Academic Freedom or Social Justice: What Kind of University is Portland State?

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.

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75 comments

  1. You three provided an invaluable service to humanity, and yes, to social justice, as there can be no justice where there is sloppy reasoning.

    The result of your quality control inspection was ROTFL hilarious, so thanks for making me laugh each time I think of it.
    One especially funny fact was that the readers so failed to spot the spoofs within a millisecond, as they ought to have done, that they complained about their time having been wasted.

    You all are heroes.

  2. I am wondering whether the position would be different if the identities of the journals and editors had been anonymised in the publication. Of course, the public impact would have been considerably less – on the other hand it would have been more difficult to argue that humans had been harmed. One could imagine an IRB might have approved the study under those conditions. There again, would it be necessary to inform the IRB of the specific disciplines to be targeted? It could all have been described at a very abstract level and structured as a comparative study of refereeing and editorial standards across disciplines. Or would this then be construed as having deceived the IRB?

  3. @AP is arguing for the letter of the law. Others are arguing for the spirit. Having been involved with both animal and human IRB’s since their inception, I go for the spirit. Also, the potential to be embarassed is an occupational hazard for being and editor or reviewer – been the latter for donkey’s years, and some of my best friends are editors of academic journals (respectable ones). Any that think training men like dogs is a valid notion deserve what they get.

  4. Many years ago a funded study went down the tubes. We were looking at recovery of lung function, comparing spinal and general anaesthesia. Part of the reason was that in the IRB, the anaesthesiologist insisted he told all patients what the probabilities were for temporary or permanent paralysis from the former and death from the latter. It turns out most people would rather be dead than paralysed, so they refused randomization.

    I have had spinal anaesthesia twice and epidurals twice. Never were the risks explained in numerical terms as we were required to do. No one I have spoken to has had the risk of death or paralysis raised by the anaesthetist before surgery. One reason is that a calm and relaxed subject can be more smoothly anaesthetised. For example, a stressed subject secretes more in the lungs and this is a ‘bad’ thing; they need more drugs for a general, and make a spinal or epidural more technically difficult. also a ‘bad thing’.

    Yet, formally speaking, medical ethics demand that the benefits and risks of all procedures be fully explained, so regardless that it is medically better to reassure a patient (and this is what they do), the rules are what rules in the IRB.

    With 30-odd years of sitting on and dealing with human and animal IRB’s, I would not have said the Grievance Studies group needed IRB approval. The above arguments about the extent of IRB jurisdiction are really about the letter and the spirit of the law. Every journal editor or reviewer knows he could be embarassed – it comes with the territory – its why I always look to see what the other reviewers said after a decision has been made.

  5. Reading through all these comments, it’s clear that when the world ends only the grunts on the ground will survive. Good grief.

    1. Academicians, you’re being laughed at, hard, by people reading the comments who are normal. We read the article and say “Good, Lord, the tyranny of the IRB sounds like Mao or Pol Pot or Soviet Russia!” You guys are niggling about spirit and intent and wrist slaps and other completely ridiculous bullcrap.

      I have no love for academicians, but I do love good satire. These three–the members of the “You Got Punked” crew–are excellent satirists. This must be protected. The guy at Portland State is getting screwed hard enough to win a great lawsuit against the university. Hope he goes that direction.

      But a big “Shadilay!” to the You Got Punked crew for their work. Your tribe is about to get a whole lot bigger.

  6. the fear-mongering about poor students’ access to critical thinking courses is as cartoonish as anything else in this whole constructed controversy. the only boghossian-specific courses in the philosophy department were atheism and new atheism. every other course he has instructed has been, and will continue to be, taught by better academics.

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  7. Consider the case of a journalism prof who is investigating the mayor of a town for taking bribes. Is he to inform the mayor that he is being investigated? Or what about environmental studies profs sneaking onto corp land and taking water samples. Would they get in trouble? of course not.

