A Journal’s Different Standards for White Male Authors*


Suppose you’re the editor-in-chief of an academic philosophy journal that employs double-anonymized peer review. The reports on a manuscript are in, and you’re deciding whether to accept the piece for publication. Should the race or sex of the author make a difference to the criteria you bring to this decision?

According to Matthew James (St. Mary’s University, London), editor-in-chief of The New Bioethics, the answer to this question is yes.

He says, in an email to a white, male author whose paper he’s rejecting:

In cases [in which] white authors write about racial inequalities, or when male authors write about women’s rights, this needs to be done with a considerable degree of circumspection, humility, and sensitivity.

Some readers will no doubt observe that the the foregoing is logically compatible with the quite reasonable view that all authors, regardless of race or sex, should write about the topics in question with “circumspection, humility, and sensitivity”. But the implicature is clearly that the degree to which white male authors should do so is especially “considerable,” compared to authors who are neither male nor white. That is, James appears to be saying that editors of academic journals ought to hold papers on these topics by white males to a higher standard in regard to circumspection, humility, and sensitivity, when making decisions about whether to publish them.

The author to whom Professor James wrote was Perry Hendricks. Hendricks’ paper, “Abortion Restrictions are Good for Black Women”, had been accepted by the journal for a special issue, but then after some complaints about the paper on social media back in March, the acceptance was put “on hold”. A spokesperson from Taylor and Francis, the publisher of The New Bioethics, responded to an inquiry about the decision at the time with the following:

I can confirm that the article ‘Abortion restrictions are good for black women’ was put on hold after several complaints were raised. This is standard procedure for articles that are not yet published. A review of the editorial handling of this article found that it had been accepted for publication by the Special Issue Guest Editor. However, the policies in place at The New Bioethics require that the Editor-in-Chief, and not the Special Issue Guest Editor, must be assigned all articles for final approval before any acceptance decision.[**] The Editor-in-Chief is now conducting this final review.

The email from Professor James was conveying the results of that “final review.”

excerpt from an email from Matthew James to Perry Hendricks

Now you might think:

(a) Of course the degree of circumspection, humility, and sensitivity with which white men should approach questions about racial and sexual inequalities is especially high.

(b) It’s only fair that white men are—finally!—being asked to be careful with how they talk about others, after centuries of “others” having to be careful about how they talk about white men.

(c) People’s racial and sexual identities may confer epistemic advantage (or disadvantage) on some matters.

(d) That paper should never have been accepted in the first place.

But those considerations do not by themselves settle the question of whether the race or sex of the author should make a difference to the criteria editors of peer-reviewed journals should employ in deciding whether to accept or reject a manuscript. You could agree with a, b, c, and d and still think editors should not be employing different standards for authors based on their race or sex.

It’s also not enough to imagine some odd cases in which it would be morally better to employ these kinds of differing standards. The question is whether having an editorial policy of doing so would be a good idea.

Here are some reasons to think such a policy wouldn’t be a good idea:

  1. The policy conflicts with other policies we endorse. For example, we might think that the following is a good policy: “Journal editors should give unbiased consideration to each manuscript submitted for publication. They should judge each on its merits, without regard to race, religion, nationality, sex, seniority, or institutional affiliation of the author(s).” This policy, which is actually listed among the “ethical guidelines for journal editors” on the Taylor & Francis webpage, is incompatible with a policy that asks editors to deploy different criteria to papers depending on the race and sex of the author(s).
  2. The policy encourages editors to invade the privacy of authors, especially those who are already vulnerable because of, say, racism or transphobia.
  3. The policy does not seem compatible with triple-anonymous review which many people uphold as a good editorial practice.
  4. There’s already a fair amount of “subjectivity” in the editorial process. Some is unavoidable, but do we want to add more, particularly on questions like whether the degree of circumspection an author displays is morally acceptable, given their sex or race? Do we want editors mulling over matters like, “sure, if this paper were written by a black man, it would meet the requirement of adequate humility, but it was written by a Vietnamese woman, so…?”

Discussion welcome. Please observe the comments policy.


