Professionalism/The Bogdanov Affair

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Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, as they appeared in their first television show, Temps X

The Bogdanov Affair was a scandal within the physics research and academic publishing communities, involving two physicists, the bothers Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, who successfully published work of dubious quality in multiple peer-reviewed journals, and gained PhDs as a consequence. They were initially conjectured to have intentionally published unintelligible or meaningless research as a hoax, in the style of the Sokal Affair. However, they maintained that their research was legitimate, if misunderstood, and that they published in good faith what they believed to be first-rate academic papers. The subsequent investigation revealed a number questionable decisions on the part of the academic institutions and journals which had hosted their work as well as intentional deception perpetrated by the brothers. It also called into question the efficacy of the peer review system and the validity of the modern style of theoretical physics research, as well as the competence and integrity of the academic community as a whole.

Timeline of the Affair[edit]

Early History of the Bogdanov Twins[edit]

The Bogdanov twins first rose to predominance as television presenters on a popular, French science and technology program, Temps X, which ran from 1979 to 1989. Over the course of their careers, they would co-host a number of other television shows with similar themes. In 1991, they published a book, God and Science, which became the source of their first controversy. UVa Professor Trinh X Thuan sued the twins for plagiarism of his own book, The Secret Melody. The suit was settled out of court. However, Professor Thuan later noted that the back of the Bogdanovs' book stated that they had doctorates, when in fact they did not [1].

Regardless, the twins began actually working towards doctorates in 1993 at the University of Burgundy. In 1999, they both underwent thesis examinations on the same day. Grichka was granted a PhD in mathematics with the lowest possible distinction. Igor was not granted a PhD. However, his thesis review board admitted that his work was partially outside of their specialties, and offered to grant his PhD, contingent on the publication of three papers in peer-reviewed academic journals. Over the next three years, the brothers jointly publish three new papers:

  • Topological Field Theory of the Initial Singularity of Spacetime (2001), Classical and Quantum Gravity [2]
  • Spacetime Metric and the KMS Condition at the Planck Scale (2002), Annals of Physics [3]
  • KMS space-time at the Planck scale (2002), Nuovo Cimento [4]

In addition, Igor published two papers:

  • Topological Origin of Inertia (2001), Czechoslovak Journal of Physics [5]
  • The KMS state of spacetime at the Planck scale (2001), Chinese Journal of Physics [6]

Igor Bogdanov was subsequently granted a PhD with lowest honor.

The Affair[edit]

On October 22, 2002, an email from physicist Max Niedermaier to the physicist Ted Newman suggested that the Bogdanov brothers' papers were in fact meaningless, and might constitute a hoax. This email was forwarded and quickly spread throughout the physics community, bringing the papers and the brothers' academic work into the public eye for the first time. Niedermaier later apologized to the twins and distributed a statement indicating that his message was intended to remain private. [7]

On October 23, physicist John Baez began a newsgroup discussion on sci.physics.research entitled Physics Bitten by Reverse Sokal Hoax? [8], which quickly became the most active site of discussion. The essence of the discussion was this: the papers were meaningless nonsense, filled with buzzwords but utterly incomprehensible to anyone with real knowledge of the topic. As the investigation continued, readers began to notice that the Bogdanovs papers were copied from one another - in many cases word for word. While almost everyone agreed that the papers were nonsense, it was not agreed whether the brothers were perpetrating and intentional hoax or whether they were merely incompetent. Regardless, there was widespread agreement that the brothers' work brought into question the competence and legitimacy of the rest of the physics community.

The fact that they've managed to get these things published and get doctoral degrees should lead to a scandal of some sort
— Peter Woit [9]

By October 24, the New York Times had assigned a reporter to investigate, and within a few days the Chronicle of Higher Education had done so as well. Meanwhile, the Bogdanovs themselves joined the discussion, insisting vehemently that their work was legitimate and that it was simply being misunderstood by those investigating [10]. This gave the investigators a chance to question the Bogdanovs directly, and the Bogdanovs, for their part, replied. However, they gave few if any satisfactory answers, preferring instead to reiterate what they had published.

