The Corner

Politics & Policy

Those Hoax Papers Tell Us A Lot about Declining Academic Standards

(Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

Back in 1996, Professor Alan Sokol pulled off a dazzling stunt in getting an academic journal to publish a paper he’d written that was pure baloney. (He argued that gravity was merely a “social construct” but by using trendy academic jargon, the editors fell for it.) His point was that some journals will publish anything so long as it sounds right to leftist ears.

This summer, a trio of academics bettered Sokol by getting a whole batch of nonsense papers accepted. In today’s Martin Center article, historian Phil Magness explains why he thinks this is important — it speaks volumes about the decline of academic standards.

Magness writes:

While identity politics have dominated the fallout discussions, the real lesson of the hoax is what it revealed about the crisis of rigor afflicting academic publishing. The fabricated articles only advanced to publication because decades of lax standards have made academically fashionable nonsense—including other forms of fraudulent work—the norm for celebrated scholarship in several of the humanities and social sciences.

Supposedly reputable academic journals published the silly hoax papers, but they have also published serious ones that are just as nonsensical, such as a paper that was nothing more than a juvenile, expletive-laden tirade against neoliberalism.

Magness puts his finger on the essence of the problem:

When articles of almost comically low quality become an acceptable norm of supposedly prestigious academic journals, the accompanying erosion of rigor also removes academia’s defenses against research with much deeper structural deficiencies—including the misuse of evidence and related forms of scholarly misconduct.

An excellent example of such misconduct is the nasty book by Duke historian Nancy MacLean entitled Democracy in Chains. That book was a thoroughly dishonest hatchet job against the late Nobel laureate James Buchanan, with an overall layer of smear against anyone who argues against the omnipotent government of “progressivism.” But when called on the book’s many errors, MacLean hid behind ad hominem attacks against her critics.

Summing up, Magness writes:

Perhaps the revelations of the hoaxes, or ongoing scandals such as the MacLean affair, will direct some attention to the problem of scholarly rigor in the coming years. The two are related. The normalization of fashionable nonsense as a basis of academic publishing—and thus hiring and promotion—is itself epistemically destructive to the rigor of the entire enterprise. And stripped of any standards of rigor or quality, academia is left without any basis to scrutinize and self-correct for breaches of scholarly trust.

Magness has a book coming out entitled Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education. I can’t wait to read it.


George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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