* Yes, I realize how this headline sounds. But it’s the same old me, I swear: the guy who has defended diversity, promoted diversity initiatives, discussed the troubling lack of diversity in philosophy, etc., here at Daily Nous lo these many years.

** Neither Professor James nor Taylor and Francis ever answered a follow-up question I sent them in March about how many other articles in the issue had been subject to this procedural mishap.

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Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
1 month ago

Purely prudentially and bracketing the merits, I’m amazed the editor thought, yes, this is the email I should send.

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 month ago

I would think this was the only face-saving rationale for rejection they could come up with.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  sahpa
1 month ago

They could have written the same email without any reference to the author’s identity and simply insisted on “circumspection, humility, and sensitivity”, and said the article fell short in that regard (irrespective of the author’s race or gender). This probably would have let them save face. And yet that’s the email they chose to send!

On the Market Too
On the Market Too
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 month ago

Precisely because it wasn’t prudential, the editor deserves credit for being honest. It certainly would have been easier for him to have such a policy, de facto, and deny it. The normalization of “noble corruption” regarding race/gender/identity considerations is unfortunate.

Sampath
1 month ago

Partus sequitur ventrem, all the way down.

Wm. Brennan
Wm. Brennan
1 month ago

Before you consider whether a race/sex (or gender?)/identity policy is wise, I think you would have to consider what such a policy implies for implementation and enforcement from a practical standpoint. In order to treat identities differently, I think you would have to categorize each submitting author by their identity. To use race as an example, a journal would presumably have to start by deciding what “races” exist (does Hispanic count? Can someone be raceless?).

Agreeing on approved racial categories seems like a project by itself, but you would presumably have to then figure out which races are humility-advantaged with regard to which topics.

Once races and topical racial affinities are established, the journal would then seemingly have to either (1) allow everyone to self-identify into approved categories (which would seem to negate the policy); (2) delegate full discretion to an editor to categorize people by race; or (3) limit editor discretion by establishing, and presumably publishing, standards to explain to authors how the journal distinguishes between the journal-recognized races.

All of this seems rather fraught, but further complication are easy to imagine: e.g., what is the journal’s policy on trans-racialism? How much of an article has to be on the “wrong” topic to trigger a humility review? Can co-authors of a humility-advantaged race offset multiple co-authors of the wrong race? And last but not least for me (disclosure: I’m an interloping lawyer, not a philosopher), for many identities, these policies could plausibly be illegal in the U.S., so is your journal willing to engage in efforts to either disguise its conduct or regularly hire counsel to review the policies (including amendments) and their application?

Rinse and repeat for every personal identity characteristic that a journal wants to advantage.

J. Bogart
Reply to  Wm. Brennan
1 month ago

As a lawyer my response ran along the same lines, but I am not so sure anymore that the policy would be illegal. It is not an employment context, or common carrier or consumer service. Does the journal receive government support? I did not practice in anti-discrimination law so my point is pretty tentative.

Andrew Lavin
Andrew Lavin
Reply to  Wm. Brennan
1 month ago

This may be a mere quibble, or it may be more deeply important, but talking of this policy as “advantaging” or even “disadvantaging” identity groups or people or the like seems way off the mark.

Animal Symbolicum
1 month ago

Because, as we’ve all learned, the best way to fight institutionalized injustice is with more institutionalized injustice.

full picture
full picture
1 month ago

“This manuscript falls short in that regard for the reasons identified in the reviewers’ feedback, which I copy below.”

Is the author willing to share the reviewers’ feedback? I think it would be helpful to better understand, substantively, what this policy amounted to in this particular case.

full picture
full picture
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
1 month ago

Without seeing how these criteria were applied, or knowing anything else substantive about the paper, we are simply left with the editorial policy, as stated, which is that, “when white authors write about racial inequities, this needs to be done with a considerable degree of circumspection.” No one has disagreed with this policy. It is only our imagination of what this policy means–an imagination that we do not see any concrete evidence of–that seems objectionable.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  full picture
1 month ago

Does no-one disagree with this policy? If so, happy to be the first: it is clearly in conflict* with a principle of treating submissions without regard to protected characteristics of their authors, which I think is a good principle (and which is also an officially stated principle of this journal.)