    1. Water samples are not human subjects. According to the federal regulations, “the following activities are deemed not to be research:… (1) Scholarly and journalistic activities (e.g., oral history, journalism, biography, literary criticism, legal research, and historical scholarship), including the collection and use of information, that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected.” IANAL, but that seems to cover a journalism prof investigating a specific individual.

      This case is different, though, since it does indeed aim ” to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge”, that is, the claims are not about the individual people but about the fields they are taken to represent.

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      1. They were like journalists investigating an industry, such as, say, cattle slaughtering (by humans).

        Moral heroes in my book.

        If the “subjects” had been apologetic, we would not be laughing at them until the end of time.

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  9. This sounds a lot like the Rosenhan studies of the 1970s, where fake schizophrenia patients were sent to various clinics to see if the clinicians could detect sanity. This was of course before the formal IRM system was instituted. But it is very similar. The results are pretty much the same from both studies.

  10. Its a fair point that he should have gone through the university’s ethics process beforehand.

    However, looking through our University’s ethics application process, I don’t think any of the “tick boxes” suggesting potential problems really apply. All the stuff about informed consent deals with “interviews or surveys” which isn’t really what this is. If I had reviewed this I would certainly have asked for clarification that no sensitive personal information was being collected, but I don’t see any reason to bump it up to “high ethical risk” status.

    Hence it should be a slap on the wrist for not filling in the forms, nothing more.

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  11. The problem, as far as I can tell from what I’ve read here and elsewhere, is Boghossian and his colleagues did not know anything (or at least not enough) about IRB and the bureaucracy mandated by federal law when studying humans. And yes, this is a study of humans because what was being studied here was not the content of the bogus papers; what was being studied was the reactions of reviewers and editors– particularly how easily they were being duped. The other problem here is their intention (again, as far as I can tell) was to humiliate and embarrass editors and reviewers, and generally speaking, conducting academic research with the intention of humiliating/embarrassing the subjects you are researching is a no-no.

    It doesn’t really surprise me all that much that Boghossian and his colleagues seem pretty unaware (until after the fact!) of the IRB review. After all, scholars in philosophy, math, and medieval literature typically don’t study humans– they study texts. And it’s also true the IRB process is kind of messed up. As a scholar in composition and rhetoric who has had to complete some IRB paperwork in the past to interview writers/past students, to conduct surveys, to do observations of people writing, etc., I also find the process annoying. I mean, up until recently, I had to fill out the same form at my university as colleagues who are conducting research that involved drawing blood from people. That’s dumb.

    However, rules are rules and the IRB process is far from a new thing. And while I suppose results will vary from institution to institution, my university’s IRB generally wants to work with scholars to make their projects work. I’ll bet Boghossian and his colleagues could have gotten this approved with some minor tweaks, actually. All of which is to say it seems pretty uninformed and silly at this point for Boghossian et al to be upset. It’s probably a similar anger, injustice, and maybe even embarrassment felt by the editors and reviewers they duped with their fake papers in the first place.

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    1. in art school I was regularly instructed to go out into public places and study humans without their knowledge or consent. the studies were then expected to be turned in for grading and critique. this required no IRB approval.

        1. …and who, pray tell, carries out these processes? Goats? Computers? Martians?

          And who, pray tell, can’t tell the substantial legal difference between a human and a process?

    1. No, but it would have been a study that complied with university rules, which protect both the human subjects and the university [from legal liability].

  12. You provide no evidence whatsoever that the action is punitive. To the contrary, IRB approval is required of virtually all research, and can cover deception when necessary. You don’t get a free pass because you think your research is really, really important. If you had bothered to learn something about the fields you claim to be debunking you would have known that going in.

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    1. I think the really important point is that they HAVE LEARNED something about the fields they are debunking. The fact that others are unwilling to learn it is the problem.

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      1. To be more precise, they’ve learned something about a few journals, some more significant than others in their fields. And in order even to gain this decidedly mixed empirical bag, they apparently violated well-known and published regulations about oversight and ethical conduct of research that are routinely carried out (though not always gladly!) by scholars in those fields.

