The Appropriateness of Appropriateness


A journal’s editorial team conditioned the acceptance of an article on the removal of two footnotes they said were “distracting,” its author reports. Distracting how? The author thinks the editors judged the footnotes to be salacious, and thus inappropriate for the journal, though it’s not clear that was their reasoning.

Among the questions the episode raises are: How do norms of appropriateness function in editorial judgments? How ought they?

The journal in this case is Mind, the author is Florence Ashley (University of Alberta), and their article, recently published—sans the footnotes in question—is “What Is It Like to Have a Gender Identity?” Here’s an excerpt from the abstract:

By attending to how people speak about their gender, we can find diverse answers to the question of what it is like to have a gender identity. To some, it is little more than having a body whereas others may report it as more attitudinal or dispositional—seemingly contradictory views. In this paper, I seek to reconcile these disparate answers by developing a theory of how individual gender identity comes about.

And here are the footnotes that, Ashley reports, the editors insisted be removed in order for the paper to be accepted (skip if you’re offended by vulgarity, mentions of surgery, references to genitalia, or puns):

Ashley said in a message that the footnotes were questioned during the peer review stage, adding:

I wrote a substantive defense in my response to reviewers. Eventually, they made it clear that the only thing standing in the way of official acceptance was removing the footnotes and that they wouldn’t publish the paper with them. The official reason was that they were distracting, but it is difficult for me to see it as anything other than prudishness. 

Ashley also expressed a concern that there’s a risk of “stifling” discourse when “what is considered improper is one of the better ways to make a point, which may happen more in subfields relating to gender and sexuality.”

According to Mind‘s editors, Lucy O’Brien (UCL) and Adrian Moore (Oxford), the editorial team has a policy of not publicly commenting on its editorial work in relation to specific papers. It’s a reasonable policy, but what it means is that we do not have their side of the story. So it’s quite possible that salaciousness was not the issue at all. Maybe they were concerned that the lightheartedness of the notes was disrespectful for such a sensitive topic. Maybe they deemed the notes’ relevance to the paper’s central argument too tenuous. Maybe they hate puns. While we may be Mind readers, we are not mind readers, so the bottom line is that we don’t know for sure.

In any event, the point of this post is not to condemn the editors. Even if we assume Ashley is correct in their interpretation of the decision, an editor making judgments in accordance with a sense of appropriateness that differs from the author’s is not necessarily objectionable. Were an editor to, for example, insist as a condition for an article’s publication that an author remove from it a racist joke possibly relevant to but unnecessary for the author’s argument, most of us would think the editor is acting well within their rights.

Better than condemning anyone involved in this would be to getting a grasp of the variety of cases in which something like a moralistic or aesthetic sense of “what is appropriate for this journal” is plausibly the explanation for suggested or required revisions of a manuscript. Does it happen a lot or a little? Is it more or less common in certain subfields of philosophy or on certain topics? Has it happened to you?

Then we might be in a better position to assess under what conditions, and to what extent, such editorial pressure is (or is not)… appropriate.

Warwick University MA in Philosophy
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AOS
AOS
3 months ago

I’m tempted by the view that says: it’s their journal, and they don’t have to publish stuff if they don’t want to. If they start discriminating against sections of the population, that needs fixing. But if they want to cut jokey footnotes or insist on Oxford commas, authors can abide by that or shop elsewhere.

Migration is easy, ain't it?
Migration is easy, ain't it?
Reply to  AOS
3 months ago

I have concerns about the “shop elsewhere” response. The prestige of certain journals along with the difficulty of having anything accepted anywhere makes it extremely costly to give up a publication opportunity. In an ideal world, shopping elsewhere would be easy. But this doesn’t directly translate into it being easy in the world we just happen to live in.

DoubleStandards
DoubleStandards
Reply to  AOS
3 months ago

I mean look, if we take that view seriously, it would mean that journals could also refuse to publish work they found to be racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic if they don’t want to publish such works, but we all know that is an egregious violation of free expression and inquiry.

Journal editors who do not accept such notes are being ‘snowflakes’ who are ‘triggered’ by language they don’t like. Telling authors to go somewhere else is a form of censorship and no-platforming, which goes against the spirit of academic freedom and free speech. If this culture of journals and editors stifling free inquiry and expression continues, we may have no choice but to start a new journal, say, the Journal of Jokey Ideas, as a last bastion of free speech and unfettered inquiry from the joke mob.