Over the next month, a number of prominent mainstream and academic publications ran stories (in some cases, multiple stories) on the event. Many of these implied that physicists could not determine whether the papers were legitimate or not, and suggested that theoretical physics had become so esoteric as to have no grounding in reality. The physics community was displeased by this portrayal. In the process of writing these articles, interviews had been conducted with the reviewers of the brothers' thesis research, revealing a pattern of lax standards at the department where they studied [7].

All these were ideas that could possibly make sense ... It showed some originality and some familiarity with the jargon. That's all I ask.
— Roman Jackiw, Bogdanov thesis reviewer [11]
These guys worked for 10 years without pay, they have the right to have their work recognized with a diploma, which is nothing much these days
— Daniel Sternheimer, Bogdanov doctoral adviser [11]

Following this, the journals themselves began to respond. Though none of the papers were retracted, several of the journals stated on or off the record that the Bogdanovs' work did not meet their standard, and that it was published in error. In particular, Classical and Quantum Gravity repudiated the paper it had published in an official statement [12].

The Aftermath[edit]

In 2003 a theoretical physicist emerged in support of the Bogdanovs' claims. His name was Dr. L. Yang, a professor from the Theoretical Physics Laboratory at the International Institute of Mathematical Physics in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Yang sent numerous emails to Bogdanov critics such as John Baez, Jacques Distler, and Dennis Overbye of the New York Times, defending the brother's papers. These letters began with a brief statement in which Yang assured readers that the brothers were serious theoretical physicists, followed by a confused and poorly substantiated explanation of their theories [13]. It was swiftly noticed by Distler and others that Yang frequently used the same jargon as the brothers, especially in cases of questionable correctness. Furthermore, though Yang made numerous errors in his use of English (which is to be expected of a non-native speaker), they appeared to be the errors of a person whose native language was French, rather than Chinese. Finally, it was revealed that Yang's emails, though they came from a top level domain associated with Hong Kong, actually originated at a residential internet connection in Paris. This prompted investigators to contact the International Institute of Mathematical Physics directly, who confirmed that there was no "Dr. Yang" currently employed [14]. It has been universally concluded that Yang was in fact a fabrication of the brothers, in an attempt to lend themselves credibility.

In 2004, a research institution emerged to refine the brothers' work. The Mathematical Center for Riemannian Cosmology was allegedly established by the University of Riga, and claimed to conduct further theoretical research based upon the Bogdanovs' theses [7]. The validity of the institution was quickly called into question. The sole evidence of its existence consisted of a web site which defended and reiterated the Brothers' work in a manner consistent with "Dr. Yang" and the brothers themselves. No further research or contact beyond defense of the brothers was ever produced by The Mathematical Center for Riemannian Cosmology. It is therefore presumed to be another fabrication of the Bogdanov twins [7].

Since 2004, the brothers have attempted multiple times to legitimize their works. Several physicists claim to have been intentionally misquoted or mistranslated by the Bogdanovs. In particular, physicist Fabien Besnard reports that the Bogdanovs translate his statement "It’s certainly possible that you have some new worthwhile results on quantum groups" to French as "Il est tout a fait certain que vous avez obtenu des resultats nouveaux et utiles dans les groupe quantiques", which bears an English meaning closer to "It is completely certain that you have obtained new worthwhile results on quantum groups." [15] This mistake is far too favorable to the brothers' work to be considered a blind error, especially when considered in conjuntion with similar "errors" reported by other physicists.

Additionally, the French and English Wikipedia pages for the brothers and the affair have been repeatedly edited to favor the Bogdanovs. The same sets of changes have been made repeatedly, in spite of multiple reversions and outright bannings by moderators. It is assumed that the twins themselves are the perpetrators [16].

Evaluation of the Major Actors[edit]

The PhD Review Board[edit]

The PhD review board at the University of Burgandy granted the Bogdanovs' PhDs based on the work put in at the University, rather than the merit or even the quantity of their accomplishments. One member of the board acknowledged that he passed the brothers because quantum physics was not his area of expertise, and he therefore could not determine whether their work was valid. The Bogdanovs’ adviser granted Igor his PhD because he successfully published three papers, and not on the basis of academic achievement.