*well, ‘clearly’ if we accept that it conversationally implicates that the degree of circumspection required by non-white authors is different, which I think is pretty clear.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

I also disagree with the policy. That it will keep us from applying more stringent standards to people like Hendricks seems like a cost worth paying for overall fairer reviewing procedures. Trade offs! It’s like the previous discussion of tenure and racist bad apples.

full picture
full picture
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 month ago

does anyone disagree with the policy, “when anyone writes about racial inequities, this needs to be done with a considerable degree of circumspection.”

That’s the policy referred in my above comment.

I get that, when people think the policy requires more of white men than others, then people have a lot of feelings about that.

Last edited 1 month ago by full picture
Chris
Chris
Reply to  full picture
1 month ago

this time you left out “white”. One might think that makes a difference, and that’s what makes the policy objectionable. If the policy were simply “when anyone writes about race…” that would be a different story.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  full picture
1 month ago

That is not the stated policy, either in the editor’s note or in your previous statement of it, above. The stated policy is “when white authors write about racial inequities, this needs to be done with a considerable degree of circumspection” (my emphasis).

If I rejected a philosophy of physics paper submitted by a woman and noted in my letter to the author that “when women deploy technical mathematical machinery, this needs to be done with considerable care to avoid technical errors”, it would screamingly violate a no-regard-for-sex policy, and I couldn’t possibly excuse it by saying that it was just an example of the general policy that when anyone deploys technical mathematical machinery, this needs to be done with considerable care to avoid technical errors.

a grad student
a grad student
Reply to  full picture
30 days ago

I don’t think this is imagination. It’s simply interpreting a statement the way we interpret statements all the time. If someone says “men should be brave and independent”, this is compatible with (entailed by, in fact) “everyone should be brave and independent”. However, we will take the speaker of the original statement to say something about the norms for men in particular. Why else mention “men”? The same goes for “when white authors write about racial inequities, this needs to be done with a considerable degree of circumspection”. Why mention race if this is the same for everyone? I can think of three ways the author’s race may be relevant:

(1) Every paper should show the same minimum degree of circumspection. This can be assessed without knowing who the author is (with room for reasonable disagreement). As a matter of fact, however, it takes more effort for whites to write a paper that shows this minimum degree.

(2) Every paper should show the same minimum degree of circumspection. However, this cannot be assessed without knowing who the author is. A word-for-word identical paper may show less circumspection if it is written by someone white than if it’s written by a person of colour. This might resemble using slurs. If somebody who belongs to the target group of a slur uses that slur, plausibly, this is simply a different kind of speech act than if somebody else does it. It doesn’t show lack of circumspection in the same way even if it is a word-for-word identical utterance.

(3) Papers on certain topics must show a higher minimum degree of circumspection if the author is white than if they are a person of colour.

(2) and (3) may only differ verbally, depending on how much sense we can make of “the same degree of circumspection”. None of these claims is, I believe, absurd.

I think there is good reason to assume the editor intended something stronger than (1). If they intended only (1), then mentioning the author’s race would not directly be a way to justify the rejection. Rather, it would be a way of giving additional causal explanation for why the paper might have lacked the requisite degree of circumspection. This is rather ancillary to the purpose of the email. Why risk serious misunderstanding for this point?

As I said, I don’t think (2) and (3) are absurd at all. But they merit substantial discussion. If we accept them, they seem to call for a fundamental overhaul of how at least some papers are reviewed, i.e. the end of double blind review.

Louis
Louis
Reply to  a grad student
30 days ago

If someone is writing a paper about slurs, then we need a general policy about the mention of slurs in academic papers that applies to EVERYONE.

For example, we might decide that the slur should be mentioned on its first use and then abbreviated or disguised thereafter.

If I mention the word “kike” in ordinary conversation, then it conveys one thing if I am Jewish, and another thing if I am not.

However, in academic discourse, we should have single policy and ignore the identity of the author.

