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

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A.
A.
2 years ago

First – I find the entire “accountability” argument odd. In general – publishing in philosophy is valuable to the author insofar as they are recognized. It is only when people are recognized that you reap career benefits. My worry with the Journal of Controversial Ideas, is that few people will take time to submit, because there will not be career benefits. As far as secretly telling the university you wrote the article -I don’t think most universities would like that, because universities want credit for the work their professors produce.

Second, “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…” Um…the problem is, (a) stakeholders may never accept the paper, or (2) the will only accept it while deluding the arguments. The idea that a paper must be acceptable to those most likely to find it offensive before publication….I don’t know what to say if people can’t see the problems with this idea. Report

Nathan Cofnas
Reply to  A.
2 years ago

This seems like a pretty cynical view. Is “reap[ing] career benefits” the only motivating force for all but a “few” philosophers?Report

Ryan Muldoon
2 years ago

I personally don’t think a journal of controversial ideas is a good idea, despite my belief that the editors have good intentions, and I think it’s perfectly fine to see what they do with it. Given the reactions to it, I think that there’s likely going to be a bad sorting problem in terms of who publishes there and who’s willing to referee. I think it’s better to just rely on the normal process within mainstream journals.

I do think that the proposal above is more or less a death knell for mainstream journals publishing anything remotely “controversial.” At the very least, it exacerbates the already very serious problem of an overwhelmed publishing system. If I were an editor, that would almost certainly bias me towards not bothering with papers of this sort – the process you describe sounds like 3 or 4 times the work of a normal paper. It’s also worth asking why a “controversial” paper should go through extra stages of review. Especially when we lack a well defined category of “controversial papers,” and given their charged nature, I doubt we would have a robust agreement over what the boundaries ought to be. In some instances, it’s the status quo that’s bad. One does not have to go very far into our history to find significant moral shifts in what we take to be acceptable. This extra screening would just make us more conservative, not more morally upright. This also seems like a wonderful cudgel to use against one’s intellectual opponents. (As a very small anecdote: I once had a referee ask me if I honestly was willing to put my name to the obviously morally objectionable idea that stripped people of their humanity that I was pushing for in a paper. This horrible thing was the idea that the division of labor is super helpful in science. I have happily put my name on several papers to that effect.)

We need to stop pretending that peer review is some magical process that takes all of a paper’s imperfections away. If an author is fortunate, the feedback is useful and it helps make papers better. If not, papers get more muddled to satisfy pointless requirements of referees. We are all aware of type I and type II error, and the refereeing process is subject to that as well. Adding veto points does not help. There just aren’t very high costs for a paper coming out, particularly in a philosophy journal. If it’s objectionable, people can write a reply. Or people can just ignore it, like we do with most published work. Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

“Preferably, the stakeholder referees are paid for their time.”

So wait, we’re paying the easily offended people BECAUSE they’re so easily offended?Report

AcademicLurker
AcademicLurker
2 years ago

I think a weakness of these proposed controversial journals is that they might not really be solving the problem they set out to solve. If we put aside deliberate provocateurs and trolls (I assume we don’t much care whether they publish or not), I think most of the scholars who have ended up in the middle of social media sh*tstorms were taken by surprise. If a Journal of Controversial Ideas had existed when Rebecca Tuvel was preparing her article, do you think she would have submitted it there? I suspect not, as she was laboring under the naive idea that she was in a field of professionals who would behave professionally.

So these new journals would select for ideas that the authors specifically think of as controversial. That’s one particular subset of controversial ideas, and not necessarily the most valuable ones. That said, I still think the experiment is worth trying.Report

Jon
Jon
2 years ago

I think the better way forward is just that people should chill the [redacted] out. This problem is overblown in the first place, but, to the extent that it isn’t, it’s because there’s a small subset of people that just go around causing trouble (often on Twitter). We need to rebuild our culture to be more constructive, less alarmist, and less sound byte-y (i.e., read the whole argument, don’t just caricature it). This proposal is, in my opinion, more a step backwards–paying too much deference to the status quo–than something progressive.Report

Spencer
2 years ago

I am all for having many different arrangements. I have thought a journal in which the review process wasn’t anonymous and the author(s) collaborated openly with the referees and editors would also be an experiment worth trying. But I don’t think Justin’s proposal would address the problems that JCI is supposed to address. For any article controversial enough to need to be public in JCI, we could expect that the “shareholders” would kill it on ideological grounds while insisting that they were rejecting as a matter of quality control (probably that’s how it will really seem to them).