Swarm
Swarm
3 months ago

It seems to me that while both footnotes are light-hearted, there is some pretty interesting and important analytical work happening in them too.

Circe
Circe
Reply to  Swarm
2 months ago

Really? They seem entirely irrelevant and treat very serious issues in an entirely glib and non-academic manner.

isn't this normal (not sure if that makes it okay)
isn't this normal (not sure if that makes it okay)
3 months ago

I don’t see a real issue here–I’ve cut vast parts of papers, including politically contentious claims that were important to me (but not absolutely central to the argument of the paper), changed things, etc. for reviewers/editors for all the papers I’ve published. Often a referee objects to things for what I think are silly reasons, and one might push back on some of them, but if the editor says “you have to make this change to publish the paper”, you either make the change or you look elsewhere.

Now, maybe the whole system is broken, but I PROMISE that people’s political commitments etc. are regularly edited out of papers at the review stage and I don’t think that’s censorship (hard to feel bad for someone who got their paper accepted to Mind but just had to get rid of two footnotes they were fond of!).

TakingLivesSeriously
3 months ago

Who doesn’t have a sense of humor, now?

Look, I’m not outraged about anything here. To me, it looks like the editors are having a power trip (they are the editors of Mind after all). Whatever..

But I don’t think the footnotes are like “racist jokes” out of nowhere. The footnotes are expressive and add something to the content.

  • The first one makes a certain kind of experience that is very pervasive (i.e., speaking this way or hearing it) salient to the reader.
  • The second one is more lighthearted, but also makes something quite salient to the reader: Why do you think you know so well whether a certain kind of body is sexually desirable?

Also, I find Justin’s insistence that we don’t know the *real* reason behind the editor’s decision bizarre. The author says that was the official reason. Why can’t we trust the author on this?

TakingLivesSeriously
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 months ago

fair enough!

Meme
Meme
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
3 months ago

Those power-tripping editors at Mind wouldn’t even print the word ‘cuntsmithing’! Literally 1984!

SCM
SCM
3 months ago

The most objectionable thing here, to my mind, is the use of the abbreviated “’til” when the perfectly good English word “till” would work. But that’s not really something that I think the editors should have been too fussy about.

The first footnote also de-emphasises what seems to be the important point, which is that the terminology used de-emphasises gender, which is quite interesting, rather than that the author happens to admire the neologisms. But that’s entirely something for the author alone to decide.

Jennifer Saul
Jennifer Saul
3 months ago

I had a referee say that the title of this paper was “unnecessarily titillating”. But I got to keep the title: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3810991

Mohan Matthen
Mohan Matthen
Reply to  Jennifer Saul
3 months ago

Really? I don’t understand the ‘unnecessarily’ since the last word of the title named an object that figures prominently in the paper. I do kind of agree about ‘titillating’ though, since I doubt that I would have read the paper, even as casually as I did, if that last word had not been in the subtitle.

CLL
CLL
Reply to  Jennifer Saul
3 months ago

And it is a great paper! It was assigned in my first grad seminar, and I think everyone was particularly eager to do the reading for that class. We came for the title, but we stayed for the interesting history and top notch analytic feminism.

Sex sells, even in philosophy. Perhaps the editors of Mind are uncomfortable with discussion that distracts us with frank reference to human physicality, and we need a new prestige journal called Body.

SCM
SCM
Reply to  CLL
3 months ago

Perhaps the editors of Mind are uncomfortable with discussion that distracts us with frank reference to human physicality, and we need a new prestige journal called Body.

This may sound like a good idea, but I think the relation between the two journals would be a big problem.

Matt L
Reply to  SCM
3 months ago

but I think the relation between the two journals would be a big problem.

Perhaps they can share a small office, and call it the “peneal gland”.

Mohan Matthen
Mohan Matthen
3 months ago

Haven’t read the article, obviously, but on the face of it, deleted footnote 6 has essential content.

By the way, is it an option to have footnotes like this “The text of this footnote has been deleted at the direction of the Editors of this journal. Please see the pre-publication version on the author’s website.”?

In any case, the self-archived version should include the deleted footnotes, with a note that they were edited out of the published version.

Hermias
Hermias
3 months ago

Three adjacent thoughts:
(1) Regarding ‘lewd/rude’ content, though I personally don’t mind it, I can appreciate that a consider number of people just don’t like it, that some people are prudes. By analogy, I don’t want to see random people’s genitals when I walk down the street, likewise some people don’t want to be assaulted by “cuntsmith” at 8:30am when they’re just trying to drink a nice cup of tea and elevate their nous. Let’s accommodate.

