Allegations of Ideological Policing via Refereeing


The refereeing of academic papers in philosophy has its share of problems. Is one of them ideological policing? That is an allegation made by Dan Demetriou (University of Minnesota, Morris) in regards to an article he co-authored with a student, Michael Prideaux.

Here is the abstract of the article, “Gender Exaggeration as Trans“:

Surprisingly, it follows from commonplaces about sex and gender that there is a widely-practiced variety of transgenderism achievable through sex/gender “exaggerating.” Recognizing exaggeration as trans—or at least its moral equivalent—has several important consequences. One is that, since most traditional cultures endorse exaggeration, trans lifestyles have often been mainstream. But more importantly, recognizing that gender exaggeration is trans (or its moral equivalent) reveals a number of sex- and gender-discriminatory practices and intolerant attitudes: from pathologizing hypergender to legally restricting androgenic hormones, many people who consider themselves trans allies are less consistent in their support of transgender lifestyles than they realize. Thus, seeing exaggerators as trans not only follows from a better grasp of transgenderism, but also reveals new arguments in favor of greater gender freedom against gender-policing by both conservatives and progressives.

The paper asserts a provocative thesis about a controversial subject matter, as a lot of interesting philosophy does. If its thesis strikes you as implausible, keep in mind that that’s just the abstract—read the full paper for the arguments and replies to objections.

Demetriou reports that the paper has been desk-rejected a number of times. It has received only two referee reports, which he has published and replied to here. He believes that the paper has been rejected for “ideological reasons” and that the referees “believe in gate-keeping and stifling views they find ‘troubling.'” He is concerned about an “outsiders need not apply” mentality.

Certainly, “outsiders need not apply” would be a troubling characteristic for an area of inquiry. However, if someone telegraphs their outsider status through the unacknowledged idiosyncratic use of certain terminology, or by displaying an ignorance of some clearly relevant ideas or literature, then it is not shocking that referees would read that work with a more critical eye. Demetriou does not think that is what has happened here, and I do not know enough about the topic to know whether that is the case.

I’m posting about this because one of the things I value about philosophy is the serious consideration of unusual and unpopular views, and the defense of surprising theses. I’m curious what others more knowledgeable about this area in philosophy make of Demetriou’s complaints about the refereeing. Please keep it civil.

Also, Demetriou, whom I contacted to let him know about this post, informs me that he is “literally holding a flashlight for a carpenter right now—no electricity for 24 hrs here in this Cameroonian town I’m in”—and so may be a bit slow to reply to comments.

Gates at Frogner Park, Oslo

Gates at Frogner Park, Oslo

(Note: As per the comments policy, while pseudonymous posting is permitted, no handles may contain the word “anonymous” or “anon.” If not logging in via a social media account, a working and accurate email address is required; email addresses are not publicly displayed.)

 

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Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
4 years ago

I have no clear judgment about the merits of Dr. Demetriou’s charge of ideological policing, but I’d like to highlight some features of the peer review process that make it hard to establish strong evidence for such a claim.

First, in my experience desk rejections are ubiquitous and opaque, much to the frustration of junior scholars throughout the field.

Second, complaints about reviewers failing to notice distinctions explicitly acknowledged in the paper, insisting on engagement with related debates the author doesn’t think are relevant, treating controversial conclusions about the existing literature/framing as simple mistakes, failing to notice that an objections is explicitly considered and responded to, etc are also ubiquitous.

So the base-rate of these kinds of rejections, uncharitable readings, and misunderstandings is pretty high independent of ideological bias or gate keeping, making it hard to tell whether the evidence presented is a result of ideological gatekeeping or just of the general opacity and mediocrity of peer review. Report

Dan Demetriou
Dan Demetriou
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

Derek,

Agreed in general. But how often are submissions given this sort of parting comment by a referee?:

“I’ll note that this was an upsetting paper to read. I think that it will be personally offensive to a lot of trans people, and I think that the authors should consider why (and whether they should change or abandon the project).”

Note the objection here isn’t that the submission is written in an offensive way. The very project is offensive (to a group, maybe, who really knows), and that’s offered as a reason not to publish it. We are also admonished not to try again. How galling.

The second referee (or second report by the same referee?) says that the paper’s greatest failing is being “out of touch” with the trans community. What does that mean? Are all philosophers who talk about global justice poor third-worlders, or do they spend significant amounts of time in the third world? Shall men not write about abortion? Shall poor grad students not write on tax policy, as they pay no taxes? Most people who write on war have never thrown a punch let alone fought in war. Being “in touch with” the challenges trans people experience is important for writing a novel, not a paper making an extremely simple argument. So I do think this was an instance of identity politics interfering with philosophical research. (In any event, like many men, I have an intimate acquaintance with gender exaggeration, which is topic of the paper.)Report

Kevin
Kevin
Reply to  Dan Demetriou
4 years ago

I don’t see any tension between being in a group, and being unable to be in touch with the experiences of that group. It seems entirely possible, for example, for a grad student to include testimonials from tax-payers in such a way that accurately reflects on the experiences of tax-payers.

