Drivel that passes academic quality control

10 Oct, 2013 at 10:14 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 1 Comment


The Sokal hoax, as it came to be known, demonstrated how easy it was for any old drivel to pass academic quality control in highbrow humanities journals, so long as it contained lots of fancy words and pandered to referees’ and editors’ ideological preconceptions. Hard scientists gloated. That could never happen in proper science, they sniffed. Or could it?

Alas, as a report in this week’s Science shows, the answer is yes, it could. John Bohannon, a biologist at Harvard with a side gig as a science journalist, wrote his own Sokalesque paper describing how a chemical extracted from lichen apparently slowed the growth of cancer cells. He then submitted the study, under a made-up name from a fictitious academic institution, to 304 peer-reviewed journals around the world.

Despite bursting with clangers in experimental design, analysis and interpretation of results, the study passed muster at 157 of them. Only 98 rejected it. (The remaining 49 had either not responded or had not reviewed the paper by the time Science went to press.) Just 36 came back with comments implying that they had cottoned on to the paper’s sundry deficiencies, though Dr Bohannon says that 16 of those eventually accepted it anyway.

The Economist

1 Comment

  1. We’ve known this for ages…

    The Sokal hoax only proved one thing: if Adam Sokal send you a paper, throw it in the bin because he is not an academic that acts in good faith.

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