(2) When I was an undergraduate I liked to include hilarious puns and allusions (“let’s look at this through the LENSES of Spinoza’s philosophy. LENSES. GET IT?!?!?!”). Stuff like this is often too idiosyncratic and confusing, but this aside, it gives the impression that in writing you are trying to amuse (yourself) rather than communicate something important.

(3) I wear a button-down shirt and nice shoes when I teach. Likewise, I don’t write essays in a very casual, conversational, colloquial style. In both cases, it’s because I want to be taken seriously. It’s worth doing, even though in both cases this is due to biases/arbitrary conventions.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Hermias
2 months ago

In this sense it’s also related to an issue that came up last week, about making journal articles accessible to non-native English speakers. Making too much of the article depend on un-explained use of regional slang can make this difficult! (Though one footnote should probably be a fine amount, especially if it helps explain the slang.)

Elizabeth Finneron-Burns
3 months ago

I think the footnotes include interesting philosophical content, but could be just as easily expressed without the ‘lewdness’ or gratuitous vulgarity.

Footnote 1 could have included the last sentence (an interesting observation) alongside two or three examples of the phenomenon which were less vulgar (e.g., topcrop, junk removal, etc.). Footnote 6 could just delete the second sentence and be completely unobjectionable.

I’m not taking a position on whether the footnotes were offensive or not (I personally find them a bit crass, but I don’t know whether that’s a reason to remove them or not). My point is just that making some small edits could have got the philosophical points of the footnotes across and assuaged the editors’ concerns, so I wonder why the route wasn’t taken.

V. Alan White
Reply to  Elizabeth Finneron-Burns
3 months ago

This makes so much sense to me. Media venues generally have some parameters of what they consider would be “unseemly”–and the spectrum is very colorful indeed from most liberal to most conservative, and context is everything here. So Mind I’d think would have a rather narrow contextual sense of what’s considered “unseemly”. Elizabeth’s (if I may) comment is right on target in this particular context.

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
3 months ago

I recently had a similar experience with a paper on a closely related topic. I was asked to make two changes. The first was substantive, the second concerning “tone.” One concern regarding tone was that in places my writing was too aggressive (an example was that I had written in one place that “this argument fails”), in other places written things that were possibly “entertaining” to some but “distracting” to others, and that, generally, the paper should be not so oppositional and show respect and care for the opposing side.

I made the changes, not only because I wanted to see the paper in print, but because different journals have different audiences, stylistic expectations, etc. Whereas the journal to which I submitted my paper (not a philosophy journal but one publishing on topics that overlap with philosophy) may find “this argument fails” to be too aggressive or dismissive for their readership, Mind’s “brand” may be inconsistent with the appearance of “cuntsmithing” or lighthearted comments about trying castration. Different strokes for different journals, I suppose.

Meme
Meme
3 months ago

Perhaps the editors found the footnotes distracting because they come across as intentionally edgy (i.e., as mainly trying to trigger prudes). It seems reasonable for a professional journal to want to avoid that kind of thing.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Meme
3 months ago

I doubt that the main objective was to trigger prudes. How does “Don’t knock it ’til you try it” in relation to castration trigger a prude?

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Kaila Draper
3 months ago

If you can’t see how that might offend a prude, then I don’t think I can convince you otherwise. That said, you can swap “prude” with “a modest or more conservative person,” to similar effect.

At the same time, I think that the castration footnote differs from the neologism footnote. I found the former both relevant and witty. The latter, however, just seems excessive in a way which suggests in favor of my hunch (e.g., the same point could have been made with just two or three neologisms).

Anyway, my main suggestion is that sometimes people react negatively to this sort of writing because, frankly, it’s cringey—not because they’re prudes. And perhaps that’s how the editors read it, intended or otherwise.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Meme
3 months ago

I suppose that in theory someone could be so prudish that the mere (lighthearted?) mention of castration triggers them. But my main suggestion is that that note certainly doesn’t suggest that the author was trying to trigger prudes. You seem to agree.

I don’t know what the motivation for the other note was. Obviously, academics and academic writing can be really stodgy and uptight and excessively formal, and so she might have been trying to break through some of that just for fun. Who knows? Anyways, I didn’t find it cringey. And the length of the list of neologisms is part of what makes it funny. So, I didn’t find it excessive either.

cecul burrow
cecul burrow
Reply to  Kaila Draper
2 months ago

> I suppose that in theory someone could be so prudish that the mere (lighthearted?) mention of castration triggers them.

