On April 26, the academic journal Qualitative Research published a “research note” by University of Manchester Japanese Studies PhD student Karl Andersson with the title “I am not alone – we are all alone: Using masturbation as an ethnographic method in research on shota subculture in Japan“.
For the next several months, the paper sat there largely unnoticed. Until, August 8, when it began attracting the kind of attention on Twitter that rarely if ever attaches itself to an academic paper.
- University berated for allowing ‘PhD in masturbation’ (The Telegraph, August 10)
- A Researcher Jerked Off to Underage Japanese Cartoon Boys and Published His Findings in an Academic Journal (Vice.com, August 12)
- ‘Trash Fire’: Now-removed paper on masturbation sets social media ablaze and triggers inquiries, not necessarily because it’s shocking but because it raises ethical and quality concerns (Inside Higher Ed, August 15)
- Police Launch Investigation into Manchester Student for ‘PhD in Masturbation’ Study (The Manc, August 24)
And this does not even go into editorials, quick write-ups in tabloids, and, inevitably, social media outrage.
For two weeks, starting August 9, Qualitative Research conducted an investigation into the circumstances that surrounded the publication of the article. On August 22, it issued an official Retraction Notice, and deleted the original article from the journal’s website. It is also not available via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, and so, for all intents and purposes, has been removed from existence.
On reflection, due to the potential for significant harm caused by the publication of this work compounded by ethical issues surrounding the conception and design, the Journal Editors have made the decision to retract and remove the note.
Needless to say, the controversy surrounding “I am not alone…” raises a number of interesting and troubling questions. And for answers to these questions, Anime and Manga Studies would like to turn to Dr. Casey Brienza, a qualitative sociologist with a record of peer-reviewed academic monograph and journal article publications on both manga and scholarly publishing. Dr. Brienza is the editor of the essay collection Global Manga: “Japanese” Comics without Japan? (London, Routledge, 2015), and the author of Manga in America: Transnational Book Publishing and the Domestication of Japanese Comics (London, Bloomsbury, 2016), as well as journal articles such as Activism, Legitimation, or Record: Towards a New Tripartite Typology of Academic Journals (Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 2015), Sociological Perspectives on Japanese Manga in America (Sociology Compass, 2014), and Opening the Wrong Gate? The Academic Spring and Scholarly Publishing (Publishing Research Quarterly, 2012).
Ed. note: Regardless of the specifics of Dr. Andersson’s research, under U.S. law, receiving “a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting” that “depicts a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct” and is obscene is illegal and may lead to prosecution. Recent cases where individuals were convicted for violating this provision include U.S. v. Whorley, 550 F. 3d 326 (2008), U.S. v. Handley, 564 F.Supp. 2d 996 (2008), and U.S. v. Eyechaner, 326 F.Supp.3d 76 (2018).
MK: How common are retractions?
Casey Brienza: They’re not common at all, for any reason! You sometimes hear about them in the biomedical field, where findings based upon flawed of falsified data could literally mean the difference between life or death, but the retraction of Andersson’s article is the first that I can ever recall having encountered in any of my areas of interest.
They’re not common at all, for any reason! You sometimes hear about them in the biomedical field, where findings based upon flawed of falsified data could literally mean the difference between life or death
MK: Did Qualitative Research follow common or typical procedure in making the decision to
retract this article?
The Journal Editors stated that they were following COPE (Committee on Publishing Ethics) guidelines. The COPE guidelines for article retractions are publicly available to read (https://publicationethics.org/retraction-guidelines), and I would highly recommend anyone interested in this subject read them themselves. My personal conclusion, from my own reading of those guidelines, is that, no, Qualitative Research did not do a great job of following the procedure they claimed to be following.
MK: What kinds of problems or issues can you point out in how the retraction was announced and implemented?
First off, speaking as someone who has worked on multiple edited collections, I thought the Journal Editors’ lightning-fast capitulation to viral outrage was shameful.
Casey Brienza: First off, speaking as someone who has worked on multiple edited collections, I thought the Journal Editors’ lightning-fast capitulation to viral outrage was shameful. They’re the ones who published this article and, by implication, believed it had merit. The author is just a first-year PhD student, and this article was his first ever peer-reviewed publication.
As an editor I always go out of my way to provide extra support to student writers. Yet the Journal Editors never mounted even a half-hearted public defense either of him or their journal’s overall editorial discretion.
But the biggest problem, in my view, is their decision to remove the article from publication. They did this about a week prior to their formal retraction, which is not in keeping with COPE guidelines, and they decided not to republish it after retraction either, a decision which should be reserved for “extraordinary” circumstances only. Under normal circumstances, the original text of a retracted article would remain freely available, for transparency’s sake. Removing the article from publication makes it more difficult to “check their work,” as it were. And by extension, the Journal Editors seem to be suggesting they believe the article is too dangerous to be read! In the absence of clear evidence of the article’s potential to cause harm, this strikes me as overkill.
Removing the article from publication makes it more difficult to “check their work,” as it were. And by extension, the Journal Editors seem to be suggesting they believe the article is too dangerous to be read!
MK: In your opinion, were there any issues with the methodology that the author used, with how they presented their work, or with the overall publication that would merit a retraction?
Casey Brienza: There are aspects of the article I thought were great and aspects I thought were less great. This is just par for the course; ask two different academics about one journal article, and you’re bound to get a minimum of three different opinions on it. There is nothing about Andersson’s article that I thought merited a formal retraction, never mind a removal from publication.
MK: Do you think the negative reactions to the original article (including both on Twitter and in media) influenced the Journal Editors?
Casey Brienza: Absolutely. Close inspection of the timeline makes it nigh impossible to believe otherwise.
MK: Do you think this particular situation can occur with other journals, such as those not based in the UK?
Casey Brienza: It does seem possible, yes.
MK: How will this retraction affect research on anime/manga (and qualitative research in general) going forward?
The implications for anime/manga studies are positively chilling. Obviously, shotacon is going to be effectively off-limits to many researchers going forward.
Casey Brienza: The implications for anime/manga studies are positively chilling. Obviously, shotacon is going to be effectively off-limits to many researchers going forward. But also, it’s important not to overlook the wider problem areas: People unfamiliar with the visual conventions of Japanese cartoons often have trouble correctly identifying the intended age, race/ethnicity, and/or gender of the characters- meaning that any sexually explicit anime/manga could be rendered criminally suspect.
In addition to the article retraction, as if that weren’t bad enough, Andersson is currently suspended from his university pending the outcome of an internal investigation, and he’s being investigated by UK law enforcement on top of that. Who would want that kind of professional and personal hassle?