These guys worked for 10 years without pay, they have the right to have their work recognized with a diploma, which is nothing much these days
— Daniel Sternheimer, Bogdanov doctoral adviser [11]

Peer Reviewed Journals[edit]

It is not a settled question whether the academic journals - particularly Annals of Physics and Classical and Quantum Gravity - sufficiently reviewed the Bogdanovs’ work before publishing. However, both journals admitted fault quickly after the papers were noticed by other scientists. Annals of Physics retracted the paper it had published; Classical and Quantum Gravity left its paper as "food for thought," and invited readers to comment on the work and provide suggestions to help improve the peer review process. Both journals suggested the peer review process was imperfect and that systematic revision was necessary to prevent further incidents of this sort. However, Hermann Nicolai, a senior editor for Classical and Quantum Gravity, claimed in an unofficial statement than he never would have passed the article if it had come to his desk [7].

The Media[edit]

Many of the other participants believe that the media - specifically the New York Times and The Register - may have hyperbolized the Bogdanov Affair. Instead of reporting the story at face value, they implied that the Bogdanovs purposefully produced their papers to expose flaws in the peer review system. Some of the more extreme articles even suggested that the Bogdanovs' papers were no more incomprehensible (or indeed, no different) than most other theoretical physics research, much to the dismay of the theoretical physicists [7]. This sensationalism was likely an attempt to increase readership. On the other hand, media involvement did lead to the publication of several valuable interviews, and it provided background information on the brothers and elicited input from physicists worldwide.

The Independent Investigators[edit]

A number of individuals - mainly other physicists and mathematicians - investigated the Bogdanov affair independently. Some simply read the brothers' papers and accepted or refuted them at face value, asserting the Bogdanovs to be “hoaxers” that used buzz words to get their work published. Others, like John Baez, mathematical physicist and professor at the University of California, Riverside, contacted the Bogdanovs and tried to gain a better understanding of the concepts printed in the articles before making a final judgement. In one correspondence, John Baez analyzed one of the Bogdanovs complicated statements, “Since the big bang happened everywhere, no matter which way a pendulum swings, the plane in which it swings can be said to ‘intersect the big bang,” which Baez eventually simplified to “Any plane contains a point.” Without skeptics such as Baez, it would be difficult to determine the quality of work behind the papers.

The Bogdanov Twins[edit]

It is difficult to determine the true motives of the Bogdanov brothers. However, it might be useful to summarize their unprofessional actions:

  • Possible plagiarism of Professor Thuan at UVA
  • Self-plagiarism: The Bogdanovs often recycled their old work - word for word, in some cases - as the content of newer papers.
  • Fabrication of credentials and supporters: Professor Yang, the Mathematical Center of Riemannian Cosmology, and potentially others.
  • Intentional misquotation and mistranslation of statements by other physicists.

The Bogdanovs have, however, been polite in dealing with their critics and normally offer an explanation for their work when asked, though their explanations are typically found to be unsatisfactory.

Compared to the Sokal Affair[edit]

The Bogdanov Affair has been frequently compared to the Sokal affair, a hoax perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal in 1996. Indeed, the initial newsgroup discussion is titled to suggest such a comparison, and Sokal himself became involved in the conversation only a few days afterward [17]. However, the two events differ significantly in terms of the eventual result and the presumed intent of the perpetrators.

Alan Sokal perpetrated his hoax with the intention of exposing lax editing standards in a particular publication. He made this intention clear immediately upon publication, without having first been confronted by other academics. In fact, he published a second paper the same year detailing the many falsehoods in his original work [18], and subsequently published a book on the subject with Jean Bricmont [19]. These works have formed the basis of a strong stance against what he considers to be an inappropriate encroachment of postmodernist literary theory into the realm of science, which has informed his subsequent work extensively.

On the other hand, the Bogdanovs maintained (and continue to maintain to this day) that their work was published in earnest [10]. They have attempted to substantiate this claim by manufacturing fake institutions and people to back their work, and by perpetrating further academic fraud. It is also worth noting that Alan Sokal attempted to expose what he perceived to be weaknesses in a particular academic institution, and received no direct benefit from his deception, whereas the Bogdanovs used their work to gain degrees from a respected university.