Of course, an author builds up a reputation over time, and if an author is mentioning slurs in their papers in an inappropriate way (that nonetheless does not violate whatever policy we collectively adopt) then they might rightfully acquire a negative academic reputation.

The point is that once we have adopted a general policy that applies to everyone we should not be policing people’s identities at the entrance to journal publication.

a grad student
a grad student
Reply to  Louis
30 days ago

I tend to agree with you. I just mention slurs as an analogy here to make the point that it’s not absurd to think that the identity of an author/speaker matters as to how to assess a linguistic act. I also think we should stick with blind review and identity-blind policies. The downsides with giving them up are just too great. But, I believe there is a genuine trade-off here.

SCM
SCM
1 month ago

I’m finding this sitcom to be really very formulaic. It’s poorly written, the punchlines aren’t funny, and overall it’s just really badly conceived. I don’t even know how the pilot episode was greenlighted. Banality is a poor substitute for absurdism.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  SCM
1 month ago

The Tuvel season went viral and got sky-high viewing figures; studios can’t resist trying to milk audiences through sequels when that happens, even if the artistic merit is lacking.

John Luck
John Luck
1 month ago

Unless the article is making a case that depends on the author’s lived experience or subjective perceptions of what it’s like to be a particular identity that he or she does not share, considerations of the author’s identity should never come into play. Suppose Hendricks were a black female and submitted the exact same manuscript to The New Bioethics. Is the editor seriously saying that the switch in identity now makes the manuscript acceptable?

I long to see in my lifetime a journal editor with the balls to tell such complainers, “If you disagree with the article’s content, then write a rebuttable and will we consider it. But this piece you’re complaining about went through double-blind peer review. For me now to rescind the piece because of political pressure and lobbying would be to engage in an injustice, to ignore the fair processes and procedures that were put in place precisely so that considerations not relevant to an article’s quality are not consulted. You are, in a sense, asking me to exercise power to set aside fairness for the sake of a political end. If you can’t see why such a move is deleterious to the life of the mind and the pursuit of truth, you should probably find another line of work.”

full picture
full picture
Reply to  John Luck
1 month ago

I think these claims would be easier to evaluate if we saw reviewers’ feedback. After all, it is in those comments that the “reasons” are “identified” as to how the manuscript “falls short.”

Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Among the countless problems for the proposal:

It is nearly always a matter of arbitrary taxonomic judgment which characteristics should be deemed to give one a special epistemic advantage.

For instance, suppose an article with the same title of this post is submitted to a journal. If the writer is not a white male author, does that mean that he or she is apt to lack the relevant subjective expertise, and hence that the article should be scrutinized more carefully by the editors? Or is it the other way around? If an article has to do with whether men should have a say in abortion decisions, and another article has to do with whether women should be free to decide the matter without any men having a say, would the standards be different because one title primes the reader to see things from a stereotypically male perspective and the other primes one to see things from a stereotypically female perspective, even though they could be exactly the same article?

Yes, one could have a simple heuristic to handle such questions, such as “On any topic having to do with race, whichever race is the most oppressed among those discussed should be seen as having the default epistemic advantage.” But that is obviously question-begging.

full picture
full picture
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

I’ll just say this one more time. The policy, as stated, is simply that, when white authors write about racial inequalities, this needs to be done with sensitivity. If there’s any evidence, in the reviewer comments or otherwise, that indicates that the author here was held to a higher standard than others because he is a white male, I would like to see it. Otherwise, we are simply projecting our objections onto an actually nonexistent policy.

Chris
Chris
Reply to  full picture
1 month ago

I’ll just respond once more: Does this mean their policy is NOT “when black authors write about racial inequalities…”? What if I get the latest rant from Clarence Thomas about racial inequalities, etc?

ECD
ECD
Reply to  full picture
30 days ago

Isn’t this just the ‘All Lives Matter’ defense? Do you agree there?

Mohan Matthen
1 month ago

I can’t help but think that a lot of the awkwardness here just arises from the anonymity of the reviewing process.