Also: Justin I want to give you this challenge. What would be the least extreme thing that would have to happen before you would acknowledge that this is a real problem? If the “Hypatia affair” doesn’t convince you there’s a serious problem here, then what evidence could potentially?Report

Spencer
Reply to  Spencer
2 years ago

Stakeholders I meant. Sorry.Report

Spencer
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 years ago

Ok as for the first point, I do think conservatives could fulfill the role you describe. However, that’s because they are in the minority. Any conservative who makes it that far in academy is going to be pretty used to disagreement and probably won’t have the attitude that people who strongly disagree are likely to be idiots or evil. I think those attitudes are easier to Foster among dominant groups. If conservatives were the dominant group, enough to justify the creation of an anonymous journal, then I think they probably *would* be obstructionists in exactly this way.

As for vegans… I don’t know. I would try to be fair in that capacity, but I can imagine that there are some who would have the mindset of “let’s not give ammunition to the enemy.” Maybe it could work there.

As for the threat level, I think you’ve got this all wrong. When I was a US Army public affairs guy, I learned pretty quickly what I could write and what would get me into trouble. It wasn’t because there was a huge number of cases in which people wrote those things and were then punished. It was the sort of thing where people just knew you were asking for it if, say, you included details that made “our Afghan allies” look foolish or incompetent. No one needed to put his ass on the line to test the rule we all knew was there. The situation here is analogous, I believe.
Report

Manny
Manny
Reply to  Spencer
2 years ago

Spencer, you’re wasting your time. Unless you can show multiple cases of people being kicked out of Army Public Affairs because they made fools of our Afghan allies, I’ve no reason to believe that there was any pressure on you not to do so. Even if you had hundreds of people testify that they too felt pressured in that same way, it don’t count for nothing. Hard examples, dammit! Nothing less!

Right, Justin?Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Manny
2 years ago

Manny, your extremely uncharitable caricature makes me think that you are exactly the sort of reviewer so many seem to fear exist. It’s like you read a completely different post than I did, responded to that super ridiculous idea nobody put forward, and then walked away – secure in the belief that you scored a ‘point’ for ‘your side.’

I’ve reviewed more articles than I care to admit, I’ve reviewed book proposals as well, and I’ve had a ton of my own work reviewed. My only take away here is that almost everyone (from the editors, to the reviewers, to the authors) seems to think that the peer review system is broken. The only exception here might be the publishers themselves (who literally reap all of the profit from free academic labor). So the natural questions here are:

1. What, exactly, are the problems with peer review?

2. What is the best way of responding to those problems?

Justin, insofar as I understand him, is trying to address two potential problems with the current system of peer review. The first being the perception that controversial ideas as difficult to publish (and I agree with him that this problem is likely overblown – though I’m open to actual evidence on this from editors who are best positioned to speak to the question).

The second problem is not unique to controversial ideas but is certainly magnified in their case, is about reviewer competence. I have been asked to review articles that I am absolutely not qualified to review (and I tell editors this) – and I have definitely read reviews of my own work that feel as if they sent it to someone who is not a ‘relevant peer’ given the article’s focus. In the context of a controversial piece (however you define that term), identifying ‘stakeholders’ is really just, to me, a way of asking: who would the best referees be for a work on this topic?

My own work is interdisciplinary and often I have noticed (and find praiseworthy) when editors send my article out to both a philosopher and someone in a relevant discipline (psychology in my case). This sort of feedback does exactly what Justin’s proposal intends to do: “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.” If I’m making substantive claims about the nature of a certain sort of psychological phenomena or mental illness, I damn well better not say something that relevant psychological peer reviewer would find disastrously misguided.

I read Justin’s proposal as calling for no more than the same kind of care that interdisciplinary philosophers should already be looking for in their own reviewing. Solving the ‘relevant peer reviewer’ problem for any controversial topic damn well better include, as a component of that solution, getting the right sorts of reviewers and the right sorts of reviewers should include people with a stake in the field. So, what’s the problem here? Report

Manny
Manny
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

Who can even remember anymore …………………. but I believe I was referring to Justin’s views about the extent of the problem, not to anything about his proposal.Report

Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
Reply to  Spencer
2 years ago

I think it’s telling that you are showing your own bias against vegans by claiming (without evidence) that they are biased.

