“The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct”, and other gems from Taylor and Francis

Update: Skeptic has now published a not entirely favourable review of the “conceptual penis” hoax, by Alan Sokal, Professor of Mathematics at University College London, and of Physics at New York University, and author of the famous hoax article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity“. I have asked my University librarian why we carry the journal that published this nonsense, and how much it is costing us. I have not had a reply; but then, if she had not heard of the matter before seeing the title of my email, she may have discarded it as spam. It seems likely that we carry the journal concerned, Cogent Social Sciences, as part of a bundle, since I do not imagine that any academic Department at Glasgow would have requested it.

The article has been retracted, and is no longer available on the journal website, but the published version had been archived and remains available here.

“It is also factually incorrect to associate the anatomical penis with male reproductivity.” (Cogent Social Sciences (2017), 3: 1330439, https://doi.org/10.1080/23311886.2017.1330439

The journal that accepted this paper, after peer review, is available through Glasgow University Library, and is published by Taylor and Francis. This in turn is owned by the conglomerate Informa, which has swallowed a number of thoroughly reputable publishing houses. Among them, CRC (who produce a valuable science data reference resource, known for historical reasons as “the Rubber Bible” (though perhaps I should explain in the present context that the vulgar US meaning of “rubber” has nothing to do with it), Routledge, and Gordon and Breach. Wikipedia credits Taylor and Francis with revenue of £490 million in 2016, or over a quarter of a million per employee. Informa is incorporated in Jersey but tax resident in Switzerland.

Go to https://www.cogentoa.com/article/10.1080/23311886.2017.1330439.pdf (or if that link disappears, as it well may, to the authors’ archived link, here,  and you will see an article by Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle, of Southeast Independent Social Research Group. There you will be told, at the outset, that

The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.

But do not be deceived by this social consensus. To quote the paper’s Public Interest Statement,

As a result of our research into the essential concept of the penis and its exchanges with the social and material world, we conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. … and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change.

This despite the fact that

It is also factually incorrect to associate the anatomical penis with male reproductivity.

Male readers should also be aware that

“Manspreading,” that is, inconsiderately spreading his legs too widely in public … seen from the perspective of the (conceptual) penis as a (performative) social construct, is clearly a dominating occupation of physical space, akin to raping the empty space around him, that is best understood via the machismo braggadocio isomorphism to toxic hypermasculinity.

If you have access to your local university’s library, you may very well find out (as I did) that it carries online the journal, Cogent Social Sciences, in which the paper was published.

As many readers will already know, Jamie Lindsay, Peter Boyle, and the Southeast Independent Social Research Group, do not exist. The real authors are Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, who say in their confession to the hoax

After completing the paper, we read it carefully to ensure it didn’t say anything meaningful, and as neither one of us could determine what it is actually about, we deemed it a success.

Peter Boghossian, via Christopher Ryan’s Friends gallery

They also mention that the references are totally bogus.

Update: Boghossian and Lindsay have come under attack from Bleeding Heart Libertarians (Why the “Conceptual Penis” Hoax is just a Big Cock Up), as well as from Pharyngula, who seems upset because he didn’t immediately realise it was a hoax. The argument seems to be that it’s a crap journal, so this doesn’t count as an atack on the field. The whole point is that the field is supporting, our libraries are buying, and a major respected publisher is profiteering from, a crap journal! Or, it seems from their website, a whole stable of them. Aaron Barlow at Academe Blog is scathing about the use of the hoax as an attack on Gender Studies in particular, but repeats my call here for academics to complain to their librarians about the purchase of such substandard journals.

Does it matter? I think it matters very much indeed. Taylor and Francis are pursuing a highly successful business plan, which involves taking money both from aspiring authors (you are invited to pay for the privilege of publishing in Cogent Social Sciences), and from cash-strapped University libraries, and their parent company, Informa, is not only quoted on the London stock exchange but is a component of the FTSE 100 index. They are diverting intellectual as well as financial resources; the journal publishes papers on very serious matters, such as educational inequalities as a function of wealth in the US, and these may well be of the very highest quality, and deserving of a less contaminated platform. And (as in the case of the “gender studies” that the authors here are lampooning) such nonsense undermines serious campaigns about real grievances.

And what shall we say of the editor who was responsible (according to the journal website) for accepting it, Dr Jamie Halsall, Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences in the Department of Behavioural Sciences and Social Sciences, at Huddersfield University, Times Higher Education University of Year 2013? If those who, like me, are part of academia, refrain out of delicacy from criticising our fellow-academics, there are plenty of others all too happy to do it for us.

