Statement from Synthese Editors / Moratorium on Special Issues


The editors-in-chief of Synthese, Gila Sher, Otávio Bueno, and Wiebe van der Hoek, have written a statement, below, responding to the controversy surrounding the publication of The relativity and universality of logic,” by Jean-Yves Beziau. In it, they say that “due to an unfortunate human error, this particular paper was not sent to the editors in chief after the guest editor had entered his recommendation into the editorial management system.” They also “have decided to put a moratorium on new special issues.”
The full statement is below.


 We would like to reiterate our apology for any offense caused by the special issue article published in Synthese and also our strong commitment to feminist and LGBT values. We would also like to reassert our commitment to high-quality publications and assure the community of our dedication to high professional and humanistic standards.

We have considered complex ethical issues related to the published article. We take full responsibility for all the articles published by Synthese and we do not want to change the status of any accepted article. We believe that (except for extreme circumstances like plagiarism) all accepted articles should remain part of the scholarly record and a possible point of further discussion in the academic debate.

The events around this paper have led us once again to revisit our procedures regarding special issues. Shortly after beginning our appointment as editors in chief in 2012 our team installed new guidelines and rules for special issues (see the Synthese website), which include doubly anonymous reviews and oversight by the editors in chief. We carefully checked our records concerning the article in question and the special issue to which it belongs and contacted the guest editor and Springer, our publisher. Our procedure for special issues says that, after a guest editor has made an acceptance recommendation regarding a paper, the final decision is made by the editors in chief. Regrettably, due to an unfortunate human error, this particular paper was not sent to the editors in chief after the guest editor had entered his recommendation into the editorial management system. We are working with Springer to fully understand the problem and make sure that it does not recur.

To provide some more context, 27 articles were submitted to the special issue. Each was sent to two anonymous reviewers. 8 articles were rejected by the guest editor based on the reviews, and 19 articles were accepted after 1-4 cycles of revisions. Of these, 18 were sent to the editors in chief following the guest editor’s recommendation to accept the papers, and after an inspection by the editors in chief they were accepted for publication.

In light of the problem and the resulting concerns about special issues we have decided to put a moratorium on new special issues. During the moratorium period we will reexamine our policies with regard to them, including quality control and other aspects of special issues. We will strive to conclude the review process in two to three months.

Of course, we will remain open to submission of articles to regular Synthese issues during this time. We will also respect our obligations to the guest editors and authors of special issues in various stages of preparation at Synthese at the present time. We will, however, make sure there is an adequate level of oversight on these issues while we are conducting our review.

Once we complete our investigations and review process we will issue an additional statement about our findings, the decisions we made concerning special issues, and the practical steps we have taken to prevent recurrence of the present problem to the best of our ability.

Thank you very much for your understanding, patience, and the support we have received.

Gila (Sher), Otávio (Bueno), and Wiebe (van der Hoek)
Editors in Chief (Synthese)

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Phil
Phil
5 years ago

If I were one of the 8 authors whose papers were rejected, I don’t know whether I’d feel glad that my paper didn’t wind up in a controversial issue, or really bummed that Beziou’s paper was accepted over mine.

Also, am I correct that all of the 19 published papers were reviewed by the editors in chief *except the one damn paper that turned out to be controversial*? Seems fishy.

In any event, it’s probably a good thing to end special issues. Those seem to be the bane of Synthese’s existence.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  Phil
5 years ago

Doesn’t seem fishy at all: Suppose that of the 19 papers, it were a different 18 that were sent? Then the problematic one would’ve been subject to the full review and, presumably, pulled before publication — but there would still be a paper out there that didn’t get the full review. The only reason we know that this happened was because the 19th was problematic; there are (unfortunately) probably other papers out there that similarly slipped through the cracks, but no one knows which ones they are because they haven’t generated any controversy.

Basically, it’s MORE likely that the controversial one would be the one that slipped through the cracks, because if it hadn’t, it almost certainly wouldn’t have made it to a state where it could become controversial.Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Sara L. Uckelman
5 years ago

Hmm I don’t really follow your reasoning, but this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve committed a statistical fallacy!

But while I got your attention—did you people in Durham ever figure out what happened with Mahmoud Khatami (discussed in earlier Daily Nous posts)? I’m not sure whether you can take back someone’s Ph.D, even in cases of plagiarism, but it would be good to figure out what happened, and I don’t recall Durham ever saying anything about it.

Actually, if you’re listening Justin, it would be interesting to get an update about that case. Has Khatami just been exiled to Canada? Surely they University of Terhan has completed its investigation by now.Report

Semanticist
Semanticist
Reply to  Phil
5 years ago

To try to make this clearer: the probability that a bad/controversial paper slips through the crack is not higher than the probability that a good paper does, but the probability that a bad paper *that is published* slipped through the cracks is higher than the probability that a good paper that is published slipped through the cracks (imagine for instance that the *only* way for a bad paper to be published is to have slipped through the cracks: then the probability that a bad paper that is published slipped through the cracks would be 1). Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  Phil
5 years ago

Khatami predates my time here in Durham, so I don’t have any info on how that was resolved.Report

Calm Down
Calm Down
5 years ago

This is a very professional response, and I have no doubt that the editors will conduct a thorough review of their practices.

