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Circling the wagons
There was no defending that appalling "autoethnography" paper on masturbation. But a lot of academics defended it anyway
[Trigger warning: child sexual abuse]
A conservative politician attacks a peer-reviewed research paper by a Humanities PhD student.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Anti-free speech. Anti-academic freedom. A chilling atmosphere for researchers. But before you get out the loudhailer and head to protest outside Parliament, perhaps it would be good to get a little context. First, here’s the tweet, from Conservative Party MP Neil O’Brien:
My instinct upon seeing a tweet like this is to click the link to the paper—in this case, one published this year in the journal Qualitative Research—and take a look at it. The instinct of several other academics on Twitter was to instantly, reflexively defend the paper from O’Brien’s criticism. But we’ll get to those academics in just a moment. For now, let’s actually look the paper - if we can stomach it.
I think O’Brien buried the lede in his tweet (sorry to use this annoying journalistic term - it just means “didn’t immediately mention the most important part of the story”). That’s because the shota to which the author is masturbating isn’t just “normal” Japanese pornography - it’s Japanese pornography that heavily features pubescent boys. In other words, it’s hand-drawn, simulated, child porn.
You don’t need to look far to see this - you can find it in literally the first line of the paper’s Abstract*:
I wanted to understand how my research participants experience sexual pleasure when reading shota, a Japanese genre of self-published erotic comics that features young boy characters.
The recently-single researcher—a PhD student named Karl Andersson at the University of Manchester—describes an “experiment” where, for a period of three months, he masturbated only to shota magazines. He kept a diary, updated each time he masturbated, detailing “which material I had used, where I had done it, at what time, and for how long”.
It’s quite difficult to choose which parts of the paper to quote; I actually recommend you read the whole thing (it’s not long), just to see how unbelievably weird “autoethnography” research—studies where the researcher describes their own personal experience and tries to draw some wider lessons for society—can get. But here’s one quotation (note the “very young”):
The examples above, with stories from a past childhood, were believable to me, as in ‘that could have happened’... But more often, very young boy characters would greedily jump over the first cock that presented itself. That too worked for me, but it was different. If the boyhood stories enhanced a sexual curiosity that was there from the start in the typical pubescent boy that the characters were modelled on, these other stories pasted an overly virile sexuality onto characters that would not be sexual to start with (or at least not that sexual, or in that way).
And here’s a quotation from one of Karlsson’s diaries (I have to re-emphasize that this was published in a peer-reviewed academic paper):
I continued in bed, arranged the pillows until I was in a comfortable position, a bit ceremonial. ... The boy is now observing Tokio-kun through the window, on the veranda, while jerking off. He slips on the snow and is discovered. Tokio-kun angry, but also excited even as he keeps repeating ‘I’m not homo!’. The boy who has admitted to everything has nothing to lose, so he throws himself over Tokio-kun and starts sniffing his cock and licking his smooth balls, and while waiting for the shot I came!
Some of it is just bizarre:
3D [as opposed to the 2D comics] is my culture, just like milk and muesli is my breakfast, and not fish and miso soup, which you might be served for breakfast at a traditional ryokan in Japan. I can enjoy both, but I think I will never overcome my preference – I wonder if any of us truly can. And so, it was necessary to be diligent enough to abstain from the ‘milk and muesli’ of porn during this experiment, in order to see what happened to my body on a long diet of ‘fish and miso soup’.
Towards the end, he tries to make some kind of insightful point by writing:
When we masturbate, someone else is always there. During this fieldwork, others were there with me, both in the form of the characters that populated the dōjinshi, but also in the form of the invisible creator of these characters and the other readers who were enjoying them.
“Fieldwork”! As someone who does quantitative (as opposed to qualitative) research, I always have a boggle reaction when I see papers like this. This counts as research?! To be unreasonably charitable to autoethnography in general, it might occasionally be useful: it could generate hypotheses which we can then properly test in quantitative studies, with actual data, rather than just a diary (what’s frustrating is when researchers stop after the qualitative part, or even argue that qualitative research is better than quantiative).