And this is journal a one-off? Unfortunately no. Consider this:

The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins, in GeoHumanities, another Taylor and Francis publication, which tells us that

Accumulation of critical, relational, and contextual analyses, including things seemingly as innocuous as pumpkins, points the way to a food studies of humanities and geography.

We do need, badly, “a food studies of humanities and geography.” There are parts of the world, after all, where people are starving.

Then Carfax International Publishers, also part of the Taylor and Francis group, give us, in their journal Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, a paper titled When ‘Angelino’ squirrels don’t eat nuts: a feminist posthumanist politics of consumption across southern California, in which the author

juxtapose[s] feminist posthumanist theories and feminist food studies scholarship to demonstrate how eastern fox squirrels are subjected to gendered, racialized, and speciesist thinking in the popular news media as a result of their feeding/eating practices, their unique and unfixed spatial arrangements in the greater Los Angeles region, and the western, modernist human frame through which humans interpret these actions.

People, it seems, or perhaps only Western people, demonstrate their gendered, racialized, and speciesist thinking by a pre-post-modern dislike of rodents getting into the trash.

Scientific journal publishing, except when carried out by the learning societies themselves, is a business like any other. Here, as throughout 21st century capitalism, competition is fierce, and the fiercest competition is for investment capital. If you don’t make as much money as you possibly can from your journal and its brand, there are plenty of people out there all too happy to take you over, as has happened again and again to some of the proudest names in scientific publishing, and if you scorn the market niche occupied by papers such as those I have cited, there are plenty of publishers who will respond to the demand.

So, if your University library is carrying journals of this calibre, and you don’t think it should be, write to the librarian.

h/t Jerry Coyne, Michael Roberts, Skeptic. “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” is freely quotable under Creative Commons license. The other journal extracts are from abstracts publicly available through the journals’ websites.

Further update: this post just got “liked” by a porn site.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on May 20, 2017, in Science, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    A bit more on the penis paper. It gives some the willies with its silliness, or rather university silliness posing as academic study.


  2. Sokal would be pleased!


  3. Many of us are indeed fooled by scientific jargon that sounds learned and full of instruction. As a layman how am I to know if some very clever scientist or other smart person is taking me for a ride? Just take a look at the adverts for cosmetics or food they claim alerts of wonderful outcomes. Just as fake news is mixed in with factual news and biased news so fake or semi-fake science is stirred up in the pot of science presented to the public. A recent favorite is artificial intelligence and spot the bot jokes. Computer experts could tell me anything.
    Ultimately there is no real answer and no sure way of distinguishing the true from the phoney ; but tread carefully and if caught dust yourself down and carry on.


    • As a layman, you have no difficulty in recognising, as bollocks, the statement that “It is also factually incorrect to associate the anatomical penis with male reproductivity.” The problem is, that at least three serious academics in the field (the paper’s editor and the unnamed reviewers) failed to do so.

      While there is no sure way of distinguishing the true from the phony, the examples I give here, all from journals put out by a major academic pubisher, show that something is very wrong indeed.


  4. Update: Boghossian and Lindsay have come under attack from Bleeding Heart Libertarians (Why the “Conceptual Penis” Hoax is just a Big Cock Up), as well as from Pharyngula, who seems upset because he didn’t immediately realise it was a hoax. The argument seems to be that it’s a crap journal, so this doesn’t count as an atack on the field. The whole point is that the field is supporting, our libraries are buying, and a major respected publisher is profiteering from, a crap journal! Or, it seems from their website, a whole stable of them.

    Which field?


    • Gender studies in particular, according to the authors. Which as it happens also upsets me, having seen more of what is published under that label, precisely because women really are underpaid, undervalued, routinely insulted, frequently harassed (or worse), are in many places treated as property, and in some places are mutilated or have to wear tents.

      Though Cogent Social Science is only one of a stable of Cogent journals welcoming contributors on Taylor and Francis’ website. I looked quickly at Cogent Chemistry, which just seemed very dull, derivative, and not worth reading. It is this, the subversion of the literature by a supposedly respectable publisher, that most upset me, as your excerpt shows.


  5. Thanks. I have updated this post to include a reference to yours.


  1. Pingback: Fraud Through Hoax | ACADEME BLOG

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: