Run by an anonymous team of professors and academics, @RealPeerReview is a Twitter account that has steadily gained popularity and fans by exposing the humorous, nonsensical, and absurd trends in scholarship that are sometimes found in academic research. From Ph.D. theses, M.A. theses, to articles in disciplinary journals, the account highlights laughable “scholarship” such as exploring the Black Anus, how pumpkins and pumpkin spice lattes are oppressive and symbols of white privilege, a paper on a researcher’s experience of completing jigsaw puzzles, and how a scholar felt while drinking a coffee and reading The Guardian (projects which are sometimes written at the expense of the taxpayer dollar). Another example: a study on “feminist glaciology” which asked that we accept “other ways of knowing” about glaciers (as opposed to scientific) that was partly funded by a $413,000 tax-payer grant.
To hear from those who run the account, why they stay anonymous, and what motivates them, I reached out with some questions.
The following are their compounded answers along with @OkayUltra‘s (their admin).
Malhar Mali: What inspired you to start this account and begin outing the “research” done by humanities and social sciences scholars? Do most of you work in the natural sciences?
Real Peer Review: Our team is pretty diverse in terms of composition, we do have several people working in natural sciences, several from humanities, some interdisciplinary folks, students, and even some folks involved with computer science. Given the history associated with shutdown of the old Real Peer Review account, we’d prefer to avoid revealing further details. As to our inspiration, some of us happen to feel very strongly about the state of field they work in, and hope that Real Peer Review will help improving the overall quality of work getting published in the field, some just happen to have a strong sense of humor and find that a certain type of low-quality academic work is a rich source of good-natured laughter, some are concerned about the possibility of extremely dubious (to put it very mildly) research finding its way into regulatory proposals and legal frameworks.
Okayultra: Speaking in personal capacity: I’d like to add that while many other fields of human inquiry have their share of extremely questionable “research”, low-quality work in humanities and social sciences produces vastly more results that have a certain comical quality. One could definitely make a Real Peer Review account focusing on, say, physics (specifically string theory), but making it at least slightly amusing would present significant challenges. Having said that, Real Peer Review is not formally committed to satirizing any particular field, so whenever a sufficiently comically broken paper in natural sciences crosses our path, we cover it.
MM: What would you say to critics of your account who would say that you simply don’t “understand” the complex work going on in the social sciences and humanities?
RPR: Well, some of us do in fact work in humanities, so in its most general form this kind of argument is trivially not true. However, we are, of course, human, and thus of course we can occasionally be mistaken about a given work. So if someone believes we have covered some paper undeservedly, or made some mistake, they can contact our admin Okayultra (her DMs are open) and/or tweet at her.
O: Speaking in personal capacity: I’d just like to add that the “you do not grasp the enormity of who it is you are dealing with” argument is deployed rather often to defend outright obscurantism, so I expect people making such claims to present a rather solid argument proving that it is indeed us who are in the wrong. However, mistakes and misunderstandings happen. Thus we have a quality control system in place. We’re a volunteer satirical account, not an organization with employees on a payroll, so quality control isn’t very fast, but it works and we have actually removed some tweets due to receiving well-argued, intelligent complaints about said tweets
MM: When did this trend in the humanities and social sciences begin? Where do we place the appropriate blame — postmodernism, a shift away from the idea that a “truth” is attainable, etc?
RPR: Some of our contributors do believe that a large portion of responsibility for deluge of low quality works is at least partially attributable to postmodern schools of thought, though to be honest institutionalized obscurantism in academic environments is a very old phenomenon. Some of us happen to believe that generation of such laughably broken “research” is a natural consequence of any sufficiently isolated and ideologically homogenous community. We tend to converge on a “sunlight is best disinfectant” view with regards to what can be done about it, though.
MM: Why do you feel the need to retain anonymity? Do you risk your losing your jobs if your identities were exposed?
RPR: The account was created as a successor effort to a different account that was run by a single person, who faced threats of doxing and had to shut the account down. We have made it a multi-person group account with some degree of contributor anonymity precisely to avoid falling victim to the same underhanded tactics that took down previous account. Okayultra, however, is pretty open about her status as account admin (she prefers to remain pseudonymous due to issues completely unrelated to “Western” academia and Real Peer Review)
MM: What are the most absurd trends you see in this “scholarship”?
RPR: It’s extremely hard to pick the “most absurd” trend, since, well, it’s hard to express relative degrees of absurdity. However, formation of (“technically peer reviewed”) journals focusing on an extremely narrow and insular circle of readers and authors who engage in a kind of obscurantist pseudo-intellectual mutual masturbation (often with some degree of public funding) with absolutely no measurable or even coherently expressible benefit to the field (let alone society at large) is something that has provided us with a steady stream of comically rich content. Upon reflection, we believe that “absurd” is perhaps not the best description of this trend and “disturbing” would be more appropriate.
Malhar Mali writes about secularism, human rights, politics, and culture. He is the Editor at Areo. You can connect with him on Twitter @MalharMali