Higher education

‘Sokal squared’ and the absence of academic time

Readers may be familiar with the ‘Sokal squared’ hoax that was revealed a few weeks back. It basically involved a trio of US researchers publishing articles on deliberately outlandish topics – ‘rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks’, for example – in prestigious journals.

The three hoaxers have claimed that their actions were motivated by a desire to expose what they regard as an unhealthy fixation on ‘academic grievance studies’ – a term they used to describe research concerning issues such as gender, race and sexuality.  They claim that ‘the current highly ideological disciplines undermine the value of more rigorous work being done on these topics and erodes [sic] confidence in the university system.’

Of course, this isn’t the first hoax in the world of academic publishing. In 1996, New York University physicist Alan Sokal famously published ‘a word salad of solemn academic jargon’ in Social Text – hence the name of the most recent chicanery.

Predictably, responses to the ‘Sokal squared’ hoax have been mixed. Some have suggested that the scam illuminates serious flaws at the heart of academia. Others have speculated that the hoax would lead to ‘more technocratic checks on submitted papers’, and that this could have negative ramifications for the kind of research that gets published in scholarly journals.

I read about ‘Sokal squared’ in breaks between tutorials, student consultations and those moments dedicated to My Own Research. Indeed, the aspect of the hoax that this academic found most striking was the absence of time.

Of course, an absence of time is a characteristic feature of the contemporary academy. Gary A Olson describes this phenomenon like so:

The first years of a typical career are hectic as junior professors frantically attempt to establish themselves in the profession and publish enough research to warrant tenure and promotion. Academic time may then slow down after tenure has been awarded, before exhibiting a renewed spurt of activity as the now associate professors seek promotion to full professors.

And even when ‘full professorship’ is attained, there is still the pressure placed on researchers to obtain external funding (for example, via competitive grants). There are still student projects to supervise, and lectures to prepare. There are still committees to sit on, and forms to sign off on and other admin to complete. There are still journal submissions to review and dissertations to examine.

In short, there’s little time to write twenty academic articles over a twelve or so month period – which is the collective effort of the ‘Sokal squared’ pranksters, in their efforts to prove that the academy had become obsessed with anything related to gender and inequality. (It’s worth adding here that not all the twenty manuscripts were accepted for publication. One reviewer has taken time out from his research to explain why he’d taken time out from his research to write what sounds like an incredibly eloquent reader’s report, declining one of the trio’s papers. The topic of that paper, incidentally, was ‘masturbation as a form of violence’.)

Obviously it’s true that bad research does get published. This is, however, not unique to the humanities. And yet, across the world, it’s humanities research – particularly that which is focused on marginalised groups, inequalities, and power imbalances – that routinely gets singled out for public ridicule and punishment, no matter its quality. Witness the recent revelation that former education minister Simon Birmingham vetoed funding for at least eleven Australian Research Council grants, covering topics such as ‘Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklist’.

There are many reasons why sub-par research makes it into print, and indeed, gets written in the first place. Surely one of these would be the ‘publish or perish’ mentality. An anonymous academic describes the effects of this mentality thus:

In my experience, interesting, useful research comes quite easily, if you address issues that matter in the real world, not the journal world, and respond to unexpected information. But so much in universities is pushing people to target performance indicators instead. This is easiest done through hackneyed, inconsequential, self-serving work, which ultimately short-changes research funders. Work like this for long enough and you’ll lose the ability to work any other way.

This academic provides a number of anecdotes whereby researchers met their publication quotas via recycling academic buzzwords and insights from previous studies.

Equally, it’s conceivable that some scholars are willing to submit half-baked and intellectually questionable manuscripts in order to meet those quotas, while concurrently completing a range of other career-related tasks. Whether these manuscripts pass the peer review stage is another matter. (I repeat, not all of the ‘Sokal squared’ papers got the green light.)

There are many scholars undertaking brilliant and necessary research that foregrounds gender, race and sexuality; some of these scholars are known to me, some I am yet to discover. But these scholars take the time to undertake their research knowing that it will be admonished as ‘ideological’ – and that it won’t necessarily enhance their employment prospects.

Of course, though, the ‘Sokal squared’ trio aren’t interested in the realities of twenty-first-century academia in a neoliberal institution. They aren’t interested in how time (or a lack thereof) impacts on the lives and output of university researchers – and this is the real scandal of their hoax.


Image: sylvaf – maze / flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Dr Jay Daniel Thompson is a Lecturer, Professional Communication in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. His research explores ways of cultivating ethical online communication in an era of disinformation and digital hostility.

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