We can all relax now and get back to work!

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Semanticist
Semanticist
5 years ago

I don’t understand at all why a paper should not be retracted unless it is an instance of plagiarism or something as “extreme”. In other fields, I think some papers that are not as objectionable as this one have been retracted, in cases that did not involve any fraud or plagiarism, just honest mistakes (sometimes papers are retracted by their authors). In this case, there is a clear reason to retract the paper: it obviously does not meet the standards of Synthese, irrespective of the offending passages, and the normal publication procedure was for some reason not followed. That the paper does not meet the standards of Synthese is obvious even to a non-philosopher like me – I work in natural language semantics, with an overlap with philosophy of language and logic, so I have familiarity with these fields and partly publish in the same venues, including in my case a special issue of Synthese (let me note that the paper I have in a special issue Synthese, with a co-author, underwent very rigorous peer-review, at least to the same extent as papers I have published in regular issues of formal semantics journals). Report

Semanticist
Semanticist
5 years ago

Also, the editors in chief seem unaware that retracted papers remain in the scholarly record. They are normally still available on the journal’s website (and of course they do not magically disappear from the printed copies). The only thing that changes is that a note is added explaining that the paper is now retracted. So the only effect is that the certification that the journal grants by publishing it (certifying that it meets its standards) is removed – but the paper is still accessible. Isn’t exactly what a paper that did not go through the official procedure and is also awfully bad deserves (again, irrespective of the offending passages)?Report

Dave Ripley
Reply to  Semanticist
5 years ago

Relevant: here’s what Springer policies have said happens when an already-published article is retracted: “Since the article is already published, a retraction is no longer possible. The content will remain in its existing print form. However, in the next issue of the journal a retraction note referring to the article will be published. In addition, the title and each page of the related online article will be marked with a clear “RETRACTED” stamp.”

This is from the Springer Policy on Publishing Integrity 2010, the most recent thing I could find; for all I know (and I’m sure the Es-I-C are more up-to-date on this than I!) things have changed. This document, anyhow, envisions four sorts of trouble (only the latter two of which it allows to lead to retraction): undeclared conflict of interest, disputed authorship, plagiarism/duplicate publication, and data fabrication/falsification. The present case doesn’t seem to fit any of these, so isn’t directly covered by this document; but still, I take this to give a window into what a retraction in Synthese would result in, if one were to come to pass.Report

UG
UG
5 years ago

Now I can sleep again…not getting an apology was keeping me up at night.Report

An On
An On
5 years ago

The editors did not review the article before publication due to “a human error”. But what about after publication? Do none of them read their own journal? I still find it stunning, too, that a piece of such flippant bullshit made it past any editor at all.

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Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  An On
5 years ago

Come on – why would you read it if you had reason to believe that everything in it had been checked? Report

Daniele Mezzadri
Daniele Mezzadri
5 years ago

“Our procedure for special issues says that, after a guest editor has made an acceptance recommendation regarding a paper, the final decision is made by the editors in chief. Regrettably, due to an unfortunate human error, this particular paper was not sent to the editors in chief after the guest editor had entered his recommendation into the editorial management system”.

What is troublesome to me is that the guest editor made an acceptance recommendation for this paper. Report

metamorphic
metamorphic
Reply to  Daniele Mezzadri
5 years ago

And, that the guest editor may have made that acceptance recommendation in a way that bypassed the regular channels of review by editors in chief precisely _because_ they knew it was controversial and likely to get a no. Report

Alex
Alex
Reply to  metamorphic
5 years ago

While that’s surely possible, do we at this point have any reason to think that occurred?Report

gw
gw
5 years ago

There are a variety of errors that can, and do, occur when editing a journal.

When you submit an article through Editorial Manager, it shows up in the journal editor’s account with a manuscript number and a list of available actions — such as assigning reviewers, passing the manuscript on to an associate or guest editor, rendering a decision, and the like. An editor has control over a submission only from the time it arrives in his stack until a final decision of ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ is given. Once a final editorial decision is made, control is handed over to Springer Production, which is akin to voting a bill out of Congress and delivering it to the executive branch: while both are part of ‘the government’, they are nevertheless independent branches. One thing that happens shortly after a manuscript is accepted and passed to production is that it is given a digital object identifier (DOI), at which point the manuscript is treated as a permanent archived record. This is why it is extremely difficult to make changes to papers that appear online — even in cases where errors are introduced by production after the paper was accepted.

So, that is the basic workflow for a normal article.

For special issues, an outside person is inserted into this scheme to handle reviews and make recommendations to the editor about what the final decision should be. Normally, this goes smoothly. But, there are more possibilities for error than may first appear. For one thing, production, not the editorial staff, sets up the accounts on Editorial Manager for guest editors. Also, production, not the editorial staff, fixes the settings for Editorial Manager. Requests for accounts and what the settings should be are made by the editorial staff, to be sure; but they are not in the editor’s control. So, imagine, hypothetically speaking, that control for acceptance and rejection is mistakenly granted to a guest editor, against the stated policy of a journal, and that the guest editor exercises that power to accept a paper. This decision wouldn’t show up in the main editor’s workflow, for the paper would be sent directly to production; the next stop for the paper would be online with a DOI, at which point it would be treated as a permanent record. The next time the editor saw the paper could be months later when assembling an issue from the papers that were online in queue.