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        1. Again, they weren’t studying humans, but professional processes. They weren’t even observing public behavior or using private information about the editors. The fact that individual humans’ identities could be ascertained and that they could suffer humiliation and professional harm is a result of professional malfeasance, and not covered in the federal regulation.

          These sorts of pseudo-legalistic apologetics for professional incompetence illustrates how deeply ingrained and protected said incompetence is within certain academic disciplines.

          1. This is an idiotic distinction. The regulations are not based on what they were studying (the content) but who the subjects were (humans). The regulations do not consider whether the information collected is private. Those “individual humans” are, indeed, research subjects, and they are, indeed, therefore entitled to ethical treatment as defined in the regulations. The fact that you don’t like them, or their professional behavior, is immaterial to that fact.

            Personally, I do not particularly like the IRB (see, e.g., https://scatter.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/irbs-mission-creep-and-prior-restraint/ ), and I consider these rules often onerous. But the claim in this article is that PSU’s enforcement of published regulations constitutes punishment for a politically or ideologically unpopular position. The evidence does not support that claim.

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        2. “This is an idiotic distinction.”

          You seem to have “idiotic” confused with ‘a legal distinction I don’t personally like’. Your ostensible concern for “precision” seems inconsistent.

          “The regulations are not based on what they were studying (the content) but who the subjects were (humans).”

          The first part of this statement is undeniably correct. But as I clearly stated, the subject under study was not human, but process (or an institution, if you will). You can continue to repeat the falsehood that the editors were being personally studied, but that doesn’t make it true. I’m pleased to apparently be the first to inform you that the study of institutions and processes is not only a large field, but it doesn’t require an IRB.

          “The fact that you don’t like them, or their professional behavior, is immaterial to that fact.”

          I have not stated that I dislike them, so it’s puzzling as to why you think this constitutes a “fact”.

          Given the fact that the editors of these journals do not pass the legal test of human subjects (it’s all there in the regulation), PSU’s enforcement of these regulations is likely to wind them up in court. I make no judgment as to the motivations behind this incorrect enforcement or application, but I wouldn’t be surprised for a moment if this were politically or ideologically motivated.

          1. “the study of institutions and processes is not only a large field, but it doesn’t require an IRB.”

            I’ve just re-read the Common Rule regulations, both pre- and post-2018 editions, searching for this exemption, as I am intrigued by your confidence in it. Indeed, as a sociologist who studies institutions and processes, I was thrilled that I might no longer have to work with the IRB. Alas, I found nothing whatsoever that exempts studies of institutions or processes.

            Here’s the legal test of human subjects, from https://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/regulations-and-policy/regulations/45-cfr-46/index.html :

            Human subject means a living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research:

            (i) Obtains information or biospecimens through intervention or interaction with the individual, and uses, studies, or analyzes the information or biospecimens; or
            (ii) Obtains, uses, studies, analyzes, or generates identifiable private information or identifiable biospecimens.

            (2) Intervention includes both physical procedures by which information or biospecimens are gathered (e.g., venipuncture) and manipulations of the subject or the subject’s environment that are performed for research purposes.

            (3) Interaction includes communication or interpersonal contact between investigator and subject.

            (4) Private information includes information about behavior that occurs in a context in which an individual can reasonably expect that no observation or recording is taking place, and information that has been provided for specific purposes by an individual and that the individual can reasonably expect will not be made public (e.g., a medical record).

            (5) Identifiable private information is private information for which the identity of the subject is or may readily be ascertained by the investigator or associated with the information.

            The editors and reviewers are certainly living individuals. The research procedure involved manipulations of the subjects’ environment performed for research purposes as well as communication between investigator and subject. It generated information about behavior that occurred in a context in which the subject could reasonably expect that no observation or recording is taking place. So, under what exemption do these research subjects fall?

        3. “I’ve just re-read the Common Rule regulations, both pre- and post-2018 editions, searching for this exemption… Alas, I found nothing whatsoever that exempts studies of institutions or processes.”

