Sokal submitted the article to a top literary journal where it was published. Three weeks later he revealed the hoax.
In 2017, three authors conducted a similar hoax on what they believe is the fashionable nonsense of our time, namely ‘critical theory‘ scholarship. The recent hoax has been dubbed the ‘Sokal squared’ (due to the number of fake papers they had accepted) or the ‘grievance studies affair‘.
In both cases the issue of the ethics of deceiving a journal editor has been raised. However, unlike the Sokal case, in this case one of the hoaxers has actually faced censor from his university. Portland State university has censured professor Peter Boghossian over the affair and has banned him from carrying out research involving human subjects.
But if journal editors are human subjects, then we are faced with a rather difficult problem. Between Sokal and the most recent hoax there have been a number of studies which looked into the issue of predatory publishing or publishers with low standards. Wikipedia actually has a page dedicated to “scholarly publishing stings“. It includes such things as a 2012 maths paper which was randomly generated. This paper was intending to show the issues with predatory journals (I have written about these here).
According to bioethics researchers then, are all these studies illegitimate? The original hoaxer, Sokal, disagrees and has argued that:
common sense suggests that something has gone seriously awry here, when rules initially written to protect subjects in biomedical research from physical harm — and later extended to social-science research, where the harm could be psychological — are applied blindly and literally to an “audit study” aimed at testing the intellectual standards of scholarly journals.
You may not have sympathy for grievance studies hoaxers or even for Sokal but decisions like these can have unseen consequences.
If it is wrong to hoax journal editors to expose pseudoscience or other nonsense, because it is unethically doing research on human subjects, is it also wrong, for example to send, as Ross Thornburn recently did, fake CVs to job companies in order to expose discriminatory hiring practices. In an excellent study, Ross shows that if you are white and trying to get a job in Asia, you have around a 64% higher chance of getting employed than if you are black.
Thornburn didn’t, to my knowledge, have ethical approval to carry out this research. And he is not the first to have carried out research of this kind. Should we see all such research of this kind as misleading potentially vulnerable ‘research subjects’, or is there an argument that the good this kind of research can do outweighs the possible risks?