Not having read the paper, I can’t speak to the accuracy of your engagement with the manner in which you engage with the experiences of trans persons, but I take it the referees point is that its not accurate. Report

Joe
Joe
4 years ago

Here’s my best shot at defending the referees. We have concepts for a reason: to pick out salient classes of phenomena. It’s clear that concepts like ‘trans’ (and ‘sexual harassment’, and ‘white privilege’) were invented to serve a particular purpose, namely, to highlight a moral phenomenon that is, according to the users of the concept, utterly crucial for the purposes of a social agenda which can improve the lives of very oppressed and very miserable people. The referees try to get a certain empirical point across: that the ‘discrimination’ and harm faced by gender exaggerators pales in comparison to those who move towards the other gender: that’s what the second ref. says at the end of his/her commentary. This cannot be over-stressed: being told that you have a small penis is not analogous to the physical and verbal assaults faced by trans. people, or to the actual physical exclusion from parts of the world via gendered norms (i.e. bathrooms).

In his reply, Demitriou just seems to just miss the point, that this is *part* of the concept of ‘trans’, not a distinct phenomenon that accidentally attaches itself to the concept. That’s the complaint, and the complaint is probably related to the lack of engagement with a literature which would, I believe, emphasize this and other important points. As a person whose had a jillion papers rejected for not engaging with some literature or other, I have little sympathy for Demitriou on that point: if I can’t get away with not citing everyone who’s written on masked dispositions, I do not see why he can ignore vast swaths of literature on the concept ‘transgender’.

Is this ideological censorship? I don’t think so, because a version of the paper could be written which incorporates these important points and which shows some sensitivity to the ways in which the concept is actually *used* (rather than how it is defined by a couple of agencies). Would the paper’s central thesis survive the adoption of this corrected perspective? Maybe not. But that’s a feature of all conclusions which happen to be false. Report

Carnap
Carnap
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

Joe,

Is your claim (or that of the referees you are charitably defending) that it is part of the concept that those who move toward the other gender face greater discrimination and harm than those who are gender exaggerators? Wouldn’t that mean that if that harm and discrimination did not exist, then neither would trans people?Report

Dan Demetriou
Dan Demetriou
Reply to  Carnap
4 years ago

Carnap—a good objection we offer in the paper.Report

Carnap
Carnap
Reply to  Dan Demetriou
4 years ago

Sorry. Like your referees, I did not read the paper before responding.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Carnap
4 years ago

Carnap, if the claim is that flesh-and-blood human beings would vanish in a puff of conceptual smoke, then no. If the claim is that we would (probably) no longer have any reason to describe people as ‘trans’, then the answer might well be ‘yes’. However, for other reasons, we might keep the category around, and I don’t see why it couldn’t then have something like the shape that Dan describes. But that is not our world, nor is it even remotely likely to be our world for a very long time, so we shouldn’t pretend that the thought experiment has any serious relevance for us, now.Report

Dan Demetriou
Dan Demetriou
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

Joe, in reply I will separate the points you make about my thesis from my points you make about my charge of ideological soft censorship.

Re: the argument of my paper, it seems to me that “transgender” is usually defined not to pick out a politically oppressed group as such. No mention of oppression is given in the APA (American Psychological Association) or GLAAD definitions, for instance. A better analysis, plus the gender-as-spectrum premise, entail that those who exaggerate their genders to an equivalent degree are also trans.

And again, I did not claim that trans exaggerators are as discriminated against at those usually termed “trans.” Quite the opposite.

THAT SAID, if you don’t buy my point about exaggerators being trans, the moral point still holds that progressives cannot consistently mock exaggerators while patting themselves on the back as trans allies, on the assumption that one should be pro-trans for reasons of gender freedom. And conservatives cannot consistently talk about “god not making mistakes” or “learning to accept who you are” and line up to watch Captain America, which is blatantly about a mismatch between one’s sex self-conception and one’s sex (on the spectrum picture). I know from painful experience that conservatives have also responded to this paper with hostility—it cost me a job offer.

Turning to the question of ideological censorship, see my points to Derek above. But focusing purely on the question of citing feminist sources, the analogy I suggest is writing a paper in analytic philosophy of language without building off of continental sources writing on the topic—-even if no analytic philosopher has written on the topic previously. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to make a clean start. We nodded to the fact that feminists have dominated the discussion of trans issues so far, we cited some feminist papers on trans topics, and we noted that we didn’t see our paper as inimical to feminism (my coauthor is a staunch feminist). But after looking at what we could find, we didn’t see anything directly relevant to our simple argument. Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Dan Demetriou
4 years ago

Hi Dan, I agree with all your moral points, which perhaps deserve more attention. My argument (which of course could just be a reply in a journal, not something that in and of itself justifies rejection) is that the best analysis of the concept includes the normative component, the bit about facing lots of unjust discrimination. GLAAD may not explicitly have included this condition, but what we are discovering, here, is that it has been implicit all along in the usage of the concept itself. And I think this might be the ethical complaint about the paper: *by* engaging directly with trans people, one easily sees (at least, I have easily seen) that this is a critical, if eminently regrettable, part of the whole experience of that identity. So, the worry is that your thesis can only be defended in isolation from that reality, and that could be problematic. You could call this an “ideological” worry, but of course one person’s ideology is another’s ethics…

Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

Hi Joe, this is a reply to both what you’ve said here and what you said above in conversation with Carnap. Here you’re suggesting that “the best analysis of the concept” of trans identity includes the fact that trans people face discrimination. In your words, such discrimination “has been implicit all along in the usage of the concept.” According to your analysis, if there were no longer any such discrimination, then there would no longer be trans people (since, on your analysis, it’s part of the very concept of trans identity that trans people are discriminated against). Similarly, if there were no longer any men, then there would no longer be bachelors (since it’s part of the very concept of bachelorhood that bachelors are men).

