A Letter to Portland State University

September 2019

January 10, 2019

Dr. Rahmat Shoureshi, President

Dr. Mark McLellan, VP Research & Graduate Studies

Dr. Alexander Sager, chair of philosophy department

Dear Colleagues -

I am writing to you in support of Peter Boghossian, whom I understand is being subjected to some oversight or disciplinary proceedings pursuant to his participation in the “Grievance Studies” exposé that is much in the news lately.

The job of the academic reviewer and scholarly editor is to weed out poor scholarship - nothing more, nothing less. This is a duty that the reviewer and the editor owe to the academic community in general, and to the broader public who may be subjected to public policy based on extant scholarship. Everyone has a legitimate interest in this job being done well, so that only good scholarship receives recognition.

Professor Boghossian’s important experiment is diminished by referring to it as a “hoax.” Nor was it a prank, or a joke - even though aspects of it were quite funny. No: it was a valid test of the peer-review system. The reviewers and the editors failed, spectacularly. Surely that result is worthy of publication, further attempts at replication, and arguably academic reward rather than punishment. Teams at every university in the western world should be seeking IRB approval to run similar experiments, until the peer-review system has demonstrably fixed itself and the sham disciplines have been eliminated. Academics owe that much to the taxpayers who are footing the bill for most of what falls under the rubric of higher education.

Perhaps an argument could be made that such an important function as maintaining the integrity of the peer-review process should not be left to ad hoc vigilantes. But in the absence of any other, more systematic oversight, when no other checks and balances are anywhere on the horizon, we - the academic community - owe these ad hoc vigilantes a debt of gratitude. If Professor Boghossian is implausibly found to have violated some university policy related to his experiment, then I hope that he will be granted an absolute discharge.

I share the widespread fear that Professor Boghossian is being pursued not for having breached any relevant university policy, but rather for having embarrassed some elements of the academic community (who richly deserve to be embarrassed). One way to test this hypothesis would be to ask the Portland State University IRB to review Professor Boghossian’s project and make an ex post ruling on whether it breached any clearly defined ethical principle. If the project would have been approved, perhaps with minor tweaking of methods, then the only thing Professor Boghossian is guilty of is not seeking prior approval. That is, perhaps, an academic sin, but one perfectly remedied by an absolute discharge, under all of the circumstances. (The process is the punishment, after all.) If the project would not have been approved, it would be enlightening to the disciplinary process and to the academic community at large to know exactly on what basis the project is deemed ethically faulty. Only then might future researchers know how to conduct an experimentally sound test of the peer-review process.

The outcome of this case, as well as the reasons for any decision that may be forthcoming, are of widespread interest to the academic community and the public at large. In view of this, I trust you will not shroud the case with secrecy, but rather will conduct yourself with utmost transparency. Anything less will only feed suspicions that you are acting with oblique motives.

Before concluding, I should declare a slight personal interest in Professor Boghossian’s project. I have previously published in one of the journals that he successfully targeted: “Gender as a Factor in the Response of the Law-Enforcement System to Violence Against Partners,” Sexuality & Culture, Vol. 8, Nos. 3-4 (Transaction Periodicals, 2004), pp. 3-139. I remain proud of that work of scholarship, and am sad to see that the journal I submitted it to has degenerated so far in such a short period of time. I fear that one of my most important publications will be taken less seriously as a result of Professor’s Boghossian’s expose. This is why I am particularly interested in maintaining academic rigor in the peer review process. Historically valuable scholarship can be tainted in retrospect by bad peer review many years later. It hurts us all.

Please make sure that a copy of this letter of support appears in the file the university compiles in the process of prosecuting this case.


Grant A. Brown, DPhil (Oxon, political philosophy), LL.B.

Stratford, Ontario, Canada.

Editor’s note: In late July, 2019, Portland State University’s Institutional Review Board found that Professor Boghossian committed “violations of human subjects’ rights and protection” and that his experiment “raises concerns regarding a lack of academic integrity, questionable ethical behavior and employee breach of rules.” Professor Boghossian is “forbidden to engage in any human-subjects-related research as principal investigator, collaborator or contributor” until the IRB is satisfied he has learned his lesson.