Generalizations[edit]

Several lessons can be generalized from the Bogdanov's actions regarding professionalism in the physics and wider academic community

Quantity of Work Should not Outweigh Merit of Work[edit]

Some of the professors on the Bogdanov's thesis review board believed that, since the brothers' had put nearly 20 years of collective work towards their PhDs, they had earned them. This is a flawed idea. The merit of the brothers' final theses should have had a much larger weight in the review process. If the professors spent more time reading the material for validity, they would have seen that it made no sense (and indeed, several admitted as much after the fact). Instead, their confusion and lack of understanding led them to let it pass. Further correspondence with the brothers should have been sought before publication and especially before the granting of their degrees. The merit of a final piece should always outweigh the amount of time working on it.

The Peer Review System Needs to be Reformed[edit]

As evidenced by this event and the Sokal Affair, the system of academic publication is clearly flawed. The theoretical physics community in particular must better determine the standards of rigor applied to its published research. When dealing with the exceptionally esoteric topics that exist in the theoretical physics field, ample time should be spent on review and correspondence. Before publication, works should be carefully critiqued to ensure some degree of validity exists. If this had been done by the Bogdanov's review board, their paper probably would not have been published.

References[edit]

  1. Muir, Hazel (2002-11-16). "Twins raise ruckus". New Scientist: pp. 6. 
  2. Bogdanov, Igor; Bogdanov, Grichka (2001). "Topological Field Theory of the Initial Singularity of Spacetime". Classical and Quantum Gravity 18 (21). 
  3. Bogdanov, Igor; Bogdanov, Grichka (2002). "Spacetime Metric and the KMS Condition at the Planck Scale". Annals of Physics 296 (1): 90–97. 
  4. Bogdanov, Igor; Bogdanov, Grichka (2002). "KMS space-time at the Planck scale". Nuovo Cimento 117 (4): 417-424. 
  5. Bogdanov, Igor (2001). "Topological Origin of Inertia". Czechoslovak Journal of Physics 51 (11): 1153-1236. 
  6. Bogdanov, Igor (2001). "The KMS state of spacetime at the Planck scale". Chinese Journal of Physics 40 (2): 149-158. 
  7. a b c d e f Baez, John (October 22, 2010). "The Bogdanoff Affair". http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/bogdanoff/. 
  8. Baez, John (October 23, 2001). "Physics bitten by reverse Alan Sokal hoax?". https://groups.google.com/d/msg/sci.physics/KOBNOKq9FvI/ZjV8jeT9-AkJ. 
  9. Woit, Peter (October 24, 2001). "Physics bitten by reverse Alan Sokal hoax?". https://groups.google.com/d/msg/sci.physics/KOBNOKq9FvI/bPkFvz3nm7sJ. 
  10. a b Bogdanov, Igor (October 29, 2002). "Physics bitten by reverse Alan Sokal hoax?". https://groups.google.com/d/msg/sci.physics/KOBNOKq9FvI/mswYEI0PuXUJ.. 
  11. a b c "Are They a) Geniuses or b) Jokers?; French Physicists' Cosmic Theory Creates a Big Bang of Its Own" by Dennis Overbye, The New York Times, November 9, 2002, Section B, Page 7, Column 2.
  12. Kuperberg, Greg (November 1, 2002). "If not a hoax, it's still an embarassment". https://groups.google.com/d/msg/sci.physics.research/VsJ-bX1wnyg/nJDp94d3Q8EJ.. 
  13. Yang, L (December 29, 2003). "Bogdanoff update". http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/lyang.html. 
  14. Distler, Jacques (June 5, 2004). "Bogdanorama". https://golem.ph.utexas.edu/~distler/blog/archives/000375.html. 
  15. Woit, Peter (June 5, 2004). "Bogdanovs Redux". http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=34. 
  16. Woit, Peter (August 6, 2005). "Bogdanovs on Wikipedia". https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=232. 
  17. Sokal, Alan (October 31, 2001). "Physics bitten by reverse Alan Sokal hoax?". https://groups.google.com/d/msg/sci.physics/KOBNOKq9FvI/4uGDzM3_GqAJ. 
  18. Sokal, Alan (May 1996). "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca. http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html. 
  19. Sokal, Alan; Jean Bricmont (1998). Intellectual Impostures. London: Profile Books. p. xii. ISBN 1-86197-631-3. 

External Links[edit]

Mathematical Center of Riemannian Cosmology

The University of Burgundy's Investigative Report on the Theses of Igor and Grichka Bogdanov (French)