Higher EducationPublishingScience

Gender Studies “Hoax” Shockingly Reveals Scammy Vanity Journals Will Publish Nonsense

When Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay published their recent hoax article “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” in the journal Cogent Social Sciences, they clearly thought they had just majorly dunked on those Foucault-fellating nerds over in the Gender Studies department. “Ha-ha,” they no doubt said, in sing-song Nelson style, while pointing at the silly feminists who–fingers cramped and worn from their years of clutching both their pearls and their dog-eared copies of Gender Trouble fast to their keffiyeh-draped breasts–would no doubt now finally be forced to acknowledge the total vacuity and intellectual bankruptcy of their entire discipline. A Second Coming of Sokal, truly.

Michael Shermer was suitably breathless in his praise of the authors, writing as an introduction to their revelation of the hoax in Skeptic magazine:

Every once in awhile [sic] it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion [sic], which is why we are proud to publish this expose [sic] of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed article [sic] today. It’s [sic] ramifications are unknown but one hopes it will help reign [sic] in extremism in this and related areas.

Of course, what Boghossian and Lindsay actually proved with their little stunt was something entirely unrelated and unsurprising to anyone working in academia today: scammy, exploitative, pay-to-play academic journals will publish literally anything in return for cold, hard cash.

Yes, as it turns out, you too can undermine an entire academic discipline and expose it as a large-scale fraud for the low, low price of $625. Contact the editors of your local vanity press today!

While Boghossian and Lindsay had indeed tried to publish their “nonsense” article in a real (albeit not especially prestigious) journal, NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, it got (unsurprisingly) rejected. They then responded to an automatically-generated email inviting them to submit to Cogent Social Sciences, which is sort of the academic version of a banker denying you a loan but giving you the business card of his cousin Joey, who operates his lending service out of a van in the parking lot.

The authors in fact dedicate a significant portion of their article in Skeptic to the problem of predatory open-access journals, and how they might have fallen into that trap:

One of the biggest questions facing peer-reviewed publishing is, “Are pay-to-publish, open-access journals the future of academic publishing?” We seem to have answered that question with a large red, “No!” […] There’s nothing necessarily or intrinsically wrong with either open-access or pay-to-publish journals, and they may ultimately prove valuable. However, in the short term, pay-to-publish may be a significant problem because of the inherent tendencies toward conflicts of interest (profits trump academic quality, that is, the profit motive is dangerous because ethics are expensive). […] Some pay-to-publish journals happily exploit career-minded academicians and will publish anything (cf: the famous Seinfeld hoax paper). Is that the case here?

It’s frankly astounding that, having raised the spectre of such a huge confounding factor in their “experiment,” Boghossian and Lindsay go on to essentially reject it out of hand with the flimsiest of arguments: that they were referred to Cogent Social Sciences by a seemingly legitimate outlet (despite the fact that what they actually received was a form letter that the parent corporation no doubt requires them to send with all rejections), and that the journal appears (perhaps mistakenly) on some curated lists of “reliable” open-access journals sponsored by a few organisations.

Note that nowhere in this process did they seem to ask anyone in the actual field in question what might be considered to be mainstream or reliable journals for publication on the topic of Gender Studies. Cogent Social Sciences is decidedly not a Gender Studies journal, but a (very) interdisciplinary one, publishing  on topics ranging “from law to sociology, politics to geography, and sport to communication studies.” This is not to say that there are no broadly interdisciplinary journals with very high editorial and review standards (hi there, Science and Nature!), but specialty journals are much more likely to have editorial boards with the relevant expertise to know what experts in the field would be appropriate to draft as reviewers of a given article.

Not that any actual peer review seems plausible in this case. As noted on the sidebar of article itself, it was submitted on April 17, 2017 and accepted for publication less than a month later, on May 11, and published only six days later, on May 17. That is an astonishing turnaround time. Could the review editor really have researched relevant experts, contacted them as potential referees, sent the article to those who accepted, had them all read it, comment on it, and send in their critiques…all within three weeks during what is normally about the busiest part of the spring academic term? I can’t believe I usually have to wait months to hear back from journals in my own field!

As one might expect, the review editor who shepherded “The Conceptual Penis” through the editorial process at Cogent Social Sciences, Jamie Halsall of the University of Huddersfield, seems to be a very busy man. He served as review editor for 39 articles with the journal in 2016, and 11 so far this year. While it’s true that sometimes universities give limited teaching relief to faculty for service to the profession, something tells me that Halsall is probably working for CSS on top of his other responsibilities as a faculty member. Even with all these responsibilities, he remains quite productive as a scholar, with fourteen publications out in just the last 18 months! I’m sure it’s just a mistake that Yvonne Xian-han Huang is listed as a co-author of his recent (and “peer-reviewed”) article in Cogent Education when she was actually the journal’s review editor. I’m also sure it’s totally normal to publish two articles in a journal while you’re working on the editorial board, which is also something he did while working on Cogent Social Sciences.

So as we can see, Boghossian and Lindsay are totally reasonable in dismissing the journal as the source of the problem, because an automatically generated email and two-minute Google search absolutely assured them of its legitimacy. Besides, it still got through peer review, and peer review is the infallible Gold Standard of All Truth. As they write:

…no one is arguing, nor has any reason to argue, that respectable journals like Nature and countless others have adopted a peer-review process that is fundamentally flawed or in any meaningful way corrupt. Much of the peer-review system remains the gold-standard for the advancement of human knowledge. The problem lies within a nebula of marginal journals, predatory pay-to-publish journals, and, possibly to some degree, open-access journals [But definitely not this one, guys! We totes checked! –ed.]…

Oh, wait. You mean even legitimate, respectable peer-reviewed scientific journals sometimes unwittingly publish frauds, hoaxes, gibberish, and unsubscribe requests [edit: oops, that last one was also a vanity journal, but it’s still a funny article so I’m leaving the link]? And that’s not even counting the well known problems baked into the peer-review system like publication bias and p-hacking?

Well now it just seems like they didn’t manage prove anything at all.

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Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.


  1. May 23, 2017 at 11:38 am —

    The very first thing that struck me when I read about this, was not the possibility of it being a vanity journal, though I guess I had my suspicions, it was the rejection from NORMA.

    A journal I’d heard of and respected the content of(and was data-driven, high quality social science) rejected the paper, and a journal I’d never heard of accepted it.

    But the sad truth is that the basic nuances of this will be lost on the assholes who repeat anything anti-feminist they can get their hands on.

    • May 23, 2017 at 7:22 pm —

      Hey, the really bad ones are when people accept “groups/journals I’ve never heard of” over “well-known entities”. *cough*NAISA*cough*

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