The footnote does a little more than mention castration.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  cecul burrow
2 months ago

The footnote jokingly recommends castration. That’s it. Only the Platonic Form of the Prude would be triggered.

newly tt
newly tt
Reply to  Meme
3 months ago

I probably don’t think this is grounds for editorial intervention, unless editors across the discipline are about to start insisting on style, but I agree that the castration footnotes is relevant and witty and the neologism footnote tries too hard. This is the sense in which it’s distracting for me.

However, I’m pretty sure if there were citations attached to some of those terms, I’d think the neologism footnote were funny in a 2nd tier New Yorker cartoon way, which is pretty good for a philosophy article.

Henry Lara-Steidel
Henry Lara-Steidel
3 months ago

Pity. I think they were good notes.

Billy
3 months ago

I had a history professor in college from whom I took a senior seminar on American Indian history in the 1800’s. He used to complain about some of the historians we read in that class who used shock value in their writing when describing battles. Some authors seemed to delight in providing lengthy, detailed descriptions of different kinds of torture, different killing processes, scalping, the cutting off of dead white settlers’ penises and shoving them in their mouths, and cannibalism. I don’t think my professor’s opposition to this kind of thing had anything to do with prudishness, or etiquette, or propriety, and he was fine with brief descriptions of violence and brutality. It was simply the going on and on that he found objectionable. Why? I think the reason is that he viewed it as an attempt on the part of these authors to cover over a lack of substance in their articles.

Now, in this case, the Mind editors obviously think that the article in question has good substance. But perhaps when they say that footnote 1, with its long list, is distracting, they are worried about readers who would view this long list as an attempt on the part of the author to provide shock value that is itself a gloss for a lack of substance in the article (i.e., the editors are trying to ensure that these readers do not mistakenly infer from footnote 1 that the article lacks substance). Obviously, I’m speculating in saying all of this. I don’t actually know what the editors are thinking. And I’m also not touching on footnote 6, which doesn’t seem quite the same. But still, this hypothesis seems worth mentioning.

Georgi
3 months ago

Editorial decision-making about edgy content is a huge theme in my life at the moment.

I am editing the *Philosophy of Sexual Violence* (Routledge, 2024), and we are including art, poetry, photos, personal reflection pieces, etc., alongside normal essays. Themes include porn, BDSM, grooming, and rape.

I contacted sex workers, BDSM professionals, sex witches, sexual violence counsellors, etc., and encouraged them to send work for consideration.

This all seems important and valuable given the theme of the book.

And so I am receiving materials that are erotic, graphically sexual, or are heart wrenching descriptions of sexual violence. There is edgy zine-style content, and (I think) personal reflections that spiral, which is characteristic of trauma.

I am very happy about the submissions.

But now I face the questions about which submissions to publish, and why, and how to frame it all in the book.

***
Sexual violence is utterly shocking. It is also everywhere.

Wrestling with that tension is one of the themes in the book. So the content will shock readers. Because, for example, an author was gang raped at 17, on campus, whilst pursuing her philosophy degree. And she mentions this in her essay.

And so one might not assign it for students in class, because it is shocking. But those same students who we protect from *reading* that sentence are also *experiencing and committing* the same violence at their own frat parties on campus today.

I don’t have any answers. I am just wading in these waters

***
Here is the CFP:

AVK
AVK
3 months ago

“While we may be Mind readers, we are not mind readers, so the bottom line is that we don’t know for sure.”

Brilliant.

Louis Zapst
Louis Zapst
3 months ago

The official reason for demanding that the footnotes be deleted was that they are distracting. The fact that this merits our attention and 28 comments (so far) in the case of these particular footnotes supports the judgment that they are distracting. If a journal demanded that some anodyne footnotes be removed, say for being irrelevant or unclear, that would not attract any attention.

JENewman
JENewman
2 months ago

I don’t get it. In very broad terms Community decides what’s appropriate. Next step down Mind gets to decide what’s appropriate for their yard. They own the yard, they can make any rules they desire, save that the rule falls outside of Communities rules.

If the author doesn’t want to play by those rules they’re free to go elsewhere. If the author feels like Mind is playing outside of Community rules they’re free to test that theory by attempting to correct them. (Legal suit.)

Mass opinion might sway Mind’s thoughts as to what rules they should be making, but only on a large scale. Not quickly enough to do this particular author any good.