Singer and McMahan are both in favor of animal rights, so do you therefore assume the JCI is going to refuse all contrary positions?

Regan and Cohen even wrote “The Animal Debate” together.

There are many anthologies out there, put together by vegans or vegetarians, that showcase many views on the issue.Report

Spencer
Reply to  Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
2 years ago

He just used that as an example because he knows that I am vegan. His point is that they could serve as stakeholders, so why not other groups?Report

Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
Reply to  Spencer
2 years ago

Then I doubly don’t understand why you’re claiming that conservatives could be good stakeholders in a way that vegans couldn’t be.Report

Spencer
Reply to  Spencer
2 years ago

I don’t think I ever said vegans couldn’t be.Report

Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
Reply to  Spencer
2 years ago

“As for vegans… I don’t know. I would try to be fair in that capacity, but I can imagine that there are some who would have the mindset of “let’s not give ammunition to the enemy.” ”

Your words.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Spencer
2 years ago

“Maybe it could work there.”

His words.

Nicole, why take issue with a fellow vegan who agrees with you? If anything, Spencer is cautious. I think he’s your friend here.Report

Spencer
Reply to  Spencer
2 years ago

“Maybe it could work there” were literally my very next words. Why would you quote that paragraph except for the most relevant part?Report

Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
Reply to  Spencer
2 years ago

You’re missing the point of my disagreement: for whatever reason you believe conservatives are more capable of objectivity than vegans. I find that objectionable.

And, Nicolas, just because someone is “on my side” doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with him on everything. Next you’ll be telling me I shouldn’t criticize the faults in arguments by fellow women. *Eye roll*Report

Regina Rini
2 years ago

This is an interesting idea. Two thoughts:

1. Philosophy is an unusual discipline in that (a) it claims to publish findings with normative implications for how human societies should be organized, yet (b) unlike the social sciences, there’s no Institutional Review Board to ensure that its treatment of human subjects avoids unnecessary risk. Your stakeholder proposal seems aimed at providing the latter element, though at a very different moment in the publication pipeline.

2. “Preferably, the stakeholder referees are paid for their time. ” <– I'd say stronger than 'preferably'. I think this is mandatory for the system to not be exploitative (in the sense Nora Berenstain describes in her 2016 Ergo paper: https://philpapers.org/rec/NOREE-2 ) . Stakeholder referees are recruited qua membership in a vulnerable population, not qua membership in the academic profession. The latter identity carries obligations to serve as a referee without compensation, but the former does not. I'm glad you considered the compensation angle – I'd just strengthen it.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Regina Rini
2 years ago

On your point 1:

Theoretical research (or research on existing population-level data) in the social sciences which had implications for “human subjects” in the same sense that normative philosophy papers do, but did not experiment on human subjects as part of its methodology, would not require IRB approval. For example, Thomas Piketty did not need IRB approval to write Capital in the Twenty-First Century, despite its obvious and very important implications for “human subjects.” But an experimental econ study with lesser societal implications that did employ human subjects in its methodology would require approval.

Similarly, an experimental philosophy study that experimented on human subjects would require IRB approval the same as a psychology study. So I don’t see how philosophy is run any differently from the social sciences in this regard.Report

mrmister
mrmister
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Indeed, it’s worth noting that even for such research that requires IRB approval, in the United States IRBs are as a matter of regulation forbidden from considering the possible long range effects of applying the knowledge gained in research as a “risk” of the research (45 CFR 46, 46.111.2; “eg the possible effects of research on public policy [should be ignored]”). This strikes me as reasonable in light of the very speculative nature of such risks and the lack of reason to think IRBs are particularly competent to evaluate them.Report

Regina Rini
Reply to  mrmister
2 years ago

Replying to mrmister:

Fair point, though we need to be careful about two separate distinctions:

short-range vs long-range effects of research
effects of participating in research vs effects of research on public policy

Some research ethics protocols, especially in medical ethics, *do* require thinking about long-range effects. This is a common point for e.g. developed country pharmaceutical firms running efficacy testing in developing countries. It is an ethical mistake to think only about the risk to direct research participants and ignore long-term community-level risks imposed by the conduct of the research (e.g. dependency-distortion of the local medical system, creation of lasting inequity in the local community).

