By George Leef

One of the biggest stories of 2018 in the academic world was the success that three academics had in getting supposedly reputable journals to publish articles they had concocted from nothing – pure hoaxes. The hoax papers made a strong case that the publication standards in the fields covered (such as gender studies) were laughable. What good is an academic field if the experts who publish its research can’t tell actual research from made-up stuff?

Only one of the three currently holds an academic position, Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University (PSU). He has discovered that some of his faculty colleagues weren’t amused by his hoaxing, so much so that they filed charges of research misconduct against him. As the Inside Higher Ed story puts it, “Critics said that the researchers acted in bad faith, wasting editors’ and reviewers’ time and very publicly besmirching academe in the process….”

How dare anyone besmirch academe?! Lots of jobs and money depend on the public continuing to believe that the money they pour into research is well spent.

Faculty colleagues who are bent on retaliation against Boghossian for his whistle-blowing have come up with a clever means of punishing him (and deterring others), namely to accuse him of research misconduct. How so?

Under the university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocols, any research involving human beings must secure approval of the IRB. Since Boghossian was, the critics say, doing research on the editors of the journals to whom he sent the bogus papers and because he did not seek the Board’s approval before doing so, he violated the rules.

Not surprisingly, that tactic worked. Last month, the IRB solemnly declared that “University policy requires that all research involving human subjects conducted by faculty, other employees and students on campus must have prior review and approval by the IRB.” Precisely what disciplinary action will be meted out by PSU to Boghossian has yet to be determined, but the IRB slapped him down with a declaration that no further research programs will be approved where he is “principal investigator, collaborator, or contributor in any substantial manner.”

Take that!

In his statement to Inside Higher Ed, Boghossian said, “Portland State, like many college campuses, is becoming an ideological community and I’ve demonstrated that I don’t fit the mold. I truly hope the administration puts its institutional weight behind the pursuit of truth but I have been given no indication that’s what they intend to do.”

At least Prof. Boghossian has a few friends in the Oregon Association of Scholars (OAS). On January 9, OAS put out a press release that argued against punishing him for “research misconduct.” The pertinent part of the release reads, “Journal reviewers and editors have never been considered part of human subjects research protocols, not only because the scholar’s interactions with them are unforeseeable and separate from the research but also because the reviewers are anonymous. More generally, the hoax or satire based on concocted data that is later revealed to be such as part of the research is a fundamental and long-standing method of intellectual inquiry in the Western liberal tradition.”

If this attack on Professor Boghossian stands, it will represent still another weakening of academic freedom in America as an effective means of criticizing the establishment – the hoax – is closed off. And who knows what other forms of “research misconduct” might be devised to threaten scholars who dare to question “progressive” orthodoxy?

Fans of classical music may be familiar with the orchestral tone poem by Richard Strauss, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Till was a prankster who annoyed city officials – until they caught him, put him on trial, and finally hanged him. (The music captures all of that brilliantly.) Substitute Peter Boghossian for Till Eulenspiegel and Portland State for the city. Except for the fact that PSU can’t hang anyone, the analogy is perfect.