December 6, 2021

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE, JOURNAL INTEGRITY EDITION: Another ‘Sokal’ Hoax? The Latest Imitation Calls an Academic Journal’s Integrity Into Question.

The legacy of the legendary academic prankster Alan Sokal lives on.

The journal Higher Education Quarterly published a study last month purporting to show that donations from right-wing benefactors influence scholars to promote similarly conservative causes and candidates for jobs. The authors are listed as “Sage Owens” and “Kal Avers-Lynde III” — initials that spell out SOKAL III. It didn’t take long for online sleuths to out it as a hoax.

The Higher Ed Quarterly paper appears to be the latest imitation of Sokal’s infamous 1996 prank, in which he tricked the journal Social Text into publishing an article that he later revealed to be entirely a joke.

Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, was lauded by conservative critics of higher education for his sendup of the progressive political views taking hold in academe. The original Sokal 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 issues with the Higher Education Quarterly paper is that the authors are not affiliated with the University of California at Los Angeles, as they are listed.

“After reading through it, I had my doubts,” said Robert K. Toutkoushian, a professor of higher education at the University of Georgia and a member of the editorial board of Higher Education Quarterly. For one thing, Toutkoushian said, the paper cited a survey of faculty that got an 83-percent response rate, which seemed highly improbable. “Good luck getting 5 percent of faculty to respond,” he said. . . .

The editors of the journal did not respond to a request for comment. Wiley, the journal’s publisher, initially did not respond to a request for comment. Late Wednesday, a Wiley representative said, “Higher Education Quarterly takes research integrity incredibly seriously and is moving swiftly to retract the article, given that the data has been identified as fabricated and the authors have not disclosed their true identities.”

But one of the purported authors of the paper did respond to an email from The Chronicle, writing that the journal “ought to be embarrassed” for accepting such obviously shoddy work. “No referee asked to see our data,” wrote the alleged author, using the name Sage Owens, from the email address [email protected] The writer declined to provide any other identifying details.

The conclusions were too good to check.

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