I take Carnap’s criticism to be that this is not, in fact, “implicit in the usage of the concept.” If there were no longer discrimination, we wouldn’t say that there are no longer trans people, we would say that trans people are no longer discriminated against (when I say ‘we’, I mean to include trans theorists). Here’s another way of making the same point: On your analysis, ‘trans people are not discriminated against’ expresses a contradiction (or at least a metaphysical impossibility). However, this sentence does not express a contradiction (or impossibility). Rather it expresses a real possibility, and a possibility that will hopefully be realized someday.

This is not to deny that discrimination is “part of the whole experience of being trans.” But what’s fundamental to the experience of trans people is not necessarily part of the very concept of being trans. I, for example, identify as Latino American (really, mixed race). Many Latino Americans face common forms of discrimination, and this experience may in fact be fundamental to the whole experience of being Latino. But it’s not part of the very concept of being Latino, at least on my view.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Phil
4 years ago

Phil,
My apologies, I should have made myself much clearer about the sort of “analysis” I am performing: use-based analyses of concepts do not look for necessary and jointly sufficient conditions by testing our intuitions about distant possible worlds. This case, I think, perfectly illustrates the poverty of that method: it is totally unable to make sense of socially determined, fuzzy concepts that change over time, and it is forced to see new concepts springing up ex nihilo every time application-conditions change. Socially and historically embedded analyses do not trade in ‘metaphysical possibilities’ or armchair intuitions. They ask what patterns of application the concept has, and would have, under varying social conditions. The primary data point is this: in our world, here, today, actual people have developed the category as a way of naming a certain set of experiences under a certain set of social conditions. This is why it sounds strange to call exaggerators ‘trans’: they don’t face those conditions or experiences.

All of this is consistent with the existence of a future-possible world in which people who deviate from their assigned gender are not reviled and discriminated against, and in that world, the category ‘trans’ might still have application. There is just no good reason to hold our *current* usage of the term hostage to that possible-future world.Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

Hi Joe, thanks for attempting to clarify, but I’m still not sure what you’re up to. You say that use-based analyses “ask what patterns of application the concept has, and would have, under varying social conditions.” As I asserted in my initial reply to you, if trans people were no longer discriminated against, we wouldn’t say that there are no longer trans people, we would say that trans people are no longer discriminated against. Put somewhat differently, if social conditions were such that trans people did not face discrimination, the concept ‘trans’ would still apply to them.

I really can’t tell from your remarks whether you deny this assertion, or think it’s irrelevant, or what. You apparently think it’s relevant, since you explicitly say that use-based analysis are sensitive to how concepts would apply in varying social conditions. So that leads me to think that you deny the assertion…and yet you allow that the concept might still apply to people in the scenario described…

Maybe some examples of use-based analysis would be useful here. Even bad examples might help clarify what you’re trying to do. On that point, let me ask the following straightforward question: when you give a use-based analysis of a concept, do you intend to provide at least necessary conditions for application of the concept?

One last point: I get the sense from your comment that you think traditional philosophical analysis (of the “necessary and sufficient conditions” variety) is somehow disconnected from the actual usage of the concepts under analysis (or the actual usage of the words associated with those concepts). I think this is incorrect, at least in general. Did you mean to suggest as much?Report

WP
WP
Reply to  Dan Demetriou
4 years ago

“But focusing purely on the question of citing feminist sources, the analogy I suggest is writing a paper in analytic philosophy of language without building off of continental sources writing on the topic—-even if no analytic philosopher has written on the topic previously. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to make a clean start. We nodded to the fact that feminists have dominated the discussion of trans issues so far… But after looking at what we could find, we didn’t see anything directly relevant to our simple argument.”

You should have read the Heyes article your reviewer recommended.

A great deal of feminist work has been done on the normative status of gender expression. Of course it is directly relevant to your argument addressing that exact question. It is surprising that you missed it in your review of feminist perspectives on trans issues, because it is the most central disagreement there. Regardless, your reviewer pointed it out to you. I don’t know what else there is to say.

This is more like writing a paper in analytic philosophy of language without acknowledging any of the work previously done in analytic philosophy of language. Report

WP
WP
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

I think something in this spirit is right. The concept may not include being the subject of discrimination per se, but it does include the violation of social expectations. This is reflected in both the APA’s and GLAAD’s definitions of being transgender as a matter of having a gender identity that “does not conform to that typically associated with” (APA) or “differs from” (GLAAD) assigned sex at birth. What determines whether a given gender identity “differs” from an assigned sex are social norms, and what makes norms norms is that they are somehow enforced—compliance is rewarded, noncompliance is sanctioned, or both.

This is surely a central part of what we’re interested in when we talk about trans issues, and given that, it’s pretty wild to try to expand the category to include people who change their gender expressions to better comply with gender norms and who most exemplify them. Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
4 years ago

I think the authors are wrong that Bettcher and Hayes’ work does not matter for their paper, and it is misleading to dismiss that work as simply a niche conversation between feminists and trans communities. In fact, if I were the referee I would have made the additional claim that irrespective of feminist vs. trans debates there is a literature that the authors should engage with.