More interesting is the distinction between participation-effects and policy-effects. (I ignored this distinction in my original comment, and I’m thankful for your pointing it up.) Even if we suppose that philosophers, like IRBs, should ignore possible policy effects, this leaves open a lot of space for thinking through ‘participation’. One of the most frequent criticisms of philosophical writing about vulnerable populations is that it ignores the risk of harmfully mis-characterizing them. This harm needn’t run via policy; it can take the effect of informal social stigma. Or it may be a constitutive harm to Kantian dignity, not a causal-consequence harm at all. All of those are possibilities, and currently we have no mechanism for thinking about them at all. Involving stakeholder referees, to stand in for the vulnerable populations who involuntarily ‘participate’ in philosophical research, is one possible solution.Report

Regina Rini
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Replying to Dave Baker:

You’re right that theoretical work in the social sciences does not typically require IRB approval. But it *does* typically draw upon prior experimental findings/datasets that *were* performed under IRB strictures, which is much less frequently true in philosophy. So there is some point of contact between the social science research ecosystem and human subjects accountability. Philosophy publication currently has no such point of contact. Currently we seem to be trying to do it at the very end of the publication process, sometimes even after a paper has been published. So far no one has been happy with how that works out. I took Justin’s proposal to be an attempt to move the point of contact earlier in the process. I’m not sure it works, but it’s worth thinking through, and appreciating Philosophy’s current lack of human subjects accountability is important in that thinking.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Regina Rini
2 years ago

“But it *does* typically draw upon prior experimental findings/datasets that *were* performed under IRB strictures”

I agree this is typical in psychology, but not in other social sciences (macroeconomics, sociology) that make heavy use of publicly available data. To return to my example of Piketty’s book, I haven’t gone through his citations but I doubt more than a tiny percentage of the data he cites was gathered through studies subject to institutional review. And I don’t see this as any sort of ethical lapse on Piketty’s part.

It’s simply a fact that experimentation on humans runs certain risks (of the Tuskegee or Stanford prison experiment variety) that other methods of data-gathering do not, and these risks are the ones IRBs were designed to mitigate. Social scientists don’t seem to be of the opinion that other sorts of risks of their work (such as the risk of harmfully mischaracterizing people you mention above) need mitigation. Or at least there are no institutions in place to mitigate such risks. If philosophers are doing something wrong in disregarding such risks, the same criticism applies equally to the social scientists. Philosophy is not the outlier you initially claimed it is.Report

Regina Rini
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

Perhaps we are talking past each other. I say this because you wrote “I don’t see this as any sort of ethical lapse on Piketty’s part.” But nothing I said implies that it *would* be an ethical lapse on Piketty’s part – at least not as I meant it to be taken (hence the talking past worry).

My point is about how a discipline as a whole comes into investigative contact with the populations it claims to study, and how this
(when done properly) secures some degree of collective ethical responsibility. For this to be the case, it needn’t be true that *every* individual research project or publication within the discipline involves that contact. Economists (including macroeconomists) cite behavioral economics research. Sociologists cite field studies using non-public data sets. Even when not directly citing this work, researchers must be aware of it and intellectually responsive to it. Their disciplinary enterprises, as a whole, are in at least some investigative contact with studied populations, and this is where they exercise ethical oversight, which performs both regulative/preventive function and generates new critical questions about research practices. It’s far from a perfect system, but it’s at least something.

Philosophy, as a discipline, has no such system. I think that’s part of why we periodically have inchoate arguments regarding what journals should or should not have published. We have nowhere to work these thoughts out other than at the very end of the publication process. The current situation isn’t a good one.

