Systematic Discrimination in Peer Review: Some Reflections (guest post by by Kyle Powys Whyte)

“As these issues of peer review and editorial review continue to arise every year, I hope people increasingly address the systematic problems—taking into consideration the ongoing history of discrimination and the thorough reforms that need to take place in the world of academic publication.”

The following is a guest post* by Kyle Powys Whyte, Timnick Chair in the Humanities and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University. A version of it previously appeared on Facebook.

[Duane Slick, “Disagreeable Coyotes”]

Systematic Discrimination in Peer Review: Some Reflections 
by Kyle Powys Whyte

The following are some reflections from my own experiences in academic peer review in the case of some types of Indigenous scholarship. My reflections are prompted by some recent controversies over the scholarly quality of the academic peer review of articles.

A bunch of Indigenous scholars who do Indigenous-centered research have a horrible collection of anonymous peer reviews from their submitted articles that suggest rejection or cumbersome revisions. The reviews, done by scholastically unqualified reviewers, usually do not cite academic reasons for rejection or revision; instead, they cite openly bigoted reasons that are not scholarly at all. In one example when I was a junior professor trying to get tenure, which I will reference as obscurely as possible since it was part of anonymous review, it was held as proof by a reviewer that Indigenous people do not have credible knowledge because some of the Indigenous elders quoted in the article spoke in ungrammatical English (yes, the irony). Or in another example at the same point in my career, which I will also refer to in obscure terms, I cited Indigenous leaders, creative writers and scholars who had been articulating a key academic concept many years before the major white male figurehead scholars had started using the concept, taking credit for it, and gaining recognition (false, of course) as the originators of it (and I did cite these white male scholars in proper chronological order!). A reviewer claimed that the author of the submission (a.k.a. me) did not know the literature based on “the evidence” that the submission did not cite the white men as the originators of the concept.

I have hundreds of stories of this kind in the peer review process from my own experiences and those of others who have shared with me confidentially. There are a lot of reasons why the editorial and review process breaks down and fails at scholarly responsibility when it comes to Indigenous scholarship, from overt discrimination to the type of discrimination where editors and reviewers really do not value Indigenous scholarship and scholarly histories and hence do not take as seriously as they would in other cases the types of harms they are inflicting on people’s careers and also on their lives, families and communities. The last point is especially alarming as talented Indigenous scholars deserving of professional success are often looked up to by young people in their communities and nations who are excited to see examples of their own people succeeding in higher education. The peer review process at many academic journals devastates many burgeoning careers in Indigenous scholarship. It is on the list of so-called “silent” career destroying processes that people doing many types of Indigenous scholarship face. This problem is not unique to Indigenous scholarship, and those reading this will recognize these issues in the academic areas they work on. I just speak to Indigenous scholarship because that is the context I work in.

Now, the other side of this systematic problem in many peer review processes is that some people, usually non-Indigenous, seek to create visibility for themselves in academia by producing provocative pieces. Indigenous contexts and issues are often targeted by these scholars. Some of these scholars must think: “Wouldn’t it send a chill through the scholarly community to know that Indigenous persons or communities sometimes participate in their own oppression?” “Wouldn’t it be game changing to show how Indigenous knowledge has no epistemic value and is used as a political ploy by some Tribe to just make money in a capitalistic way?” “Wouldn’t it cause quite a scholarly stir to use the history of fluctuations, contingencies and fluidities of Indigenous identities as part of a premise in an argument that settler Americans and Canadians can switch their identities to Indigenous ones in some cases?” “Wouldn’t it make a big splash to show that Indigenous peoples invent their own traditions when they assert spiritual or subsistence connections to certain plants or animals because these Tribes didn’t really have environmental ethics historically since they participated in the fur trade?” These are examples of the types of questions (and there are many more) that excite some of these scholars who want to increase their visibility through provocation.

It is not surprising in my opinion that many such scholars prey upon Indigenous contexts and issues as sites with “excellent” material that can be spun for the sake of provocation, as there is little Indigenous scholarly expert review in many academic institutions, from journals to faculties. So I think they see that it is unlikely that they will have to tone down their claims or make their claims more sophisticated to adjust what they are claiming in cases in which they must abide by scholarly standards relating to the actual knowledge-base and published and available literatures on their topics. That is, to these provocateurs, scholarly standards that they accept as applying to them regarding other academic topics somehow no longer apply to them in their minds when writing provocative pieces about Indigenous topics.

In cases where provocation pieces do not, in their original submission forms, cite any of the relevant knowledge-base or literature on their topic, irresponsible and discriminatory review processes do not help in their failure at assigning qualified reviewers. I know confidentially of a few cases where editors were licking their chops to fast track provocation pieces on Indigenous topics, assigning reviewers based on who would review quickest instead of who is qualified to review the article. I know of cases where authors with the intent to provoke actually did get good peer reviews that should have prompted these authors to consider tempering and complicating the provocative tone of their submissions on scholarly grounds. Instead of responding to the reviews and transforming their pieces into quality scholarship, these authors switched journals until they found venues for their work that did not require them to make their claims more sophisticated and academically rigorous. Some such provocateurs actually have long histories of receiving quality and constructive feedback on their work from experts they met at conferences, in job interviews and through other scholarly interactions. Yet—remarkably—little if any revisions based on this feedback appear in the published provocation pieces. There are quite a few scholars out there whose body of published articles and books has little to do with Indigenous contexts or issues, yet embedded in their corpus is a provocation piece or provocation sub-theme of their work on an Indigenous topic, and often that piece or sub-theme is among their best cited work (by the way, it is shocking how many cases of this there are out there if one looks for them).

