The Loneliest Jukebox

Graham Barnfield's weblog, being gradually replaced by his Twitter feed -

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A perplexing performance: on reposting the Portland dog parks hoax

There was some debate in and around my employer when our Facebook page linked to an account of the discovery of a hoax research paper purportedly involving dogs. Some correspondents pointed out that reposting the story was risky, as it could harm the reputation of animal research. The article, “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at Portland dog parks”, is now officially retracted from the Journal of Feminist Geography: Gender, Place and Culture.

Had the observational work on canine behavior that the pranksters, writing as ‘Helen Wilson’, depicted actually taken place, it would have counted as animal —but not biomedical/veterinary research, with minimal severity and human intervention.

James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian submitted the work as one of 20 hoax papers, seven of which were accepted for publication. Some people friendly to my employer's goals suggested that by drawing attention to fake academic work of low quality, we were providing activists with ammunition for their arguments.

If the paper been submitted to a journal dealing with genuine biomedical or veterinary research, the absence of research ethics panel documentation from a host university, or the ethical oversight of a journal’s scholarly editorial board, would have made the hoax unlikely to succeed. The regulation of legitimate animal research tends to be very strict.

The paper's authors suspected that the Journal of Feminist Geography editors would welcome an account of foul hounds and their evil owners because it confirmed the journal’s prejudices – reflecting what the hoaxers call the rise of ‘grievance studies’ in the academy. Sure enough, publication occurred, further illustrating the unnecessarily porous borders between the natural sciences and the humanities, and the unhelpful tendency to anthropomorphise animal behaviour.

Both the type of ‘findings’ that had been faked and the shoddy standards of the publication – which failed to ascertain the writers’ true identity – could damage the standing of the research community as a whole. There is also the ethical issue of whether submitting hoax papers is the right way to expose such shortcomings.

However, the success of the hoax, which could have continued for longer had it not been unearthed by journalists, shows that researchers and publishers need to be extra vigilant about studies using animals, especially given the criticism from activists and the arguments about the need for the use of animals as a routine part of biomedical research.

On balance, publicising the Portland dog parks hoax may help to clarify the difference between thorough science, pseudoscience and science badly done. The hoaxing was initiated by opponents of what they see as confirmation bias and advocacy research. It’s certainly not the only way to make such a case, but it has helped to clarify one problem in present-day academic publishing, where quality can be sacrificed for quantity and ideology. Good scientists have nothing to fear when careless academics slip up.

(Held over from November 2018)