Most people would agree that in a face-to-face situation–a social gathering, for example–certain statements are innocuous coming from a woman or from a person of colour or from a person of a certain nationality, but objectionable coming from someone else. (An example without too much sting these days: If I said, in these words, “Indians had much to learn about judicial impartiality from the English” it would be judged differently–and indeed it might even mean something different–than if Niall Ferguson said exactly the same thing in the same words. NF could say something like this, but he would have to phrase it differently. Which, by the way, he tends not to.)

Now what happens a statement like the title of this paper–“Abortion restrictions are good for black women”–appears in a paper which has been anonymized? The referee might feel a bit uncomfortable reading it–it is very in your face. But s/he can’t say: “This would have to be rephrased if the author is not a black woman.” (Or maybe s/he can–I don’t know.) But once the paper has been de-anonymized, then the inappropriate amount of “circumspection, humility, and sensitivity” becomes clearer; indeed, it smacks you in the face.

Maybe there were better ways to handle this. EIC could have said: this statement really needs to be rephrased if author is not a black woman. (Ugh!) But not every attempt to be delicate is automatically to be dismissed as mealy-mouthed PC-ness. My point is simply that since the same statement can have different pragmatic/performative value in the mouths of people from different ethnicities, races, nationalities, and genders, the decision isn’t quite as objectionable, or not objectionable on quite the same grounds, as Justin (and others more judgemental) are making it out to be.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
1 month ago

Interesting, Mohan. I agree that, in a face-to-face social gathering especially, one would expect the comment “Indians had much to learn about judicial impartiality from the English” to be treated differently if the speaker were of British or Indian ancestry. However, consider how, in the same environment, a comment that went the other way would be received: for instance, “It was the English who ended up learning more from the Indians, as English culture (and western culture more generally) was spiritually impoverished due to its arrogance and its worsening drift into a shallow, individualistic liberalism.” I think a comment like the latter would be happily nodded along to at most social gatherings of academics and progressives today, whether the speaker was Indian or British.

The advisability of making such comments at social gatherings seems to depend in part on the cultural mood (e.g. professing a belief in the superiority of western civilization would get one a reputation as a jerk in the UK or the US today, but it would have done no such thing two hundred years ago), and in part on the norms surrounding ad hominem and inverse ad hominem claims where no argument is given (we expect people to be biased in their own favor, so a speaker’s claim is ceteris paribus more credible when it is critical of the speaker than when it flatters the speaker).

But is there a reason why we should want those same heuristics to apply in a peer-reviewed academic discussion? It seems to me that such a discussion should aim at objectivity. We should judge the arguments and evidence presented on their own merits, and they should be presented in a way that makes them stand or fall on their own. And the constraints of comments in a social gathering, where there are reasons to ensure that everyone remains happy and nothing is said that might make anyone feel uncomfortable, don’t fit very well with an enterprise like an academic journal, where the point is to seek the truth.

Mohan Matthen
Reply to  Justin Kalef
28 days ago

Sorry, Justin, for the delayed response. I wasn’t following over the weekend, and it’s probably too late now to respond.

Anyway: I disagree with you a little bit about how the Indian who said “Western culture is spiritually impoverished . . . etc.” would be taken. I don’t think that even today this comment would be happily nodded along in most at most gatherings. Assuming that the sentence was uttered without argument, I think people would smile behind their hands and patronize the speaker subsequently.

I agree with you that in peer-reviewed academic discussion we should aim for objectivity and the truth. But are you saying (a) that if an Englishman wrote the offending sentence in print, it would mean the same thing, but be judgeable objectively, or (b) that in that context it would have an objective meaning? I find both implausible. But maybe I am missing something.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
28 days ago

Thanks for your reply, Mohan. I must admit that I don’t understand the point you repeat at the end. An Englishman and an Indian, at a social gathering, utter the sentence, “Indians had much to learn about judicial impartiality from the English.” Or perhaps one of them utters the sentence and the other says, “Yes, I agree.”

What two different things would you take the Englishman and the Indian to mean by their utterances?

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Kalef
28 days ago

(Or, if you prefer, both people could write an identical article containing that statement.)