          Perhaps your confusion stems from the fact this isn’t about exemptions.

          *102.(e)(1) Human subject means a living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting [sic] research:” [Emphasis mine, unless the formatting bugs out, the emphasized portion is “a living individual about whom”.]

          You’ll have a hard time formulating a legal test that includes “processes” or “institutions” as “human test subjects” according to the regulation. Since the editors themselves were not being studied, nor was private information about them used or determined (per the rest of the quote you provided), they do not pass the test. Unless of course the studies mentioned the editors by name or point to them as the subjects of the study. I don’t recall that, but I might have missed it.

          While the language in the regulation is unambiguous, there is slight room to interpret “processes” or “institutions” as “human test subjects”, but this enough of a stretch that any moderately competent attorney should be able to refute it in this particular case. I can’t speak to applicable state laws or the individual university’s policies, but the federal regulation doesn’t apply here.

          Answering your final question, this isn’t about exemptions since the subject of the research doesn’t pass the legal test for human test subject. Because of that, you don’t even have to get into the exemptions portion of the regulation.

          1. I see, so it’s your contention that the information collected was not “about” the living individuals (editors and reviewers) and therefore they don’t count as human subjects. (You’ve inserted the word “test,” by the way, which is not in the regulation.)

            Take an analog from, say, survey research, which certainly is covered by the regulations. The research isn’t “about” any of the specific subjects; it’s about whatever they’re being surveyed about. That doesn’t keep them from being human subjects. Information about them is being collected through interaction or intervention; in this case, it’s “about” their behavior with respect to the fake manuscripts. Most human subjects research isn’t interested in the specific subjects — it’s interested in the processes, institutions, collectivities, etc., represented by those subjects. That doesn’t keep them from being human subjects.

            Identifiability is not required for someone to be a human subject (paragraph 4 is distinct from paragraph 5).

            Could you point to an analogous study in which humans were interacted with or queried about their behaviors in a process or institution but were not considered human subjects for the purposes of IRB?

    2. It seems like you are suggesting that they were able to publish several peer reviewed papers in this field without knowing anything about it. I find it doubtful this would be possible in legitimate disciplines. That that as you will.

      1. That’s the point *they* were trying to make – that they could simulate publishable research without knowing the field. But that’s immaterial to the question raised here: should they be subject to the same constraints and oversight that everyone else is when conducting research on human subjects? In order for the current situation to be construed as targeting them for their speech, there must be some basis for their claim not to be covered by those regulations. I see no such basis, and without one the claim to persecution fails.

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        1. And how exactly was research carried out on human subjects here? At best the subject of research was sort of a supposed cultural incline towards conformity. No humans were harmed in the making of this scandal except the researchers themselves. Also, “ethical approval or informed consent” (from the subject) would render virtually any psychological experiment useless.

          On february 9th Carel Stolker, chairman of the board at Leiden University (the Netherlands) published an article explaining why he wouldn’t “muffle his professors”. In short he said that progress stems from debate and exchange of opinions, even if undesirable or incorrect (and who is to decide this?).

          Seeking refuge in formalities is doing quite the opposite. But then Leidens motto is “praesidium libertatis”. Which is PSU’s?

          1. The subjects in this research were the editors and reviewers. The requirement to behave ethically toward research subjects does not depend on how many such subjects there are, on what professional positions they hold, or on how important you think your research is. However, generally IRBs *do* have processes for approving ethical research that requires deception of research subjects. This is all thoroughly documented here: https://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/regulations-and-policy/regulations/common-rule/index.html .

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    3. Ridiculously oppressive ethics restrictions on research have been a massive problem for several decades. We need more people challenging them and exposing these barriers to knowledge rather than fewer. These folks performed a public service and should be applauded for their work exposing the nonsense of grievance studies, rather than being chastised for disobeying bad rules.

  13. I think it is shocking that 10,000 dogs, who had the reasonable expectation of being watched licking their genitals, went unobserved. Think what harm has been done to the dogs. Truly shameful.

