Academic Hoaxes, “Sokal Squared”, and Anime and Manga Studies

It is rare to see any kind of discussion of academic publishing in mainstream media. Probably predictably, if academic journals are mentioned in general-interest newspapers it is probably because of some kind of controversy. And this is currently the case with the “Sokal Squared” hoax and the responses to it.

The hoax itself, as disclosed in Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship, was a project by three authors to write academic papers that were “outlandish or intentionally broken in significant ways”, including outright fabrication of data, but that allegedly “blend in almost perfectly with others in the disciplines [“loosely known as ‘cultural studies’ or ‘identity studies’ (for example, gender studies) or ‘critical theory'”] under our consideration” and submit these papers to leading journals. They submitted 20 papers; 7 were accepted, and 4 actually published. Since it was disclosed earlier in the month, the hoax has been covered extensively – in The Atlantic, the New York Times, Vox, and other publications. As the authors claim, the goal of the project was to study a “peculiar academic culture”, rather than to make and support any specific arguments beyond the general statement that “in certain fields within the humanities…scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established.”

The question I have to ask, of course, is what lessons, if any, does this latest hoax have for anime and manga studies in general, and for anyone interested in academic publications on anime/manga and related topics?

Answering this question requires finding out what the hoax has demonstrated in the first place. One thing it definitely has is that it is fairly easy for an author to publish an academic article using observation data or interviews that are completely made up. This actually comes as no surprise to those that are familiar with academic publishing in general – but is still something that is worth repeating. The necessary follow-up, then, is whether research based on data, surveys and interviews even has a place in anime and manga studies. The answer is a definite yes – examples include Japanese gay men’s attitudes towards ‘gay manga’ and the problem of genre (“[d]rawing upon interviews with four Japanese gay men, one Japanese Korean man and one Japanese Brazilian man”, “Interviews with adolescent anime fans”, and especially, the publications of the International Anime Research Project. This is not to imply that these specific publications are suspect – but it is to remind readers that just because something is published in a peer-reviewed journal, even if it has the appearance of being backed by actual data, the question of how “real” it is remains open. With this in mind, peer review does not require you the reader to uncritically accept any of the claims, arguments, or even supposed evidence that is presented in a particular paper – especially if the methodology of the paper raises questions. An interesting thing to consider in this context is to wonder how many authors who actually conduct this kind of research are even trained in quantitative and survey/interview-based research techniques to begin with!

More broadly, the authors claim that their project did demonstrate that “there are excellent reasons to doubt the rigor of some of the scholarship within the fields of identity studies that we have called ‘grievance studies.'” Making this claim, though, implies establishing some kind of baseline rigor for scholarship in particular academic fields and an expectation for the nature of what an academic article actually is. Is there such a standard for scholarship in anime and manga studies?

Unfortunately, far too often, popular commentary erases or outright ignores the distinction between research in the humanities and in science. Humanities research is commentary, and meant to be subjective. When an author asks has Akira always been a cyberpunk comic?, the answer may be supported by particular arguments and examples, but it cannot be definitive and absolute. And something like Romantic love and the housewife trap: A gendered reading of ‘The Cat Returns does not even present any specific “research questions” to answer – it is meant to be exactly what it is – an individual interpretation. The quality of this kind of essay will be based on how logically sound it is, and on the extent to which the theoretical arguments it makes are supported by the sources it cites to. In fact, here, it is even worth thinking about the papers in question in the original hoax – the authors prepared them as “intentionally broken”, but those that were straight-out essays, did not involve any fabrications, and were accepted for publication were clearly accepted as valid and not in any way broken – so, they actually met the standard of their specific field.

So, ultimately, if there is one thing that comes out of this latest controversy about academic publishing, it’s that it highlights how academic publishing in the humanities works, what it can accomplish, and what are some of the weaknesses that are inherent to the process. Yes, it raises questions about the ethics of the kind of approach that the hoax’s perpetrators undertook, and about potential responses to them. But does it signal any kind of crisis that demands major or immediate responses? No.

 

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One thought on “Academic Hoaxes, “Sokal Squared”, and Anime and Manga Studies

  1. Thanks for linking to my Akira article, Mikhail, but I think I disagree with the point you’re trying to make. Humanities research shouldn’t be “subjective”, and there can be answers that are “definitive and absolute” (though still falsifiable, of course). For instance, imagine a manga for which there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that it belongs to the cyberpunk genre and was always seen this way. It would be absurd to argue for the contrary. In the case of Akira, I wanted to show something even more specific in my article, namely that the success of Akira around 1990 cannot be explained by its purported affiliation with the cyberpunk genre. Unless someone comes up with new evidence on this matter, this answer is objective, definitive and absolute.

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