If I were the referee, I might have said R&R, but required that the authors respond to this literature explicitly (among some other changes). But I tend to be fairly liberal in my judgment of papers, and ultimately it is a judgment call for referees – when a paper does not engage with literature when it should it is hard to decide whether that is a reason to reject or a reason to R&R. This doesn’t seem like ideological policing to me, at least not any more so than is normally the case (because there is an argument to be made that all refereeing of political topics necessarily includes some ideological policing).

I disagree with both the conclusions and the the methodology of the paper, but in this case, I think it might be better for an argument like this to be out there, so that those of us that disagree might better articulate why in print. Then there would be a public record of that disagreement, and something to refer people to in the future.

But I don’t think my instinct here is necessarily the right one, I can see the argument on the other side, so again the referee’s points don’t seem ideological to me. Also, as to the desk rejections, I think many journals regard topics like this as of peripheral interest, so may be desk rejecting for that reason. If a journal does think the topic is important, they may have published something on the topic before that this paper appears to be plainly ignoring, so I can see why they may desk reject for that reason. Just a possible explanation, can’t say more without knowing which journals did the rejecting.Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
4 years ago

I should also add that the idea that hyperfemininity or hypermasculinity are not morally wrong has been around for quite a while in feminist discourse at least (as well as within queer theory), so I can also see many referees making the judgment call that this aspect of the paper doesn’t justify publication, unless the authors are prepared to explain why their claim is different from these previous claims.Report

Nicole Wyatt
Nicole Wyatt
4 years ago

I am shaking my head at this comment in the PhilPapers response to referees: “Imagine a referee objecting to the violinist thought experiment: “A case like this has never happened to my knowledge”!”. This just completely misses the point the referee is clearly making.

1) Some philosophers do object to the use of this kind of thought experiment more generally for similar reasons as those the referee mentions. There is lots of literature against the use of thought experiments in philosophy.

2) Even for those of us who don’t share those general worries, there is an important difference between the the violinist example and the example in “Gender Exaggeration as Trans”. The violinist example is not an example of an abortion that misrepresents the circumstances of real abortions. (It’s not an example of an abortion at all.) It is instead a completely hypothetical example meant to tease out different moral considerations relevant to abortion. Whereas the example of the paper is an example of genital surgery that fundamentally misrepresents the circumstances of real gender confirmation surgeries.

In short, it is perfectly reasonable for a referee to object to the use of this thought experiment in an analytic philosophy paper, since it is a badly constructed thought experiment.Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Nicole Wyatt
4 years ago

Regarding 1, do you think it’s appropriate for a reviewer to object to the use of a thought experiment because “there is lots of literature against the use of thought experiments in philosophy”? I would definitely answer in the negative, but maybe some people disagree with me here.

Regarding 2, you’re right that there is a difference between the author’s thought experiment and Thomson’s thought experiment, since Thomson’s example is not one of abortion (it’s an example that is meant to be exactly analogous to certain cases of abortion). But I don’t see how this difference makes a difference. Thomson’s example is “absurd,” “it hasn’t happened (to my knowledge), and wouldn’t happen,” which were three of the main things that the reviewer criticized about the author’s example. It seems to me, then, that the author’s complaint has some merit.

However, I do think that some people will be offended by the example (indeed, some people are offended by it). But not everyone agrees about whether and when offensiveness is relevant to the peer-review of a professional philosophy paper. For what it’s worth, I personally know people who are offended by Thomson’s thought experiment (well, the people seed one), as it seems (to them) to make light of a potentially traumatic experience.

Lastly, you say that the authors’ thought experiment “fundamentally misrepresents the circumstances of real gender confirmation surgeries.” As I understood the paper, the authors weren’t intending to represent the circumstances of real gender confirmation surgeries, so didn’t really “misrepresent” those circumstances. It is a completely hypothetical example meant to make a point that they think is relevant. Someone might insist that this is somehow problematic, but I think some more argumentation is necessary here. If I am advancing an argument concerning abortion (or euthanasia, or killing in war, etc.) that uses a completely hypothetical example that doesn’t represent most (or all) actual cases of abortion (or euthanasia, or killing in war, etc.), is my argument thereby defective? Why? Again I would answer in the negative, but I am sure some would disagree.

In short, I think the issues here are more complicated than you make them seem in your comment. Apologies for the length!
Report

WP
WP
4 years ago

The reviewers are right here.

The claim that failing to acknowledge the existing literature constitutes a “fresh approach as a virtue for a general audience” is pretty incredible, as is the claim that requiring engagement with directly relevant feminist literature translates to saying “non-feminists need not write on trans issues.” You don’t have to be a feminist to be aware of and acknowledge existing feminist work. The fact that you disagree with the work that’s been done in an area is obviously not a reason for proceeding as though nothing exists.

Professor Demetriou does not seriously engage with the reviewer’s comments and repeatedly misrepresents them. At multiple points, he interjects to say they’ve ignored something that they in fact address, if he’d just let them finish their thought.

