Spoof Papers And The Ethics of Academic Publishing

By Neuroskeptic | April 16, 2016 5:19 am

A Sokal-style hoax philosophy paper has triggered much debate over academic standards in the field.
bad_badiouThe intentionally nonsensical spoof article, signed by ‘Benedetta Tripodi’ but really the work of Philippe Huneman and Anouk Barberousse, was accepted and published by the journal Badiou Studies (“a multi-lingual, peer-reviewed journal”) which is devoted to the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou. It’s since been retracted. Cue hand-wringing.

I don’t know much about Badiou but this case got my attention because I do have an interest in, shall we say, anomalous academic publishers. I was also very interested to read this reflection on the issue by philosopher Justin E. H. Smith, who calls himself a friend and colleague of the hoaxsters Huneman and Barberousse. In particular, I was struck by Smith’s lament for academic publishing:

My laughter on first reading Huneman and Barberousse’s text quickly gave way to two concerns. One is that the joke is not so much on the abstruse theory-heads, as had surely been the case in the Sokal incident. The joke isn’t on anyone who is committed to any particular ideology or style of thinking at all. The joke is, rather, on the folks running these pop-up online journals with their ludicrously low editorial standards.

Remarkably, the editors of the Journal of Badiou Studies even admitted as much when they complained of Huneman and Barberousse’s ‘dated’ method of attack “in an age when the pressures on independent Open Access publishing include underfunding and time-pressured staff.” In other words, the editors effectively confess that they do not have the resources to produce a decent journal on their own, and so must rely on the good will of the contributors to not send them crap.

He concludes in devastating fashion:

But many people who submit to journals are not in a position to know of their own work whether it is crap or not, and for this reason alone a journal that does not have the resources to weed out crap would be doing scholarship a far greater service by simply not existing… It seems to me in other words that what this hoax exposes is not so much Badiou, or his gullible acolytes, but rather the dismal state of publishing today – or perhaps we should not dignify it in this way, and instead call it what it is: posting. The Journal of Badiou Studies is a website masquerading as an academic journal.

In my view, Smith is absolutely right – but I want to put in a good word for ‘posting’. This is, after all, a post I’m writing.

Posting (or blogging, or indeed, tweeting) can be a perfectly good medium for academic debate. A good blog post does more to advance scholarship than a bad paper. Plus, at least in my experience, many papers start out life as blog posts or online discussions.

The problem Smith identifies is when a post masquerades as a paper. But why is this a problem? The problem is that if I write a post, it’s endorsed by no-one but me (or the other authors). Whereas a ‘peer reviewed’ paper is meant to carry the imprimatur of (in theory) ‘the academic community’ as a whole. This is the point of peer review: a paper which has the approval of the peers can be said to meet the standards of the community. But if peer review fails, as it did at Badiou Studies, then a mere post is wrongly given the stamp of approval, and this drags down the credibility of the whole of that scholarly field.

So when Smith says that a journal such as Badiou Studies “would be doing scholarship a far greater service by simply not existing”, I would have said “by not existing as a ‘peer reviewed journal’.” Such a small open-access journal might be able to function much better as a blog, without the burden of responsibilty that peer review entails.

The trouble with that, however, is that whereas academics often pay to have their work published in an (open access) academic journal, I doubt anyone has ever paid to be published on a blog. So for the people running OA journals like Badiou Studies, going down the blog route would mean no more income from publishing. This is the dilemma: academics are so desperate to publish peer reviewed papers that they’re willing to pay for the privilege of driving down the standards of peer review (edit: although Badiou Studies themselves do not charge authors for publication.)

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    whether it is crap or not” Tommy Aquinas proved god exists within 3020 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0870610639, and a vast number of references (including ~10,600 to the Bible, which may be biased in that matter). Baruch Spinoza proved god does not exist within 15 Propositions. Both were wrong.

    Philosophy, like religion, psychology, macroeconomics, quantized gravitation, renewable resources, diversity, and pure mathematics can say anything within the discipline as long as said butt poof is rigorously derived. Science is empirical re Galileo and Popper. Science works to spec without dipping bats in honey then calling them teiglach as a test of faith.

    • polzzlop
      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        Noam Chomsky versus Nim Chimpsky. Compare 1966 to 2016. Technological gains are astounding as we still levy ape threats at each other.

        Philosophy is a balloon less its skin. No Great Meaning hides a thousand points of light. Historic great civilizations had vigorous slavery as do we, agriculture and servants. Having squandered 50 years of social justice, I propose a half century of what historically succeeds.

        Peasants elevated to commissars do not require more studies. The congenitally inconsequential require discipline and productivity within their abilities, livery and whippings. Their desires are irrelevant within engineering optimizations. Or, we all starve while polishing silverware, waiting for Godot.

  • Krissy Anderson

    The publishing of anything has changed. Those who don’t understand obviously why it has changed are a little behind. The problem is not what we’ve gotten ourselves into, but how we are going to fix it. I highly doubt anyone or any group can stand up and fix the fact that everyone is a writer. Never did I believe that having become a professional writer long ago, I would have to compete with my neighbor, the professional plumber. Yet when my toilet breaks, I pay him to fix it.

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      “I highly doubt anyone or any group can stand up and fix the fact that everyone is a writer.” The Los Angeles Unified School District testably hosts some 700,000 students who cannot write a coherent paragraph. We are philosophically energized by educational diversity. “Liberal capitalism…is the vehicle of savage, destructive nihilism,” Alain Badiou. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Muammar Gaddafi, North Korean Kim dynasty…are weather not climate.

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      I highly doubt anyone or any group can stand up and fix the fact that everyone is a writer.” The Los Angeles Unified School District hosts about 700K students who testably cannot write a coherent paragraph. Is there anything diversity cannot accomplish? YES!

      • Joanne Williams

        Normally I’m able to ignore the drivel you inevitably post at the end of every one of Neuroskeptic’s posts, but when it tends towards the racist, I’m going to call it out. a) What does the LA school system have to do with standards in academic publishing? b) Most of those kids have English as a second language. c) Your incessant ramblings are a testament to the fact that even having English as a first language is no guarantee that one will be able to communicate a coherent thought.

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  • Денис Бурчаков

    Publishing industry tried it’s best, but it came out as usual.

  • Hrbacek

    The Badiou Studies website states pretty clearly that authors do not pay to have their work published.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      You’re quite right, I have edited the post.

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  • Quentin Ruyant

    If you read how the authors of the hoax justify their approach (they published comments on this) you’ll see it has nothing to do with publishing, but more with the bad prose of some philosophical trends, in the spirit of Sokal’s hoax. Of course, posting is not bad for philosophy but obscure rhetoric that functions as “tags” marking the belonging to a movement rather than providing substantial advance to the field is a bad thing.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Shining a harsh light on modern publishing may not have been their intention but it is one the effects of their spoof. The editors admitted as much when they said that “pressures on independent Open Access publishing include underfunding and time-pressured staff.”

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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