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Be On the Lookout for More Sokal Hoaxes

If you spot a Sokal hoax, let us know by tagging @cnaintelligence on Twitter

In a previous article, we noted that a group of researchers have been testing the rigor of social science journals by submitting fake articles and data in order to demonstrate problems in these branches of academics. These hoaxes, known as Sokal hoaxes (named after the original hoaxer, Alan Sokal), have now begun their third round, with the first detected paper in the journal Higher Education Quarterly. The paper, “Donor money and the academy: Perceptions of undue donor pressure in political science, economics, and philosophy,” has now been retracted, but it looks like this is not quite the end of the matter.

The Chronicle of Higher Education managed to get in contact with the Sokal hoaxers. While their identities are anonymous, they responded to emails sent to the corresponding email address for the hoaxed paper. The hoaxer, going by the name “Sage Owens,” said that there were several problems with the reviewers in the process. None of the reviewers asked to see the data and none checked to see if the list of universities was real. However, “Owens” noted that the “central error is that the regression model is all wrong.” 

The identity of “Sage Owens” is as of yet unknown

Higher Education Quarterly has not yet made any public announcement about the hoax, aside from retracting the paper, and did not respond to the Chronicle’s request for a comment. The retraction comment simply says, “the retraction is agreed because data in the article has been identified as fabricated and the authors have not disclosed their true identities.”

More intriguingly, “Sage Owens” told the Chronicle, “We plan to reveal the full extent of this hoax later. For now we recommend readers look for other fake papers.” Marina Ziemnick from the National Association of Scholars identified the Twitter account of “Sage Owens,” though the account is now suspended. Until November 30, the account attempted to maintain the appearance of being a real account. Then, on December 1, the account asked, “Can you find the other 15?” and followed up by pointing out many of the errors. 

Since the account has been suspended, I’ll post “Owens’” response to her papers and comments on them here (taken from the Google cache of her Twitter feed):

  • Can you find the other 15?
  • @kjhealy The paper’s model is obviously wrong, as are the data charts. This is not merely falsified data but something any competent statistician should notice immediately. I noticed you didn’t notice, though.
  • Many people claim the journal had no way of knowing this paper was a hoax. False. The regression model was clearly bullshit. Every page had clear bullshit on it. Any competent social scientist would see it.
  • It was near continuous bullshit, but they missed it.
  • It is funny to publish a paper with the initials SOKAL III in a prestigious journal. The biggest ethics violation here is the journal pretending to be scientific. The paper should have been rejected because the regression model and stats are obviously wrong.
  • No, it’s a prestigious journal. We paid nothing.
  • This paper is a test. If you read it and think it could possibly be legitimate, you do not know stats. The editor who handled this should resign. We might scour his work to determine whether it’s legitimate.
  • Some fields pretend to know basic econometrics but cannot spot basic errors.

It seems the academic community may be in for quite a ride over the next few months. If you spot a Sokal hoax, let us know by tagging @cnaintelligence on Twitter.


Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Be On the Lookout for More Sokal Hoaxes