As the first referee acknowledges, the paper does *mention* the distinction between gender expression and gender identity. But the central argument seems to ignore it. Though they pay lip service to identity throughout the paper, is hard to understand their gender spectrum as anything other than a spectrum of gender *expression*: for the hypermasculine and hyperfeminine poles, they say, “readers are welcome to supply their own gender stereotypes, and then to imagine more extreme expressions of them.” (7) Someone who “transitions” to hyperfeminine or hypermasculine does so by taking on certain traits and behaviors, which would normally be considered a change in gender expression, not identity. This is not clear in the paper (hence the seeming conflation), but Demetriou and Prideaux seem to be proposing an account on which being trans is entirely a matter of changing or wanting to change one’s gender expression, not a matter of gender identity: for example, “A metrosexual man who shaves his chest probably (!) shouldn’t be considered trans, but our analysis is noncommittal as to how much of a change one must effect, or wish to effect, to be trans.” (5) I’d expect virtually everyone who is trans or who works in this area to want to resist the turn from identity to expression, so if this is really their claim, they need to make it explicit and do much more to defend it.
In his reply, Demetriou seems to suggest that a central argument of the paper is that someone who shifts from an average masculine gender expression to a more extreme one *does* (necessarily?) change their gender identity, but I don’t see it. I suspect they’re taking gender identity to be a matter of identifying oneself as having or wanting to have a certain gender expression, but that would be a bad misunderstanding.

The dialectic of the non-moral part of their argument is: The definitions of transgender offered by GLAAD and the APA capture Jack, who we would not normally consider trans, and fail to capture Joe, who we would normally consider trans. We should use this other definition instead. This definition captures many people who we would not normally consider trans—in fact, in Western society, “there is good reason to suppose that transgenderism, and not cisgenderism, is the norm.” (p. 12—contra Demetriou’s response, this is an explicit claim in the paper.)

For this kind of argument, *of course* it matters if their results are counterintuitive, and since they are, of course it matters if they’ve neglected other possible definitions. (It’s irrelevant that we are sometimes surprised by the results of empirical investigations regarding natural kinds, because they are doing conceptual analysis, not an empirical investigation.) The burden is on them to show that we shouldn’t be defining it in terms of gender identity, and/or with respect to the social binary, as the second reviewer suggests (the latter is not addressed by the part of the objections section Demetriou points to, or anywhere else).

Even if their “transition” account was the only alternative to the GLAAD/APA definitions, we’d normally then weigh the counterintuitive conclusions against each other. Demetriou mocks both reviewers for pointing out that the supposed counterexamples to the GLAAD/APA definition are merely hypothetical, but given that most everyone in the country is an apparent counterexample to their account… that would make it them a pretty easy pill to swallow.

And, as the second reviewer points out, it’s not clear if Demetriou and Prideaux’s Joe “counterexample” is really a counterexample at all.
Reviewer 2: “The authors claim it is obvious Joe should count as transgender. … it’s far from obvious that this person would be considered ‘transgender’ – at least, I don’t think he would be so considered by very many transgender people I know.”
Demetriou: “God forbid philosophy challenge our categories.”

Again, this is one of the two cases they use to motivate rejecting the GLAAD/APA definition. It’s a huge problem if it “challenges our categories,” because their argument depends on it being so obvious that we’re willing to accept some seriously counterintuitive conclusions.

I won’t go through the rest, but the reviewers seem to be making important, appropriate points in response to this part of the argument.

The moral part of the paper takes the claim that gender exaggerators are trans and concludes, with little argument, that there is no morally relevant difference. They seem to be aware that this conclusion is directly at odds with many feminist arguments, but don’t bother to consider anything beyond than an newspaper editorial by Gloria Steinem and Lauren Wolf. This is as inadequate as it would be in any other area of philosophy. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

The referee’s suggestion that the project should be given up because it might offend people was highly inappropriate. It looks like there are other things wrong with the review, but not having read the original paper, it is harder to be certain. But the suggestion that the authors stop for fear of offending is just wrong.Report

CloseReader
CloseReader
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

The referee said: ” Finally, I’ll note that this was an upsetting paper to read. I think that it will be personally offensive to a lot of trans people, and I think that the authors should consider why (and whether they should change or abandon the project).”

The referee did not say that the project should be abandoned. The referee suggested that the authors should “consider” the paper’s offensiveness and whether they should change it or even abandon the project. Let’s not grossly misrepresent very clear meanings.Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  CloseReader
4 years ago

I think it’s fair to say that the reviewer “suggested” that the project be changed or abandoned. You can obviously suggest something without outright saying it. If the reviewer of one of my paper wrote “I think the authors should consider whether they should change or abandon their project,” then I would definitely take this as a conveying that I should give up my project. Similarly, when my soccer coach suggested that I consider another sport, I definitely took it as conveying that I should give up soccer.Report

CloseReader
CloseReader
Reply to  Phil
4 years ago

I suppose. ‘In light of x, you might want to change or abandon your project.’ Maybe that’s a suggestion. But it’s nowhere near what Hey Nonny Mouse has attributed. If a view is deeply offensive, it strikes me as fair game to point that out and suggest that the authors at least consider it (and to think about why it might have that effect). To also claim that this was a reason for rejecting the paper is disingenuous at best. This may have just been a parting comment on the referee’s part, and not at all part of their decision to recommend rejection.Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  CloseReader
4 years ago