I also think you are wrong about this: “Social scientists don’t seem to be of the opinion that other sorts of risks of their work (such as the risk of harmfully mischaracterizing people you mention above) need mitigation.” I’m not an expert on the point, but I believe Anthropology went through a self-critical phase over precisely this point, with some spillover into Sociology. It might be interesting (if only I had the time…) to look back at how anthropologists have adjusted their practice.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Regina Rini
2 years ago

It sounds like you’re saying being part of a discipline where some of the research has to pass institutional review is the important difference you’re pointing to. But philosophy also meets that condition, since experimental philosophy has to get past IRBs. Also many philosophers, yourself included, work on interdisciplinary research that heavily cites work from other fields governed by IRBs. So again, I don’t see what makes philosophy different from poli sci or econ.

Your last point is something I’m not qualified to comment on, but my sense is that it is anthro and not philosophy which is the outlier if anthro does have institutions designed to avoid harmful misrepresentation beyond ordinary peer review.Report

Avalonian
2 years ago

While this is an interesting idea, I do think there is a huge issue: the question of who counts as a “stakeholder” is already deeply politicized, and the editorial team would have to be intrinsically biased against certain kinds of positions to make this policy work. Here’s why. Suppose I try to publish a piece critical of Affirmative Action in academia. Suppose I argue (controversially, possibly quite falsely) that differences in biology and preferences explain most of the demographic inequalities in academic departments, not discrimination (I don’t hold this position, but it seems ideally controversial for the purposes of illustration).

Who is a “Stakeholder” in this debate? Everyone, but if I’m right, then the real stakeholders are untenured or unemployed white males. Who is likely to be “outraged” by my piece? Not those guys. Rather, it will be those academic feminist-progressives who see every such argument as ideological hate speech. It will be those who, IF I my paper is right, stand to unjustly benefit from a bad policy. But why would we give *those* people the right to decide publication? Only if we’ve already decided, in advance, that my position is mistaken, that the outraged and the stakeholders are the same people.

The point generalizes to every potentially controversial argument from any side of the spectrum: Yancy mentioned the possibility that some violence against whites might be necessary to end oppression against blacks in America. Stakeholders: everyone, but if he’s right, especially black people. Outraged: far-right white social conservatives. But there’s no way that a white conservative should have that kind of control over whether an article on this topic gets published, because if Yancy’s right, then they aren’t the only stakeholders.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
2 years ago

“the article is of sufficient quality to be at least worth disagreeing with”

Isn’t this just what reviewers were supposed to be doing all along?Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
2 years ago

I understand better now thank you. In that case, I agree referees are stakeholders and that de-anonymizing them could have some benefits, in principle at least. On the other hand, this might blur the already perilous line between referee and co-authorship or encourage people to think that the norm is condemnation unless certain people agreed to write statements. Report

John Turri
2 years ago

Interesting idea!

In my estimation — your mileage may vary — it has two main weaknesses. On the one hand, it underestimates people’s ability and willingness to be outraged. On the other hand, my experience leads me to suspect that it would not result in better articles. My estimate is that 20% of referees’ comments are helpful or harmless and 80% are to some degree detrimental to the paper’s quality. This leads me to conclude that anything that makes refereeing more like co-authoring is likely to be a mistake.

Here’s a simpler experiment with much less overhead: we all commit to not shaming, vilifying, or harassing authors for expressing reasoned dissenting views. Authors are accountable for the quality of their published research and the rest of us are accountable for the manner in which we engage with said research. Then all the things that Justin outlines in his extended stakeholder review can occur naturally, to the extent that they’re viewed as worthwhile, in the post-publication peer-review process. After all, this is one of the principal functions of the published scholarly record.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
2 years ago

Hi, Justin. So, how would your proposal have worked in these cases:

1) Galileo, in the 1630s, tries to get a paper published defending Copernicanism. Certain stakeholders are extremely upset that anything that outrageous could get published. They point out that the thesis is not only clearly and demonstrably false, but socially harmful and liable to erode what few successes have been had in rescuing Christendom from heresy. The falsity and ridiculousness of this idea is so clear that even the enemies of the Catholic Church, the Lutherans, agree that it’s just preposterous and that no decent journal should waste its time with such drivel.

2) A number of freethinkers in the 18th century start trying to get articles published on the abolition of the monarchy. Etc.

3) A number of political radicals in the 19th century write articles agitating for universal male suffrage. Etc.

4) A number of political radicals in the late 19th and early 20th century write articles agitating for universal female suffrage. etc. Like all the rest, this is considered so outrageous and injurious to the interests of stakeholders that they will never agree to the publication of anything like it.

