Solidarity Instead of Pseudonymity: an Alternative Strategy for “Controversial Ideas”

Last week we discussed the planned Journal of Controversial Ideas, which will allow its authors to protect themselves from possible negative professional and social consequences of their writings by using pseudonyms. There was a hint of paradox: the proposal to create such a journal was itself so controversial that perhaps it would have been better published pseudonymously in the journal itself. 

But that wouldn’t really have been better—not just because of possible paradox, but because, had the idea been proposed pseudonymously, no one would have taken it seriously. It would have been dismissed as the creation of cranks and trolls. There needed to be identifiable people associated with the journal whose trustworthiness in gauging the need for it and managing it responsibly could be assessed by the fellow academics to whom it was being proposed.

This post is not about providing such an assessment of the journal’s principals (so please do not do that in the comments on this post). But it is based on the importance that intellectual accountability has for the academic enterprise, and on the uncontroversial idea that making people put their names on their work usually encourages intellectual responsibility.

On its most charitable interpretation, the plan to permit pseudonymous authorship is motivated by a concern that some ideas don’t make it into scholarly journals because of their mere unpopularity, offensiveness, or political incorrectness, rather than any lack of intellectual merit. Authors interested in writing on some topics or advancing some arguments might be discouraged from doing so by the prospect of outraging others who have influence over their career prospects. But if those outraged others don’t know the identity of the authors, then the authors are safe.

While I think that worries about what authors of intellectually responsible yet controversial scholarship have to fear are overblown, let’s just grant for now that we have a reason to try to keep them safer from professional repercussions for their controversial views. Hiding their identities is one way to try to keep them safe, but it has the downsides that come with decreased accountability.

Is there an alternative? Yes: make the publication of scholarly articles on controversial ideas less outraging.

How can this be accomplished? By bringing those people the authors fear into the publication process.

There are different ways to envision this. Here’s an outline of one possibility.

  1. Author submits manuscript to the journal; editors decide it should not be desk-rejected, and send the article out to referees for standard anonymized peer review.
  2. If the referees return the manuscript with a favorable assessment, the author makes any needed minor revisions and then the author and editorial team make a list of what we can call the article’s stakeholders. These are the types of people who they believe are likely to be outraged by the publication of the article. (Suppose the paper argues for a controversial thesis in some area outside one’s current area of specialization about some group of people, in part by making use of evidence from another field. On the list of stakeholders might be those who disagree with the thesis, specialists in the area, members of the relevant group of people, and those who are experts on the evidence.)
  3. The editor assembles a team of referees from the various stakeholder groups, and sends the manuscript out to those referees for a second round of reviewing. The goal is to make sure the paper is in such a condition that the stakeholder referees agree that it is acceptable for publication—not that they necessarily agree with the paper’s thesis. Preferably, the stakeholder referees are paid for their time. The process may require a fair amount of back-and-forth between the editors and the referees and the editors and the author. The group of referees will likely be interdisciplinary, and so the editor will have to manage different disciplinary expectations. And the referees may require substantial revisions before agreeing that the paper is publishable. If all goes well, after some rounds of revisions, all of the stakeholder referees agree that the paper is publishable. It is of course possible, though, that, despite revisions, sometimes some of the referees will not agree that the paper is publishable. It would then be up to the editor to decide whether to proceed.
  4. When the journal publishes the paper, it is published under the author’s real name, along with the real names of all of the reviewers who deemed the article acceptable for publication in the journal. The names are accompanied by a “review statement” that makes explicit that a reviewer’s judgment of an article’s acceptability for publication does not imply an endorsement of the article’s thesis, only that the article is of sufficient quality to be at least worth disagreeing with, rather than condemned. The article is prefaced by a “review narrative” that explains the peer review process, explains why certain stakeholder groups were identified and why particular reviewers were selected for the stakeholder review team.

One downside of my proposal is that, in the short run, it likely offers less protection to authors than an intact pseudonym does. Instead of attempting to provide safety through hiding, my approach attempts to offer safety via solidarity and improvement.

The idea is that the names of stakeholder referees on the article, along with the review narrative, send a message to readers along the lines of: “people who are likely to have the same concerns we do have vetted this article and believe it is worth taking as a piece of scholarship to be read and responded to in a scholarly way, even if they don’t agree with it.” The reviewers stand with the author’s right to contribute this article to the academic debate. It is a kind of Voltairean solidarity.

The solidarity is only possible, though, if the article is of a certain quality in the judgment of the stakeholder referees. Getting their approval may involve multiple rounds of substantial revisions (perhaps through some modified variant of this process). But the result is likely to be a much better article—better researched, more perceptive, and showing a greater depth of understanding—that will provoke fewer of the feared reactions.

Yes, this will make it more burdensome to publish some “controversial ideas.” But that seems reasonable, given that some of the ideas are going to be controversial because they go against strongly held expert consensus, while others are going to be controversial because of their perceived potential for serious negative effects.

A critic might say that my proposal of named stakeholder referees risks making things worse by providing more targets for the outraged. It does have that risk. But I have enough confidence in my fellow academics to believe that many of them are willing to bear this risk. (Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan are not the only scholars with the requisite Millian commitments.) The hope is that through the referees’ display of an academic virtue—comfort with disagreement—and a more general virtue if they believe it’s needed—courage—they promote a picture of academia that draws attention to what is in fact its typical friendliness towards controversial ideas.

Pseudonymity offers authors a life on the lam, and risks jeopardizing intellectual accountability. My approach offers authors solidarity, recognition, and a route towards more responsible scholarship, plus it promotes an academic culture of open, robust disagreement. If the Journal of Controversial Ideas is indeed supposed to be an experiment, why not use it to test out a version of academia we actually want?

(And if this isn’t the way to do that, let’s hear a better way.)

UPDATE: I respond to some criticisms of this idea in a subsequent post.

Takehiro Kishimoto – carving of lemon

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please enter an e-mail address