I’m not sure why you think it’s disingenuous to claim that the offensiveness of the paper was a reason for rejecting it. The reviewer mentions the paper’s offensiveness several times throughout the review, and explicitly cites it as a reason to reject the paper in the first paragraph of the review. So it’s not as if the last paragraph is unconnected to the rest of the review. Also, your comment raises an interesting question about reviewing papers for journals. My policy is that if something is not at all part of my decision to recommend rejection or acceptance of a paper, then I don’t include it in the review, whose sole function is to help the editor decide whether to publish. Do other people have different policies on this matter? What other stuff do people include in their reviews?Report

ZP
ZP
Reply to  Phil
4 years ago

I’m with CloseReader on this one. The fact that this point about offensiveness (1) comes at the very end of the review, (2) is qualified by “Finally, I’ll note..”, and (3) makes very explicit the point of that note “I think that the authors should consider why [the article may come off as offensive to many trans people]”. It sounds like the reviewer offering a suggestion for how the authors might figure out how to improve their project and/or determine if the project is really worth pursuing after all.

This comment doesn’t read like another reason behind the reviewer’s choice to reject, but as some unsolicited advice about how to move forward. I’ve receive numerous such bits of advice from reviewers where it was clear that they were merely attempting to be helpful, not adding another line to the long list of why my paper wasn’t up to snuff.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Why is it wrong to suggest that the authors should give up their project because it is offensive? I don’t see the problem with this kind of stuff. Insofar as this was a rather garden variety form of moral censure, I can’t see any way in which the referee has, in so suggesting, wronged or harmed the authors. If one doesn’t like the content of what another has to say, one has the choice between speaking up or swallowing it–both of which are perfectly within one’s rights, so no wrong there. And what harm is there in letting someone know that you disapproved of what they said? If it is done politely and nonviolently, all one has done is provide the other with information relevant for future decision making. (Things would be different, of course, if the expression of disapproval somehow threatened to make the other vulnerable in a significant way, which clearly wasn’t the case here.) Moreover, In this particular case, this came after the referee has given what they take to be decisive reasons for rejecting the authors argument (of course, your mileage may vary), so it’s not as if the paper was rejected in bad faith.Report

Neil Van Leeuwen
4 years ago

There may be ideological policing that goes on in the philosophy peer review process. I would be surprised if that were not the case. However, I don’t think the argument is very strong that that is what is going on here. The referee seems to have had legitimate intellectual concerns about the project. And the referee may well have thought that risk of offending is only worth taking on when the quality of argumentation is extremely good. Floating an unconvincing argument in (say) mereorology might not be such a bad thing (hey, give it a try), but when the social stakes are higher, the bar for argumentative quality should be higher too. Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
4 years ago

I would like to second WP’s point about ignoring the literature. At the very least, if an author thinks that most of the preexisting literature that appears to bear on does topic doesn’t do so, they ought to include a brief explanation of why not.

A perhaps more minor point: A referee writes:

“1. “transgenderism” is generally considered offensive by trans people when talking about trans people. It reeks of the clinical study of real people’s lives and identities.”

to which Demetriou responds:

“A recent New Yorker article is entitled, “What Is a Woman? The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.” Taylor&Francis publishes the International Journal of Transgenderism.”

How can Demetriou possibly take the first part of this response to be relevant? The New Yorker article was not written by a trans person (I am fairly sure–though I have no idea who wrote the subhead), and the word “transgenderism” is never used in it by a trans person. In fact, it appears in the subtitle of a book that the author of the article describes as “an attack on transgenderism” and a “caustic” one. This does not provide any evidence that the term “transgenderism” is not generally considered offensive by trans people when talking about trans people.

The name of the journal isn’t dispositive either–names of institutions often outlast the terms they contain. One could hardly excuse calling African Americans “colored” by citing the name of the NAACP. Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Matt Weiner
4 years ago

Sorry, that should be “that appears to bear on the paper’s topic”Report

ZP
ZP
Reply to  Matt Weiner
4 years ago

Its also worthwhile noting that the use of offensive or otherwise mis-using key terminology can serve as a red flag for a paper that doesn’t engage with the literature. It provides some good evidence that this isn’t a case of the authors carefully reading the surrounding literature and deciding that it isn’t relevant to the paper. Rather, its a case of the authors just not reading the much of the relevant and recent literature (or not reading it closely).

Also, the “high-offense” turnover for terms concerning gender issues may be fast—and some leeway may be warranted—but the term ‘transgenderism’ is suuuuuuper old. It’s actually possible it was never inoffensive. There’s a reason it’s used almost exclusively by people who write screeds against (or, at least, strongly critical of the existence of) trans people. Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
4 years ago

I haven’t read the article and I know nothing about the alleged controversy it touches. In general, though, it seems to me that journal editors ought to have the privilege of rejecting articles they find ideologically offensive. No one expects journals to entertain the possibility of publishing articles their readership would certainly find offensive (e.g., men’s rights diatribes in “Hypatia”). Although some journals will have a clear ideological slant (e.g., leftist, conservative, feminist, or what have you), others will allow greater latitude, but I doubt any journal will be without some ideological boundaries. Authors should carefully consider where they send their articles. Perhaps there are journals out there that would welcome the particular contribution that these authors believe was rejected on ideological grounds. In any event, a desk rejection in cases like this saves time and work for both potential reviewers and authors. If some controversial and offensive claim is really worthwhile, either some journal will oblige to publish it or the authors can easily put in online where scholars can access it and the authors can gain credit for advancing thought on the topic. If an editor is abusing her privilege by rejecting articles on idiosyncratic ideological grounds, so much the worse for that journal, but it’s hard to see what could or should be done to prevent such abuse.Report