In my view, it is important to keep in mind that most of the time special issues work out fine. The vast majority of guest editors and authors are reasonable people, and many if not most errors of this kind are caught in time and people usually work together to fix them.

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Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
5 years ago

I am disappointed by this statement. Conspicuously absent is an apology for publishing the paper—or even an explicit acknowledgement that it does not meet the standards of Synthese.Report

UG
UG
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
5 years ago

Why the need for an apology? What will that do for you? Why does our culture demand apologies so much? …Sorry for asking these questions.

(I’ll also say that I find it interesting how *certain* everyone is that this was the worst possible paper that could have been published. What do we know now that people didn’t 50 years ago when no one would have batted an eye? What rational arguments have driven people to this new certainty? (Note: I’m not endorsing his views, and it’s a sad fact that I have to make that explicit so that people don’t accuse me of endorsing it or else someone will accuse me of it.)Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Reply to  UG
5 years ago
Diyas
Diyas
Reply to  UG
5 years ago

By ‘apology,’ I wondered if Ichikawa meant ‘defense.’ An apology would serve as a formal recognition of an event that, to many people, tarnishes the image of academic philosophy; as deontic scorekeepers, we keep tabs on whether people are willing to admit or recognize mistakes as such admission or recognition is a part of social trust.Report

Semanticist
Semanticist
Reply to  UG
5 years ago

I have had a look at the paper (not only the offending paragraphs), and my personal opinion is that even ignoring the offending paragraphs this is a terrible paper. You can’t take my word for it of course, but you can have a look yourself. You’ll probably see that it is not hard to find rational arguments for this view. I can’t say that it is the “worst paper that could have been published”, but I do not recall having ever read such a bad paper in Synthese or any similar journal. I very much doubt that a paper of this quality could have been published in a prestigious journal 50 years ago, again completely independently of the specific passages that we are talking about. I simply cannot believe that any competent philosopher or logician genuinely reviewed it.Report

gw
gw
5 years ago

Another thing that I learned, which frankly surprised me, is how little impact bloggers have on the reputation of a journal like Synthese. Bloggers can do a number on a person’s reputation, but journal reputations are of a different kind. Although there was a small dip in submissions to Synthese in the summer of 2011, it rebounded by that fall. There was no significant change in the participation rates of reviewers, either; exactly three people, if I recall correctly, signaled that they would not serve as a reviewer because of the problems with the handling of Feztner’s special issue. Surely there were more who declined to give their reasons, but you couldn’t see an effect in the aggregate. By that fall, even before the breathless coverage of the impending implosion of Synthese had reached its peak in the tabloid blogs, the metrics for the journal had turned around. By the following year, of the few people who signed online who actually engaged with the journal as authors or reviewers, most had quietly dropped the matter and returned to participating. I saw recently a remark by a blogger who was in the thick of things back then about his wanting to see what historians would make of this episode. Careful what you wish for.

In hindsight I shouldn’t have been as surprised by this disconnection as I was. I receive bound copies of Synthese in the mail and invariably they are massive tombs. Some complain that the journal publishes too much and can’t keep tabs on the quality of what it publishes, speculating that editors are tasked with satisfying some corporate quota. This not only gets the mechanics entirely wrong, it misses the point of the strengths of the journal and the unique role it serves in our profession. To survey Synthese special issues over the last 15 years or so is to see a broad, eclectic and sometimes bold selection of topics and contributors. Behind this record is a tradition of intellectual risk-taking that is missing in most other excellent but otherwise very conservative journals. A special issue on “Evolution and its Rivals” is a perfect example of this sort of risk taking. (Why bother? Isn’t this a turkey shoot? How do you avoid it becoming a turkey shoot? What are you willing to do if, low and behold, you think it turned into a turkey shoot? And down the slide you go.) But another example, which springs to mind, is a special issue on geometric proof that ran on far longer than I imagine most editors would have tolerated. Yet, leafing through the issue, it is a fascinating collection.

And that’s the point. For those who follow the journal, invariably there is a gem of an article or a creative angle for a special issue or something else that is insightful or refreshingly odd that thumps on one’s desk every month or six weeks. The volume and pace is part of the journal’s strength, not its liability. It is this relatively recent tradition of openness to risk, breadth and pace of coverage, and shrewd direction by editors — which started under John, Vince, and Johan, and continues today under Gila, Otavio, and Wiebe — that accounts, I think, for why the journal retains its strong standing. The point is, there are volumes of good work stacked on the scales that you don’t hear about when things go wrong. What I learned is that the market, such as it is, recognizes this even if social media does not.

Even so, there is a problem to deal with. I for one would hate to lose the unique benefits to the profession that Synthese provides by seeing it turn more conservative and cautious. I’d rather live with bizarre articles appearing every now and then.
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Syd
Syd
5 years ago

The question remains: How did such a crap article get through peer review?Report