  14. The Project as I understand it, did not seem to involve the researchers conducting research of any “human subjects” as the University claims. The regulation the University relies on defines a ”human subject” as “a living individual ABOUT WHOM an investigator …. conducting research: (i) Obtains information…” (Emphasis added). If the human subjects of this research were the “journal editors and reviewers” that were interacted with by the researchers, I assume those interactions did not involve the researchers obtaining information ABOUT these editors and reviewers. In other words, this regulation appears to only apply to persons of whom the researcher obtains information ABOUT and not merely to persons of whom a researcher obtains information FROM.

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    1. They did obtain information about the editors and reviewers: namely that the reviewers and editors were likely to publish their papers. That was the whole point of their hoax.

        1. No, it’s not publicly available. It was obtained through interaction or intervention. Publicly available means it could be observed without intervention, i.e., the data already exist.

          Sensitive or personal are not relevant to whether the research is covered by the regulation. The test is “private,” which is defined as “behavior that occurs in a context in which an individual can reasonably expect that no observation or recording is taking place.”

      1. That was information FROM the editors and reviewers about publishing papers in specific journals and not information ABOUT the editors and reviewers.

  15. I strongly recommend the people being persecuted here contact FIRE (Foundation for individual rights in education), as there is clearly a litigation to be had here.

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  16. Who f-ing cares. Obnoxious liberal academia bashing obnoxious liberal academia.

    I’m a BSME graduate from Ohio State University. A 12B veteran to boot. Professional for almost 20 years.

    The article is jibberish. No solid factual epiphanies. Nothing.. blah blah blah

    It reads like a postmortem report of a left wing loser getting fired from a left wing institution.

    Here’s a hint….

    Stop with all the hoighty toighty crap and speak f-ing English.

    Clearly state the issue and then clearly state the data and the freakin point.

    And you morons wonder why nobody respects you.

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    1. Which part did you not understand? I’m sure any number of people here would be willing to help you with your issues.

    2. And furthermore, sapper, you of all people should know the value of “testing to destruction”

      My husband served in the 82nd engineers in the 1980s – and while he’s no academic, he understands this basic premise. Sorry you don’t.

  17. I would inform the nice people at PSU that you all welcome guidelines for research that you will then use to contrast all prior similar research against… I don’t think they have been equally diligent up until now.

    Further I would inform them that this was research for science data journalism, not academia. The academic papers just use these journalistic works and data to recap and inform 😉

  18. The work of Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay is highly important as part of the self-examination of contemporary American academic research. The attempt to stretch the perfectly legitimate and important strictures on the use of human subjects in research, evolved to deal with horrendous violations (like Tuskegee) is here being stretched out of all plausible relation to both its original intent and historical use if those performing reviews for journals, and journal editors, are themselves to be regarded as “research subjects” of the very papers they are judging. If someone sent identical papers to journals under male-typical vs. female-typical names to discover bias, would that be a similar violation? I wager that the legal system would be very interested in the intent and motivation for such an expansion of the power of the university to control what its faculty inquire into, and whatever disciplinary costs they may want to impose on thinkers like Boghossian, completely outside the normal institutional forms of oversight that he presumably works under (e.g departmental chair, dean, etc.). That is, it appears from the outside as if faculty sympathetic to the perspectives of which he has been critical have been able to solicit a form of oversight (the IRB) that is quite novel in evaluating the work of a philosopher. A judge might be interested in this form of creativity.

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    1. The specific answer to your question about audit studies (“male-typical vs. female-typical names”) is yes, these are subject to human subjects rules, and are routinely carried out under those regulations.

  19. I think the research was a great idea and the results very relevant. The typical Grievance Studies areas have been shown to be quite corrupt. That makes the research that Boghossian et al have undertaken is worthwhile. They made one mistake, however and in this point I must say that PSU is correct. In principle they have indeed performed a study with human test subjects, without informed consent. In this case the study objective would have been rendered impossible with informed consent, But still, they have not passed the proposed research by an ethical committee. That is the one thing they should have done, to describe their proposed research and explain why an informed consent was detrimental to the success of the study.

