Ethical review of academic hoaxes

I learned from PZ that Peter Boghossian is under ethical investigation for his “grievance studies” hoax.  Peter Boghossian was one of three authors of the hoax, but the other two (James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose) do not hold academic positions, so are unlikely to be sanctioned.

An institutional review board (IRB) concluded that by involving journal editors and reviewers, they were conducting research on human subjects, and per standard policy they should have gotten IRB approval before beginning.  Everyone–including Boghossian’s defenders–suspects that if he sought IRB approval, he would have been rejected.

Note, there are plenty of experiments that deceive human subjects and still get IRB approval, but I suspect this particular hoax would encounter problems beyond mere deception.  They were undergoing peer review, which is rather arduous labor to get from non-consenting subjects.  The hoax also involved fabricating data, and the IRB decision on that matter is still pending.  I would also say that the hoax did not have much scholarly merit, which is a legitimate consideration for these ethical reviews.

Boghossian’s defenders, of course, are spinning a “martyr for free speech” narrative.  If the target of his hoax were something more acceptable, would he still have been criticized on ethical grounds?

Well, actually…

I, too, wondered if past academic hoaxes had been criticized for ethics.  First, I could look to everybody’s favorite academic hoax, the Sokal affair.  And of course Sokal was the subject of ethical criticism, you can learn that from a cursory glance at Wikipedia.  However, so far as I know, he did not undergo formal ethical review.

But that was a one-shot hoax.  What about hoaxes that were perpetrated on many journals?  So I came across John Bohannon.  He submitted fake papers to 304 open access journals, and it was accepted by 157 of them.  This was reported in Science in 2013.  Again, I could find no evidence that this got IRB approval, but I found plenty of critics saying that it should have.  Michelle Meyer said:

Science, like most journals, requires that any study involving human subjects have received their informed consent as well as IRB approval. The editors of the targeted journals are pretty clearly unwitting “human subjects,” as federal regulations define that term. An IRB would have had to waive the usual requirement of informed consent, and signed off on the privacy, psycholgical, and financial risks to those editors that agreed to publish the bogus paper. The Science article, after all, names names. Science even published supplementary data containing email correspondence between Bohannon and various editors (only bank account numbers are redacted). And Bohannon reports that at least one publisher has vowed to shutter its offending journal’s doors by the end of the year as a result of the sting. Trust me when I tell you that many IRBs would absolutely worry about these kinds of risks to subjects.

Now, I don’t know that Bohannon in fact omitted to get IRB approval. But there is no mention of such approval that I’ve seen. My guess is that both he and Science regard this as investigative journalism rather than as human subjects research, perhaps because, although Bohannon is a Ph.D.-trained scientist and published the results of his study in one of the premier science journals in the world, he makes his living as a science writer. It’s one of the oddities of our IRB system that what some can do, if at all, only after often-protracted prospective third-party review, others can do at will. Academics are usually based in institutions that have contracted with federal regulators to subject to IRB review all human subjects research conducted the institution’s auspices, while journalists and other writers, for instance, are typically based in no such institutions.

In short, it seems like Bohannon should have gotten IRB approval, but he may have barely escaped it by being more of a science journalist than a scientist.

If we compare Bohannon’s hoax to that of Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian, the differences are rather telling:

  • Bohannon’s report was published in Science, not in Areo, which indicates the greater scholarly merit of Bohannon’s hoax.
  • PL&B submitted 20 articles 48 times, and had 7 acceptances, but that looks rather pathetic next to Bohannon’s 157 acceptances out of 304 submissions.
  • After their papers were accepted, PL&B then let the papers be published, wasting the time of readers even though this did absolutely nothing to help their case.  Bohannon, on the other hand, withdrew all accepted papers before they could be published.
  • Bohannon felt it necessary to argue that his hoax did not waste much time of legitimate peer reviewers.  PL&B just don’t care.
  • Boghossian holds an academic position, and Bohannon does not.

In searching for Bohannon, I also learned of his involvement in another hoax, perpetrated not on journals, but on mainstream media.  As he reported in io9 in 2015, he conducted a low quality study purporting to show that chocolate helps weight loss.  He then watched the story get spread around news outlets.  I think there are serious ethical concerns regarding this hoax, but it was perpetrated on news outlets, and published on io9, so formal ethical review probably wouldn’t come up.

Except that it did.  I mentioned that the chocolate hoax involved conducting a low quality study, but it was nonetheless a real study with real human subjects.  The physician who was involved in that study was fined for 500 euros under German law.  The problem?  They didn’t seek ethical review before conducting the study.  Although here it seems like the concern was over the human subjects of the chocolate study, and not the human subjects who read or wrote the news articles.

I am tickled to learn that despite Bohannon’s dubious ethical scruples, he still thought it necessary to actually conduct a chocolate study, rather than fabricating data entirely.  This sets him apart from PL&B, who just went ahead and made stuff up.  Fabricating data is widely considered an academic-career-ending violation of ethics, so I can see why Bohannon made this choice even though it got him tangled up with real human subject research.


When we compare the PL&B hoax to that of John Bohannon, I find that Bohannon has far greater ethical scruples, and his work had more scholarly merit.  And yet, Bohannon’s hoaxes were still highly ethically dubious, and he would likely have had trouble with IRB approval, if he held an academic position.

The people who are framing Boghossian as a martyr are counting their eggs before they’ve hatched.  We don’t know that he’ll receive any significant punishment.  Academics often get away with these sorts of things, especially when the reputation of the university is on the line.  But apart from the university’s public image, as far as the ethical issue goes, I firmly believe that Boghossian deserves sanctions.

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