Gray
Gray
4 years ago

Whatever verdict we reach about the particular case at hand, I think it’s worth pausing for a bit to reflect on the more general political and ideological climate in the profession: a climate in which voicing (or, sometimes, even merely entertaining) certain views–at this point, I probably don’t even need to describe which–is liable to make you subject to heaping amounts of contempt, ridicule, ostracism, and vilification. Unlike most other philosophical disagreements, here it’s not simply that people will find your views wrongheaded; beyond that, they’ll think you’re a bad person, and won’t hesitate to treat you as such. Woe to he who, finding himself cast as a member of the ideological outgroup, gets to see with his own eyes just how “tolerant” and “inclusive” his philosophical peers really are.

Does this show that ideological policing in refereeing does happen? No. But it does suggest that it wouldn’t be at all a surprise if it did. Report

Gray
Gray
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

Your post concludes with a striking irony. My above comment suggested that people who express non-left-leaning views are often or disproportionately subject to contempt and vilification in academic philosophy. In response to this, you insinuate that I–someone you know almost nothing about–am a “bullshitter” and someone you hold in contempt.

Why, thank you for showing everyone my point!

To add to my previous post: I speak from personal experience here (experience that goes beyond the present episode). And I know I’m far from being the only one who’s experienced ostracism and vilification for holding unpopular, non-left-leaning views. If this sort of personal experience sounds easy to dismiss, I’d certainly like to know why it has any less prima facie evidential value than other kinds of (often likewise anonymous) personal experience that the profession *does* take to be evidence of genuine problems.

Sure, as for the case of Professor Demetriou, this forum hasn’t had much if anything in the way of vitriol. But this is a moderated forum, so that’s to be expected. (People are no doubt less likely to post vitriolic remarks when they know they’ll get promptly deleted.) More generally, what serves as a better indication in these kinds of cases are the more *un*moderated social media (or, alternatively, social media more directly related to the person in question, such as one’s Facebook page), as well as experiences in real life. I don’t know what the case might be for Professor Demetriou here, but I’m confident that it’s generally in these latter fora that the ostracism and demonization will be more present.

You’re right, of course, that in any case there will be viciousness directed both ways. But is there really any doubt as to the disproportionality here? When we look at just how few members of the profession are conservative in relation to how dominantly the profession is left-wing, the suggestion that the personal costs of choosing either side are anywhere near equal starts to seem a bit dubious.

Here’s an experiment that could help make things clearer. Try openly defending a certain sort of view–say, something like the idea that maybe this business about increasing “diversity” is a bit wrongheaded, that maybe the oppression against certain minority groups has been exaggerated, and so on–and see how differently your philosophical peers come to treat you. If your experience is anything like mine, it’ll be an eye-opener. (Of course, if you posted something in defense of the opposite, more left-wing view, then you’d no doubt also get some backlash here and there. But by most indications, it wouldn’t be anywhere near the same level.)Report

Striking Irony
Striking Irony
Reply to  Gray
4 years ago

Certainly there are other candidate explanations for the alleged dearth of “conservatives” in philosophy and academia. For instance: (1) Professional philosophers generally think hard about things and are moderately successful at tracking truth, at least when the truth is pretty straightforward. (2) Conservative social principles are pretty straightforwardly and uninterestingly false. This would also explain the alleged disparity in the number of right-wingers vs progressive individuals in professional philosophy, and it’s more plausible to boot.

Let me give your suggestion/experiment a try: Maybe this business about remedying the alleged lack of diversity with regard to the range of political viewpoints represented in philosophy is a bit wrongheaded. Maybe the alleged oppression against social conservatives in philosophy has been exaggerated. Report

Gray
Gray
Reply to  Striking Irony
4 years ago

“Certainly there are other candidate explanations for the alleged dearth of ‘conservatives’ in philosophy and academia. ”

You seem to be assuming that my post was an attempt to explain the alleged dearth of conservatives in philosophy and academia. If so, I’m not sure why you’re assuming this; my post was simply about conservatives being mistreated in academic philosophy, not whether this is the best explanation for the relative lack of conservatives in academic philosophy. Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Gray
4 years ago

“More generally, what serves as a better indication in these kinds of cases are the more *un*moderated social media…”

You mean like the various incarnations of the philosophy “Metablog”? How much liberal ideological policing did you generally find there? Report

Gray
Gray
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

True, there’s no doubt that the metablogs tended to be critical of the perceived far-left climate in academic philosophy. But that’s no surprise; if memory serves, from the very beginning the metablogs set up by people sympathetic to the idea that liberal ideological policing is a problem, and they (the metablogs) were branded as a place specifically to express non-left-leaning views that would be censored in other fora. Given this, it’s only natural that the metablogs tended to attract people of the relevant ideological bent. So the metablogs are an exception to my general claim. Perhaps I would have done better to make my claim focus more on the other two kinds of fora I mentioned (i.e., social media directly related to a certain person, such as one’s Facebook page, along with experiences in real life). Report