    Let us assume that the PSU had functioned correctly and allowed the research to take place, then they would have had a written proposal with stamp of approval prior to the bogus papers being submitted. If they had then at any time during the project run into editors or reviewers accusing them of scientific misconduct, they could have revealed the approved proposal with ethical committee stamp. Now the PSU feels embarrased by their research and makes use of the lack of ethical check to punish at least Peter Boghossian.

    I truly hope they will leave it at a stern warning, because the reseach was excellent and well warranted.

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    1. Revealing the journals in which the articles were published undeniably harmed the editors and reviewers: their subjects. Allowing the papers to be published as opposed to revealing themselves after acceptance also harmed their subjects. The IRB would have likely demanded stricter subject protections in the form of greater privacy. It’s not that they just forgot to file the appropriate paperwork. Their subject protections were purposefully inadequate (they intended to expose their research subjects to public shame and ridicule) and that is a serious ethics violation.

      If Peter Boghossian wants to conduct this kind of research, he can do so under the appropriate supervision of his employer’s IRB or outside of academia as a private citizen.

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  20. The ‘fake papers’ need to be weighed by their objectives and in the largest context of Truth as sine qua non. Today’s academic institutions, which apparently believe in Grievance Studies as a legitimate academic field, are likely incapable of applying apropos standards. The resulting injustice will be exceeded only by the irony. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes.

  21. I know it’s not terribly helpful to get suggestions like this after the fact, but use of a research preregistration service could have saved your group from having to argue about what your intentions had been…

  22. if academia spent as much time and effort actually peer-reviewing these peer-reviewed papers as they have searching for loopholes to strangle a professor with we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

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  23. Just a point…but if you were self identified as journalists you would not need ethical approval. As journalists you’re not seeking to publish this as peer reviewed research. Does PSU demand that ethical approval be sought for research even when it is not intended for publication in peer review journals or presentation at academic conferences? You can undertake research on human subjects for some classroom activities without IRB approval, no? I’m just wondering about the question of authorial intention on the part of Helen, Lindsay and Peter and what bearing that might have on an IRB application. Technically, as a member of faculty any research on human subjects, even low risk, would require review by IRB at the very least, although not necessarily approval (we’ve had this clarified at our own institution over the last couple of years)…

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  24. In recent years there have been several studies sending CVs and job applications with fake names to find out if the hiring process of organizations is sexist or not. Have the people handling these applucations and CVs really been warned in advance? I would assume not.

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    1. They have not. That’s because the IRB does approve a protocol without informed consent when appropriate. What an IRB would not approve is publicly shaming your research subjects.

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  25. To play devil’s advocate, I think it would be possible to test a journal’s peer review process while also obtaining consent from its editor and reviewers. You could tell a journal in advance that you’re planning on submitting fake papers to it over a certain period of time, without telling it what those papers are or when exactly you would submit them (obviously). The journal could then contact its potential reviewers and obtain consent from them.

    Of course, this would probably put the reviewers in a state of heightened awareness for fakes, so it wouldn’t be the ideal way to test their review process. However, it would at least allow you to determine if they could tell the difference between your fake papers and the “real” papers submitted to them. Also, if a journal refuses to have its methods tested in this way, well then that kind of tells you something, doesn’t it?

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  26. To play devil’s advocate, I think it would be possible to conduct an audit of a journal’s peer-review process while also obtaining consent from the editors and reviewers. You could tell a journal ahead of time that you will be submitting fake studies to them over a certain period of time, without telling them (obviously) what papers those would be or when exactly you would submit them. The journal could then let its reviewers know and obtain consent from them.

    Of course, this would probably make the reviewers more alert to potential fakes, so it wouldn’t quite be the ideal way to test their review methods. However, it would at least allow you to determine whether the journals could tell the difference between your fake papers and the “real” papers submitted to them. Also, if a journal were to refuse to have its review process tested in this way, well then that kind of tells you something, doesn’t it?

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