But even for autoethnography, this paper is terrible. A masturbation diary isn’t “research”. There is absolutely nothing we learn from it apart from gaining a disturbing insight into the mind of the author.
And that mind is a very warped place. The writer Ben Sixsmith dug into Andersson’s background and found that he used to run a magazine with eroticised pictures of boys “as young as 13”, and gave a terrifying interview to Vice magazine in 2012 which has to be read to be believed. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t want to push this, but if you look at the relevant UK law, I don’t see how the shota materials he has in his possession are legal (but as I say: not a lawyer).
What I’m mainly interested in is the reaction from Karlsson’s fellow academics. Happily, there were many academics who were repulsed by the paper and said so loudly - and good for them. But when some other academics saw a Conservative MP tweeting about the study, it was simply too much. They sprang into action - and also blundered straight into what was—deliberately-set or otherwise—a trap.
Defending the indefensible
Here are lots of highly-credentialed academic Tweeters—all but one with their credential prominently in their Twitter name or handle—responding to Neil O’Brien’s tweet by reflexively defending the paper about masturbating to cartoons of underage boys.
For example, here’s Dr. Fern Riddell, who is a cultural historian who writes about sex and related issues:
And here’s Prof. Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham:
Here’s Prof. Nigel Driffield, Professor of International Business at Warwick Business School:
And finally, here’s Prof. Danny Blanchflower, Professor of Economics at Dartmouth:
There were other tweeters who joined in the wagon-circling, mainly making the false claim that Andersson wasn’t funded, or was self-funded. For instance, here’s Prof. Paul Bernal, professor of IT Law at University of East Anglia:
The claim that the paper wasn’t funded isn’t true: even though the paper contains a statement that no funding was received for that project specifically, Andersson mentions in his Twitter bio that he’s funded by his university department, has put a video on YouTube talking about how his PhD is funded through his department, and someone—most likely the university—has paid the ~£2,500 “article processing charge” required to make the article fully open-access. Someone is paying for this - and given how universities are funded, it’s perfectly reasonable to think it’s all, or at least in part, the UK taxpayer.
But the heuristic for these academics seemed to be: if a right-wing MP is criticising a paper published by a Humanities academic, I must defend that paper. Perhaps in many cases that heuristic would work—it has, after all, become a pastime on the right to mindlessly attack work in the Humanities and social science, as the very cringe “grievance studies” hoax from 2017-18 proved. But this situation illustrates how terribly badly the heuristic can go wrong. There is an enormous amount of terrible, useless “research” in the Humanities/social science. The UK taxpayer does fund a lot of it.
This extreme paper was an opportunity for everyone to say “okay, can we do anything to raise standards in qualitative research?”. Instead, they went with their basest political instinct and defended it - without having even read the first sentence of the Abstract.
At the time of writing, Dr. Riddell and Prof. Bernal have apologised and deleted their tweets; Profs. Driffield and Blanchflower have moved on to other things; and Prof. Fielding has doubled down, saying he isn’t “qualified” to attack or defend the article (yikes!).
As I summarised it on Twitter:
The last post on this Substack was about pseudocritics - about social-media users who leap to attack research on the flimsiest pretext, and who end up having never actually read the study or thought about its context. I suppose this current post is a companion piece, because it’s about pseudodefenders - people who provide knee-jerk defence of work for completely irrational reasons, without (again) having read it - or even, as must be the explanation for many of the tweets above, taken a glance at it. To say the least, this isn’t what academia is supposed to be about.