Tim Hsiao
4 years ago

I have no thoughts on the paper in question, but I strongly suspect that ideological policing — especially towards social conservatives — is very much an issue in academia as a whole, not just refereeing. Some of my publishing experiences left me wondering if my work is being scrutinized at a higher-than-normal level.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Tim Hsiao
4 years ago

It’s certainly possible that your suspicions are correct, Tim. But given that the normal level of scrutiny for papers is “very high,” it’s going to be very hard to reliably detect whether your papers have been getting “very high plus a little more” scrutiny. Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  Tim Hsiao
4 years ago

The problem with comments like this, as Derek rightly points out, is that EVERYONE has bad experiences with bad referees. Everyone likes to think that their views are being unfairly rejected or not charitably read. Given the structural strains built in to the review process, everyone is probably right about this.

However, Tim has given me no evidence to think that conservative views are subject to special scrutiny. I have my own anecdata that suggests the opposite, including a GEM of a comment by a recent reviewer excoriating me for using the female pronoun in my paper as a universal. Seriously. So…for what it’s worth, I think the conclusion we should draw is peer review, as currently structured by most philosophy journals, brings out the worst in many of us and makes many of us uncharitable. It isn’t a special problem for social conservatives, hurt as they may feel by those desk rejections (they hurt me too!). Report

Phil
Phil
4 years ago

I think that many interesting issues have been raised in this discussion, but one might deserve special attention, since it concerns everyone who wishes to publish in the profession. If one is reviewing a paper for a journal, and one can think of potential problems with the paper, such as a potentially persuasive objection to the main thesis, what should one do? Sometimes it seems that one should ask the author to rebut the objection in an R&R, and sometimes it seems that one should recommend that the paper be rejected. But aren’t there times when one should think that the objection is more appropriate for a published response paper?

It’s this last option that most interests me. One of the authors of the paper under discussion, Dan Demetriou, complained that some of the reviewers’ comments were more appropriate for a published response to his paper. I’ve sometimes thought the same thing about reviewers’ comments on my own work. Incidentally, some of the comments on this discussion thread seem like the sort of thing that I would expect to find in a published reply to Demetriou’s paper. So, I find myself asking: When are potential objections appropriate for published replies, and when are potential objections indicative that the paper should not be published as is?

As someone who sometimes reviews papers for journals, I’d be interested to hear whether there some general guidelines here. I sometimes imagine John Searle submitting his paper “Proper Names” to a journal, only to have Saul Kripke be assigned as his reviewer. Of course Kripke identifies several devastating problems for Searle’s account and therefore recommends rejection. My current opinion is that Kripke should not have recommended rejection simply because he has identified such problems, though it would obviously be okay for someone to raise those problems in a published response to Searle’s paper. But then when should someone bring up objections to paper under review? I have some thoughts, of course, but I’ve written a lot already.Report

WP
WP
Reply to  Phil
4 years ago

This is an interesting issue, but I’m not sure it’s relevant here. The referees aren’t making original objections; they’re pointing out issues that stem from apparent ignorance of the immediate literature.

The paper shouldn’t be published until it engages with the existing literature and acknowledges actual trans experiences (i.e. until it shows a better grasp of its subject matter). But it would be unrecognizable on the other side. Situating their redefinition of ‘transgender’ within the debate over the term and the experiences it is supposed to capture would show it to be completely unmotivated, and without that they no longer have an argument that gender exaggerators are trans. Their argument that there’s no moral difference between gender exaggeration and transitioning is little more than the bald assertion, which is completely inadequate in the face of both feminist criticisms of exaggeration and the actual experiences of trans people (you’d expect the persistence of their identities and *actual suffering* when prevented from transitioning to be a pretty big part of why it’s so morally important that they be able to do so).

I don’t see anything significant that would survive. I think that’s a pretty clear case for reject instead of R&R. Report

Phil
Phil
4 years ago

I agree the issue is not directly relevant to the main topic of this thread, which is just whether the actual reviews of this paper were engaging in “ideological policing,” but I think the issue is indirectly related, since one of the authors complains that some of the reviewer’s objections are best raised in a response piece (and I’ve had the same thought about reviewer’s comments on my own work). In any event, the issue is independently interesting and of general importance to the profession.

As for your substantive remarks on the merit of the paper, I have nothing to contribute, since I am not sufficiently familiar with the area.

I will say that I have seen papers published in my area that I thought were pretty awful, as you seem to think Demetriou and Prideaux’s paper is pretty awful. Sometimes I’ve seen such papers published in decent venues. I’m sure at some point we’ve all thought “How the heck did this paper get published?” That’s partly why I asked if people had guidelines for determined when a paper is flawed but worthy of publication, or flawed in such a way that it’s unpublishable. You actually suggest one such guideline: if a flaw would be apparent to anyone who was familiar with the “immediate literature,” then it should count against publication. Report

Serge
Serge
4 years ago

“But more importantly, recognizing that gender exaggeration is trans (or its moral equivalent) reveals a number of sex- and gender-discriminatory practices and intolerant attitudes: from pathologizing hypergender to legally restricting androgenic hormones”

I have no idea what this means. Report