The “Grievance Studies” Hoax and the IRB Process

From Inside Higher Ed comes “Blowback Against a Hoax.” The “hoax” in question happened last fall, and it was described in a very long read on the web site Areo, “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship.” In the nutshell, three academics created some clearly ridiculous articles and sent them to a variety of journals to see if they could be published. Their results garnered a lot of MSM attention (I think there were articles in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times). And, judging from a quick glance at the shared Google Drive folder for this project,  it is very clear that the authors (James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose) were trying to “expose” and (I’d argue) humiliate the academics that they believe are publishing or not publishing kinds of scholarship because of “political correctness.”

Well, now Boghossian (who is an assistant professor at Portland State) is in trouble with that institution because he didn’t follow the rules for dealing with human subjects, aka IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval.

Read the article of course, but I’d also recommend watching the video the group posted as a defense to this on January 5. I think it says a lot about the problem here– and, IMO, Boghossian and his colleagues do not exactly look like they knew what they were doing:


(I posted what follows here– more or less– as a comment on the article which might or might not show up there, but I thought I’d copy and paste it here too):

It’s a fascinating problem and one I’m not quite sure what to do with. On the one hand, I think the Sokal 2.0 folks engaged in a project designed to expose some of the problems with academic publishing, a real and important topic for sure. On the other hand, they did it in way that was kind of jerky and also in a way that was designed to embarrass and humiliate editors and reviewers for these journals.

The video that accompanies this article is definitely worth watching, and to me it reveals that these people knew very VERY little about IRB protocols. Now, I’m not an expert on all the twists and turns of IRB, but I do teach a graduate-level course in composition and rhetoric research methods (I’m teaching it this semester), I’m “certified” to conduct human subject research, I teach my students how to be certified, I regularly interact with the person who is in charge of IRB process, and I also have gone through the process with a number of my own projects. In my field, the usual goal is to be “exempt” from IRB oversight: in other words, the usual process in my field is to fill out the paperwork and explain to the IRB people “hey, we’re doing this harmless thing but it involves people and we might not be able to get consent, is that okay” and for their response to be “sure, you can do that.”

So the first mistake these people made was they didn’t bother to tell their local IRB, I presume because these researchers had never done this kind of thing before, and, given their academic backgrounds, they probably didn’t know a whole lot about what does or doesn’t fall under IRB. After all, the three folks who did this stuff have backgrounds in math, philosophy, and “late medieval/early modern religious writing by and about women,” not exactly fields where learning about IRB and the rules for human subjects is a part of graduate training.

If these folks had followed the rules, I have no idea what the Portland State IRB would have said about this study. The whole situation will make for an interesting topic of discussion in the research methods course I’m teaching this term and a really interesting topic of discussion for when the local director of IRB visits class. But I do know three things:

  • It is possible to put together an IRB approved study where you don’t have to get participant approval if you explain why it wouldn’t be possible to get participant approval and/or where the risk to participants is minimal.
  • If you put together a study where you purposefully deceive subjects (like sending editors and reviewers fake scholarship trying to get them to publish it), then that study is going to be supervised by the IRB board. And if that study potentially embarrasses or humiliates its subjects and thus cause them harm (which, as far as I can tell from what I’ve read, was actually the point of this project), then there’s a good chance the IRB folks would not allow that project to continue.
  • Saying something along the lines of “We didn’t involve the IRB process because they probably wouldn’t have approved anyway” (as they more or less say in this video, actually) is not an acceptable excuse.

I don’t think Boghossian should lose his job. But I do think he should apologize and, if I was in a position of power at Portland State, I’d insist that he go through the IRB training for faculty on that campus.

One Reply to “The “Grievance Studies” Hoax and the IRB Process”

  1. As an IRB member and former union grievance officer, I’d go a step further than wanting an apology. If this happened the way it sounds like it did, it’s really blatant research misconduct and I’d want somewhat firmer discipline than an apology. I hesitate to suggest what that would be (certainly not firing or even a suspension–something to do with access to research resources, probably), but this is serious. And not just because I’m irritated by what they were trying to do, although I am.

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