The academic community
Of course, the other reaction to the paper came a few months ago when it was being published: the reaction from all the academics around Andersson who helped him get his paper published. They include:
His PhD supervisor, whom he thanks in the Acknowledgements section of his paper “for always encouraging me to go where my research takes me”;
Another senior academic who commented on a draft, who is also thanked in the Acknowledgements section;
Two peer reviewers—presumably also academics—who “provid[ed] useful feedback”;
The editor(s) of the journal Qualitative Research who decided to accept the article for publication, and anyone else at the journal (for example a copyeditor) who conceivably might’ve seen the paper at some point and said “just a second…”;
The ethics committee at the University of Manchester, who must’ve had some idea of what he was up to - he reports in another video that one of his projects failed to receive ethics approval, but it’s unclear whether he submitted this specific project to the panel since it was all about himself;
Other academics at his department and his university. He’s been a PhD student at the University of Manchester for over a year, so I’d bet he’s been made to attend all manner of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion training, Decolonising the Curriculum sessions, microaggression awareness sessions, as well as research ethics training - and if so, it is grimly ironic that these courses will have contained all sorts of quite specific advice on how to behave, but not “don’t publish in an academic journal that you enjoy masturbating to pictures of young boys”.
The most likely scenario, to my mind, is that all the above people are either well-meaning, or very distracted, or both, and have been taken for a ride by someone who isn’t really interested in research, but merely in finding excuses to examine and publicise his own sexual paraphilia. As Ben Sixsmith put it in his article, I hope Andersson gets help - but I also hope the authorities take a look at his hard drive.
Thanks to the Twitter storm, the University of Manchester have now said they’re investigating the paper and how it got published. Probably they’ll deem the paper a violation of research ethics, possibly for the legal reasons I mentioned above, and request that the journal retracts it.
The journal has also said it’s investigating. At the very least, they should be pressured to make this investigation totally transparent: to post online the full peer-reviews of, and any editorial correspondence about, the paper. There’s no argument for keeping these secret (and they don’t need to have the names of the reviewers visible - just the reviews will do). Many journals now post all the reviews alongside every paper, giving really useful context, and all journals should do this as a matter of course - but it’s especially important in a case like this.
Publishing this paper was an unbelievable, gross mistake - mostly on the part of the author, but to varying degrees on the part of everyone listed above. It illustrates that something has gone terribly wrong in the world of qualitative research, and especially at the journal Qualitative Research. What’s the point of having an academic community, with all its supposed checks and balances, if they merrily speed a paper like this on its way to publication - and then let it sit there for months until there’s a fuss online? Can anything get under the radar of this academic community if it’s dressed up in the language of “autoethnography” and “experimental methods”?
As for Neil O’Brien’s tweet, I should say that I’m perfectly comfortable with there being research that’s of no immediate, or even long-term, “social value” - though of course academics should have to justify to some degree what they’re doing if they’re taxpayer-funded. But the responses to O’Brien’s tweet showed that some social media users are on a hair-trigger to justify research that doesn’t just have no social value, but could be incredibly harmful.
Indeed, the whole affair couldn’t be a better illustration of the more depressing aspects of online partisanship. Do some academics really hate a Tory MP so much that they’ll defend paedophilia? Not quite - but they will end up accidentally defending paedophilia, simply because they’re so politically biased that they can’t be bothered to read a single sentence.
Not a brilliant day to be an academic.
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Image credit: Getty.
*Update 13 August 2022: The paper has now been “removed” from the journal website, and replaced with the following:
Due to ethical concerns surrounding this article and the social harm being caused by the publication of this work, the publishers have now agreed with the Journal Editors and have decided to remove the article while this investigation is ongoing in accordance with COPE guidelines.
While not unheard of, it is very unusual to remove an article like this - even retracted articles are still online (just with a big “RETRACTED” written across the PDF). My best guess is that, since the paper is possibly evidence of an illegal act (if I’m right that the images are indeed illegal in the UK), it’s not being treated in the same way as a paper that contains scientific fraud or incorrect data. We’ll have to wait and see - but as I said above, I just hope that in the end the journal and its publisher are 100% transparent about all aspects of how this paper got published.