Washington (AFP) - Three US researchers have pulled off a sophisticated hoax by publishing fake research with ridiculous conclusions in sociology journals to expose what they see as ideological bias and a lack of rigorous vetting at these publications.
Seven of the 20 fake articles written by the trio were accepted by journals after being approved by peer-review committees tasked with checking the authors' research.
A faux study claiming that "Dog parks are Petri dishes for canine 'rape culture'" by one "Helen Wilson" was published in May in the journal Gender, Place and Culture.
The article suggests that training men like dogs could reduce cases of sexual abuse.
Faux research articles are not new: one of the most notable examples is physicist Alan Sokal, who in a 1996 article for a cultural studies journal wrote about cultural and philosophical issues concerning aspects of physics and math.
This time the fake research aims at mocking weak vetting of articles on hot-button social issues such as gender, race and sexuality.
The authors, writing under pseudonyms, intended to prove that academics in these fields are ready to embrace any thesis, no matter how outrageous, so long as it contributes to denouncing domination by white men.
"Making absurd and horrible ideas sufficiently politically fashionable can get them validated at the highest level of academic grievance studies," said one of the authors, James Lindsay, in a video revealing the project.
Lindsay -- that is his real name -- obtained a doctorate in mathematics in 2010 from the University of Tennessee and has been fully dedicated to this project for a year and a half.
One of the published journal articles analyzes why a man masturbating while thinking of a woman without her consent commits a sexual assault.
Another is a feminist rewrite of a chapter of "Mein Kampf."
Some articles -- such as a study of the impact of the use of an anal dildo by heterosexual men on their transphobia --even claimed to rely on data such as interviews, which could have been verified by the journal gatekeepers.
For that "study" the authors claimed to have interviewed 13 men. In the dog article, the authors claimed to have examined the genitals of nearly 10,000 canines.
"If our project shows anything, it shows that what's coming out of these disciplines cannot currently be trusted," Lindsay told AFP.
Their goal however is not to destroy or defund the disciplines. "We think they should be reformed," he said.
- Violating ethical standards? -
The hoaxes garnered joking ridicule on Twitter, but researchers were more concerned with the methods and ethics of the fake authors, and the potential for generalizations about the fields targeted.
"We've learned that when you send in a convincing paper full of fake data, you can get it published. But we've known that for decades," said Ivan Oransky, from the site Retraction Watch.
Problems with quality and fraud are not limited to the humanities, nor to less prestigious journals. Even the biggest journals have to regularly retract papers, sometimes even by celebrated researchers.
But in this case, according to professor of gender studies at the University of Sussex Alison Phipps, writing in Times Higher Education, it's clear that the researchers were not engaging in "good-faith critique," as they claimed, but rather "actually aim to undermine fields they have political – not scholarly – objections to."
The other hoaxers -- real names -- are Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at the University of Portland, and Helen Pluckrose, a top editor at AreoMagazine.com, a site that has published a detailed account of the deception -- details of which also appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
The articles on the dogs was pulled when the publisher finally realized that author "Helen Wilson" did not exist.
Ann Garry, the interim editor of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, told AFP that she was "deeply disappointed" to learn about the hoaxes her journal published.
"The idea that individuals would submit fraudulent academic material violates many ethical and academic norms," she said.
Roberto Refinetti, editor-in-chief of the journal Sexuality and Culture, told AFP that the article on dildos "was reviewed by three university-affiliated experts in the field, none of whom suspect a hoax."
Refinetti was equally defensive. The fabrication by the authors "speaks against their integrity, not against the integrity of the journal that published the findings," he said.
There are thousands of academic journals in the world, and while some organizations have set standards designed to allow journals to identify fraud, adoption is uneven.
For the medical or biological sciences this consists of delivering the raw data to peer-reviewers to check the results.
But in the humanities, submitting transcripts of interviews raises confidentiality issues, said David Mellor with the Center for Open Science.
Nevertheless "we encourage as much transparency as is ethically possible," he said.
Nicholas Mazza, editor of the Journal of Poetry Therapy -- who accepted what the hoax authors described as anti-male "rambling nonsense" -- said he will take basic vetting measure after being hoodwinked.
Until now Mazza was more focused on plagiarism -- but from now on "I will certainly check author/institution authenticity before sending manuscripts out for review," he told AFP.