“Journal of Controversial Ideas” with Pseudonymous Authors to Launch Next Year


A new interdisciplinary journal in the works will publish pseudonymously-authored peer-reviewed articles in an attempt to protect its contributors from the negative repercussions of arguing for or discussing controversial ideas.

The Journal of Controversial Ideas, floated by Peter Singer (Princeton) last year,  and discussed in a recent BBC documentary by Jeff McMahan (Oxford), is intended to counter a “culture of fear and self-censorship” regarding the discussion of “sensitive topics.”

McMahan says:

It would enable people whose ideas might get them in trouble either with the left or with the right or with their own university administration, to publish under a pseudonym… The need for more open discussion is really very acute. There’s greater inhibition on university campuses about taking certain positions for fear of what will happen. The fear comes from opposition both on the left and the right. The threats from outside the university tend to be more from the right. The threats to free speech and academic freedom that come from within the university tend to be more from the left… I think all of us will be very happy if, and when, the need for such a journal disappears, and the sooner the better. But right now in current conditions something like this is needed.

The journal will have an “intellectually diverse international editorial board,” the BBC reports. Three philosophers—Singer, McMahan, and Francesca Minerva (Ghent), are part of the journal’s core team.

No evidence was cited to support the claim that “a culture of fear and self-censorship” is preventing articles that would pass a review process “as rigorous as those for other academic journals” from being written, owing to the lack of pseudonymous-authoring options at established journals.

Nor was any argument given to allay what seems to be a reasonable concern that the creation of such a journal will foster more of “a culture of fear and self-censorship” compared to other options, or that it plays into and reinforces expertise-undermining misconceptions about academia bandied about in popular media that may have negative effects.

Perhaps these lacunae are owed to the brevity of the article in which the journal’s creation was reported. Given that the founding team is comprised of people noted for views that emphasize empirical facts and consequencesone might reasonably hope for a public discussion of such evidence and arguments.

UPDATE 1: The BBC program is available here. McMahan is first interviewed about 10 minutes in and the segment concerning the journal begins just before the 25 minute mark.

UPDATE 2: I found this comment by Caligula’s Goat particularly good. An excerpt:

Is a trained social and political philosopher, someone who wrote their dissertation defending fascism (for example) going to refuse, out of fear, to publish articles that are critical of democracy? Not if they were able to get a committee from a reputable department to pass on a thesis that does it. Would someone whose research (at least their thesis) interacted critically with contemporary philosophers who write on abortion somehow STOP writing about these critical views once the thesis has been defended successfully purely out of fear that they’ll upset others? Again, I doubt it.

I’ll tell a quick story here that I think illustrates my point. I was once thinking about writing a paper about Body Integrity Identity Disorder and trans-rights arguments. After the Tuvel incident, I decided that such a paper was not worth pursuing. Is this a case of silencing that now merits the creation of a JOURNAL OF CONTROVERSIAL IDEAS? I don’t think it is. The reason I don’t think so is because what I took away from that incident wasn’t that I *couldn’t* write about trans persons (I do not identify as trans) but because to do a GOOD job with such a paper would require me to do a lot more work than I felt I was ready to do – so I abandoned it. The Tuvel incident taught me that I knew a lot less about trans identity than I thought I did and that I better have my ducks in a row (as I should for ANY paper I write) if I wanted to write about it.

Note: it was brought to my attention that my endorsement of this comment could be read as an implicit criticism of Rebecca Tuvel in regards to her article on transracialism and the controversy surrounding its publication, namely, that she did not have her “ducks in a row.” I don’t know if Caligula’s Goat intended that interpretation—I don’t know who Caligula’s Goat is—but I did not. I’m sorry that that was not clear.

image by Akatre for Centre Pompidou

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