On October 2, 2018, the Wall Street Journal broke a story that detailed an unprecedented audit of certain sectors of academic research, specifically those we—its authors—called “grievance studies.” In that effort, which has come to be known as the Grievance Studies Affair, Portland State University assistant professor of philosophy Peter Boghossian joined the two of us in writing and submitting a series of academic papers in fields like gender studies, race studies, sexuality studies, and so on. Our goal was to understand and expose a corruption of scholarship that puts politically motivated research ahead of honest inquiry in these disciplines. Given that seven of our papers were published—with a realistic potential for several more,—the international headlines, and ensuing academic debate on the issue, we think we were reasonably successful.
Portland State appears less impressed. It took Peter’s administration ten days from the breaking of the story to formally initiate a Committee of Inquiry to determine whether he had engaged in research misconduct. This announcement arrived in Peter’s email in the form of a formal letter dated October 12, sent as a follow-up to an exploratory meeting with him held three days earlier.
“I have arrived at that decision and find enough concerns that I have decided to initiate a formal Committee of Inquiry,” wrote Mark McLellan, Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies at PSU. Specifically, this Committee would be investigating the issue of whether the fabrication of data for some of the papers in the grievance studies audit constituted a breach of research ethics, a proceeding which they notified him may take up to sixty days. McLellan also referred his concerns about the Grievance Studies Affair to Portland State University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). This board’s duty was to determine whether or not conducting the audit should have required ethical approval and the informed consent of the targeted journals’ editors and peer reviewers. Obviously, we did not and could not seek any such approval or consent.
In the meantime, early in November, an anonymous “collective” of a dozen Portland State University faculty members penned an open letter to PSU students, ominously (and vaguely) urging them to consider what Peter’s participation in the grievance study audit might “mean for their education.” The piece was too sloppy and amateurish even to consider viable as a cheap hit-piece, though it was certainly nasty and unfair enough to qualify. Its (ridiculous) conclusion? “Some faculty practice education in bad faith right in your own backyard. This is to the detriment of the university’s reputation and the serious scholars trying to make PSU an excellent place to seek higher education.”
Roughly six weeks after their October 12 letter, the Committee of Inquiry, headed by McLellan, followed up with Peter regarding their deliberations. In a letter dated November 27, 2018, the committee wrote, “The Committee unanimously agreed that the ‘dog park’ article represents an unambiguous example of research data fabrication.”
Of note, “Dog Park” was, by far, the silliest of our papers, which was a point we always intended to reveal in full to the public once our audit was completed. In it we claimed, extremely implausibly, to have examined 10,000 dogs’ genitals before interrogating their owners about their sexual orientations. This clearly preposterous “data” was used as a basis for interpreting human reactions to unwanted dog-humping incidents so as to conclude that a human rape culture exists and could be improved by training men like dogs. We wanted to see if reviewers or editors would ask to see this data or question the conclusions we drew from it. They did not and, in fact, the paper was recognized for excellence within feminist geography.
This is very troubling. So too is the fact that some academics are now claiming that the problem with this paper is that we didn’t actually examine dogs’ genitals by the thousands—that is, that we fabricated this data. Not only is this clearly missing the point, but it is a blatant distortion of the intentions of indispensable ethical rules about data fabrication. These rules are intended to penalize calculated deception of a very specific type. They’re meant to act as a safeguard against and a sanction for researchers who contrive to promote their own advancement directly by passing off and maintaining bogus data with no intention to reveal the truth, which does not apply in our case. They are not reasonably or honestly applicable—nor were they ever intended to be—to academic audits conducted in order to gain evidence of a systemic problem with knowledge production, which would ultimately be revealed as such in a timely manner.
The Committee’s letter goes on, “Given these conclusions, and the fact that the Committee only reviewed the ‘dog park’ article, one of many articles published with potentially fabricated data, we find there is sufficient evidence to warrant further investigation of research misconduct.” Before its close, this letter also refers to the separate IRB investigation, which the committee acknowledged falls outside of its scope. At present, the research misconduct investigation remains open and presumably active.
