The Chronicle. “Conservators outside the academic system will claim this proves peer review is corrupt because a leading journal accepted an article they should have known to be false. Many leftists and liberals will claim that it shows nothing. Some UnKoch members will say this proves the Kochs are after them.

Unlike Sokal and some of his impersonators, the current hoaxes have no immediate intent to reveal their identity or identities. If they are to be believed, this is one of many attempts they will make to deceive other academics, journal editors, and publishers.

“We plan to reveal the full extent of this hoax later,” the email wrote. “For now, we recommend readers to look for other false papers.”

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