In fields like philosophy, for example, there are few Indigenous philosophers and specialists in Indigenous philosophy, a situation which has led to a very small literature in the field on Indigenous philosophy written by people with Philosophy PhDs from anglophone universities. I have had this weird experience where some philosophers writing provocation pieces on Indigenous topics in philosophy have asked me to glance at their writing. In cases when I tell them that they need to improve the academic quality of their writing by revising based on the work done that is philosophically/theoretically and empirically relevant outside of philosophy, the philosophers look at me funny or send me a perplexed-sounding email and tell me that they do not have to cite scholars who do not have philosophy PhDs. These provocateurs then tell me that they will be (and are thrilled at being) the first to say claim x about Indigenous peoples in philosophy even knowing full well that the claim has been discussed and debated thoroughly in other fields! Sorry—but I just do not understand how such an approach to publication is part of the knowledge production enterprise. For taking this approach is basically admitting that it is believed to be academically acceptable to make an uninformed, outdated and uneducated claim just because the existing knowledge-base and literatures are not written by or derived from people who earned a particular type of PhD.

The weird experiences I just described are especially jarring realizing that a good part of why few Indigenous scholars or Indigenous topics and philosophies appear in philosophy journals is the history and ongoing practices of discrimination against Indigenous scholars and Indigenous philosophies. How shady and morally suspect is it then when a philosopher writes a provocation knowing blatantly that the case for the article’s epistemic value can only be made by bracketing philosophy from all other academic fields and by the fact that the article’s publication is occurring on the heels of the suppression of Indigenous voices and philosophies in the field? While people writing in under-served topics in philosophy should be encouraged to do so, I am invoking the standard that the epistemic value of their claims should not primarily rest on ignoring the knowledge-base and literatures that is out there. While some topics (e.g. Indigenous ones) might start off in philosophy at a more academically rudimentary level, this is not the same as intentionally ignoring what knowledge and academic work is out there by failing to give a thorough scholarly review to the topic one is writing about.

So, here, of course, we have a harmful situation occurring across many fields in academia. Some Indigenous scholarship does not get published, ruining people’s careers in cases of highly talented and deserving scholars. Some scholars doing scholastically-irresponsible provocation pieces make it through the peer review process, often publishing these pieces in research article sections of academic journals, advancing their careers. In cases where an Indigenous scholar or ally of Indigenous scholarship calls attention to a particular publication as the product of systematic, flawed peer review, an often fairly large number of academics (many senior) will then accuse the whistle blower of trying to harm the career of the provocateur, especially when the provocateur is a junior professor. The accusers do not discuss at all the many careers of Indigenous scholars that are ended without any public visibility or even (unjustified) notoriety—silent casualties of discriminatory peer review processes. In fact, the provocateurs, even if there is good evidence attesting to the lack of scholarly quality of their publications, often at the end of the day benefit professionally from their notoriety as many senior scholars who misunderstand the systematic nature of academic peer review rally in support, claiming the provocateurs should not be harmed for being “naively uninformed,” “taking risks” or being “provocative” in their publications.

Sometimes scholars (often senior) who rally behind provocateurs fault Indigenous scholars and allies for not first publishing a detailed peer reviewed reply to the scholastically irresponsible provocation piece. This expectation, by the way, is an additional burden on people who do this scholarship, given that in many research and other departments too, commentaries, even if well-researched and peer reviewed, are not considered to figure enormously in one’s scholarly impact profile that contributes to tenure and promotion. Nor do such commentaries and replies usually garner the same visibility as the original provocation piece. Why do Indigenous scholars and allies have the expectation foisted on them of also having to write additional pieces—and I should add, often emotionally re-traumatizing pieces to write—that address problems that scholastically responsible editors and peer reviewers should be addressing on their own? For the problems are obvious breakdowns in the consistent application of scholarly standards, products of disregard for Indigenous scholarship and a lack of moral accountability for securing academic rigor on behalf of Indigenous communities and nations that scholarship is about.

All the above points are why many Indigenous scholars and leaders have advocated for the development of our own research institutions, journals and peer review processes, from Aotearoa to Turtle Island. In the cases I am aware of intimately, the journals associated with this resurgence exercise highly responsible peer review processes that ensure academic vetting and qualified feedback for deserving scholarly careers—which means it is hard to publish in these venues if one’s work seeks to provoke without addressing the knowledge-base and academic literatures on the topic of one’s submission. I have also been part of journals in dominant fields who have made the choice to have high standards and make sure that they have associate editors and other journal staff who know what it takes to judiciously review all submissions. So it is not as if people are doing nothing about the problem of systematic discriminatory peer review.

As these issues of peer review and editorial review continue to arise every year, I hope people increasingly address the systematic problems—taking into consideration the ongoing history of discrimination and the thorough reforms that need to take place in the world of academic publication. Perhaps few instances of irresponsible peer review are one-off instances for particular journals after all. At times when a particular controversy over a peer reviewed publication goes public, people need to seriously reflect on which scholars are ultimately facing the most career-related risks in the peer review system. People need to seriously reflect on the risks to Indigenous communities and nations who are continuously used instrumentally or exploited by many academics, including some philosophers.

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