The Portland State University IRB met and rendered a decision on December 14. Their task was to determine whether the work done as a part of the Grievance Studies Affair constitutes human-subjects research, which rightly would require both ethics board approval and the informed consent of all human participants. This is clearly ludicrous—or an intentional distortion of another crucial research safeguard—because it is impossible to conduct a valid quality assurance investigation, which this audit was, after informing those being audited that they’re under examination.
Nevertheless, in a letter dated December 17, 2018, Peter was informed that he had failed to secure the necessary IRB approval to participate in our grievance studies audit. As a distinct upside to this bizarre turn of the institutional thumbscrews, the Portland State University IRB determined our work “met the federal definition of ‘research’ (45 CFR 46.102) as the project was a systematic investigation designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.” Despite the circumstances, we feel compelled to offer our sincere appreciation to the Board for formally and officially legitimizing our work in this way.
In the same letter, the Portland State University IRB indicated that “the project met the federal definition of ‘human subject’ (45 CFR 46.102),” by whom they mean the “journal editors and reviewers,” who are “living individuals” with whom we (meaning only James Lindsay) interacted “to collect data about them through communication and interpersonal contact.” Well, yes. That would have been the point of the audit of their review and publication practices, although the board’s enthusiasm to stretch the usual intentions of these regulations is evident in their inclusion of the reviewers, who are exempted from such a status in Portland State University’s own research guidelines [see 4.1(2)] by their guarantee of anonymity.
Four days later, on December 21, Mark McLellan sent another letter to Peter, and it wasn’t to wish him a merry Christmas. This letter was sent to inform him of the results of the Institutional Review Board’s investigation. Therein, he summarized the previous letter and observed, “Your efforts to conduct human subjects research at PSU without a submitted nor approved protocol is a clear violation of the policies of your employer.” He then let Peter know that his supervisors have been informed of this determination, as have the university president and provost.
These administrators will determine further disciplinary action against Peter, potentially including his firing. In the meantime, he is restricted from performing any human-subjects research, at least until he has completed an appropriate training protocol “to be identified and proctored by the Assistant Vice President for Research Administration, Dawn Boatman.” It will, at least, be interesting to see the ethical protocol this training will provide for performing academic quality audits with the full, informed consent of the auditees, which would defeat the point of auditing them.
In summary, Portland State University’s administration has begun to take action against Peter Boghossian due to his participation in the Grievance Studies Affair. The administration has levied an accusation of potential research misconduct against Peter for having made use of patently ridiculous fabricated data in a few of the papers we submitted as part of this audit, which is a clear distortion of the important prohibition of fabricating or falsifying data in scientific research. They have also concluded Peter is guilty of a research ethics violation in that he conducted human-subjects research without approval, including failing to obtain the informed consent of those subjects, and has been temporarily barred from engaging in other human-subjects research. This is risible—at best—because it renders any quality-assurance audit of the peer-review and journal-publishing systems impossible.
We conclude that the accusations Peter faces are both irresponsible and a ludicrous embarrassment to Portland State University, its administration, and academia more broadly. Why? They are irresponsible not least because they set a dangerous precedent of taking research and ethical guidelines out of context and using them punitively. They are a ludicrous embarrassment because this distortion is being applied in an apparent attempt to punish a faculty member for having engaged in a praiseworthy effort intended to improve scholarship on important subjects. It seems very likely this is happening because it called into question (and embarrassed) certain protected classes of “academic” pursuit—something that in principle should not even exist. Furthermore, this not only threatens Peter’s job and future prospects, but PSU students’ access to education on critical thinking as it is not clear his classes would be continued by anyone else.
Penalizing Peter on either of these fronts, given his full intention to reveal the true nature of the papers in a timely manner and his lack of intention to benefit directly from them under false pretenses, is unjust, contrary to academic freedom, and would set a terrible precedent for future attempts to examine or critique systems of knowledge production. At the same time, it puts Portland State University at a crossroads. It needs to decide which kind of institution it wants to be and what that means for its students’ educations: one dedicated to advancing Social Justice at any cost or one dedicated to free inquiry and the pursuit of truth. It cannot be both.