5) The Civil Rights struggle, etc. etc.

6) Judith Jarvis Thomson tries to get ‘A Defense of Abortion’ published in alternate-universe 1970. But now, under your proposal, the article is first sent to — whom? Opponents of on-demand abortion? What do you think it would take to win them over? Would you be in favor of having her make the revisions to satisfy them?

And on and on.

What problem, exactly, is this meant to solve? Why should we think that philosophy would be better off if, say, Judith Jarvis Thomson had to go through such a process? Far from being an improvement on the present system, this actually sounds like a proposal to make things even worse. What am I missing?Report

KL
KL
2 years ago

I can’t think of a better way to make *acceptable* philosophy ideas less controversial Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
2 years ago

This is a very brave proposal to give people I’m afraid will censor me the power to censor me. I think you should propose in addition that the people I’m afraid will shoot me should be given free rein to walk around my house with guns and the people I’m afraid will set me on fire should be encouraged to follow me around with enormous canisters of gasoline. That’s the only way my fears will ever be assuaged.Report

Bharath Vallabha
2 years ago

Props to Justin and to McMahan, et al for dealing with this issue. Still, possibly both are getting the nature of controversies wrong.

At root it is not ideas which are controversial, but people espousing them. Simplistic example: “Bharath is a bad husband” as an idea is just an idea. I entertain it at times. But if my wife wrote an editorial saying that in the NYT, that would be controversial, for me and all our acquaintances. Those supporting me would be outraged. Not because of the idea as such, but because talking about it in the living room in one thing, for all the world to see is another. The controversy in this case is basically rooted in a sense of a _breach of trust_. Dealing with this is not mainly a matter of how to debate whether Bharath is a bad husband (anonymously or with my parents as stakeholders for my wife’s editorial), but of dealing in a healing way with the rift the editorial speaks to.

To me the take away of both proposals is how out of place the peer review model, the crown jewel of scientific inquiry, is to dealing with controversies, which are mainly rooted in flair ups of emotions on both sides of pain, anger, breach of trust, feeling not in control, etc. To deal with the human dimension of all this we need the opposite of peer review: the genius of individuals. Masterpieces can be authored anonymously or not, but not by paint by numbers.

I get academics need journals for promotions, etc. If these proposals are about that – housekeeping for phil profession – ok. But forget it as a model of speaking to the broader public. The journal model is far removed from how much non-academic discourse happens, especially re controversies.Report

Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
2 years ago

I’m not convinced about the whole “stakeholder” thing either. Three of the main flaws I see in the underlying logic are:
a) I don’t think that one needs to be a member of the group being discussed to be able to recognize what does and does not count as offensive.

b) Certain groups have been throwing the term “offensive” around like so much confetti to essentially silence anything from criticism to just plain curiosity. I have no doubt that some stakeholders would use this opportunity to undermine even serious and honest inquiries that they simply didn’t like.

Most importantly, c) I don’t think that any single member of a group can actually speak for that group as a whole. I have read many articles by women who claim this or that about what women think about this or that, and often I find myself disagreeing. I’m certain the same applies to other groups of people.Report

Tom Cushman
Tom Cushman
2 years ago

Weinberg’s argument is sufficient enough to warrant the existence of The Journal of Controversial Ideas. He is more or less taking it for granted that there would be those ( “stakeholders”, who really are more like ideological guardians) who would be inclined not to want to see certain kinds of papers published ( he uses the word “fear”, which indicates some kind of orthodoxy). So on his logic, he is giving these guardians an advantage over the more heterodox viewpoints.

Let’s use his suggestions on actually existing journals, say, in sociology: for the American Sociological Review, one of the two leading journals in the field, for every paper that is submitted that is supportive of affirmative action, we bring in stakeholders who are critical of it and allow them to decide on the terms of publication, or perhaps squash these submissions entirely. When is that likely to happen? Never. Because orthodoxy does not work that way.

One could even extend this to account for the latent bias toward empiricism in sociology. For every publication submitted with data on affirmative action, pro or con, , we would have to create an ideal Karl Popper stakeholder that would argue in any case where observables were used as proof of argument, the paper ought not to be published, and that authors of such papers should depend more on tradition than facts. One could go on…
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