Mohan Matthen
Reply to  Justin Kalef
28 days ago

I don’t necessarily think that there is a semantic difference, though I am open to that suggestion. I do think, however, that there is a performative difference–a difference, that is, in what is being done with the words. When the Englishman utters the words, he would naturally be taken as speaking de haut en bas–something the English are less prone to do these days–or English-splaining, if I may coin an ugly neologism. If the Indian said it, he would be taken to be making a excessive display of objectivity, hence probably being sarcastic.

Both attitudes are acceptable in polite society; EICs wouldn’t have to rush in. It is perhaps a little different with the title that we are discussing from the original post.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
27 days ago

Perhaps, but I also want to leave room for some Indians to exhibit a genuine desire to approach the question objectively, and I have also seen several British and Americans take for granted that they and their audience must automatically condemn the history of colonialism.

It seems best to me if writers of journal articles either make their meaning clear to readers who don’t know anything about them, or at least cultivate a style or reputation that allows readers to judge when they wish their readers to interpret them literally. It just seems much worse to me if the only way a reader can have a fair chance of understanding the arguments made in an article is by learning the race of the author and assuming that the author will conform to some racial stereotypes. But that’s just me.

Kaisersaschern
Kaisersaschern
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
1 month ago

The performative value of politically-charged claims obviously shifts depending on speaker identity, and I agree that the situation the EIC found himself in reflects such a shift: the journal has discovered that claims it formerly found appropriate now look inappropriate (at least to their critics) because the author is a white man.

But I would have thought that effacing differences in performative value is a feature and not a bug of blind review. This is because we are supposedly trying to figure out what is true on the questions that interest us. The differences in performative value of the claims of researchers tend to distract from that. This is in no small degree because the appraisal of such differences is inflected by contingent political circumstances that we have reason to suspect can mislead individual judges. 

In short, we should not be applying the discourse standards of a social gathering in research contexts because (inter alia!) such standards are not truth-sensitive.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Kaisersaschern
1 month ago

“But I would have thought that effacing differences in performative value is a feature and not a bug of blind review.”

Exactly.

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
30 days ago

or, and I know this is radical, we might realize the paper title for what it is – attention grabbing stunt, and actually go focus on the paper’s claims and arguments.

David Wallace
David Wallace
1 month ago

Put aside the first-order ethics of the case (which strike me as pretty obvious, and ably covered in Justin’s original post).

As Justin also notes, the stated reasons for the rejection are in clear and explicit violation of Taylor and Francis’s ‘ethical guidelines for journal editors’, and hence of the Taylor and Francis editorial Code of Conduct to which Professor James is committed by virtue of being an editor for a T&F journal. (I don’t think there is really room for disagreement here. The policy states that judgements should be ‘without regard to race … [or] sex … of the author’, which entails that the reasons given for rejection would make equal sense had the author not been a white man; obviously that’s not the case.)

Were I in Perry Hendricks’ position, I would be pointing this out urgently in an appeal to the editor in chief, and assuming that went nowhere, would be complaining direct to the publisher. A code of conduct violations of which are not addressed is no code of conduct at all.

full picture
full picture
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Were I in the author’s position, I would take some time to reflect upon whether my paper was written with the degree of circumspection, humility, and sensitivity that the topic deserves. I would do this in light of the reviewers’ comments and the feedback of others who were willing to share.

Last edited 1 month ago by full picture
DoubleA
DoubleA
Reply to  full picture
1 month ago

Maybe you should bleat about the lack of reviewed comments for a few dozen more posts to see if that makes them appear

full picture
full picture
Reply to  DoubleA
1 month ago

I genuinely meant to communicate that, were I to be told that I lacked the appropriate amount of sensitivity to issues of racial justice, I would take time to reflect upon whether that was true. I genuinely hope we would all do the same.

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  full picture
30 days ago

Do you take time to reflect upon any criticism of your stance, or only those related to racial justice?

Bad Arguer
Bad Arguer
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

I’m not sure how much more Hendricks can do. The editor is now publicly committed to retracting the acceptance. In his words, the problem with the paper are so serious that revision is not even an option. By reversing this second decision and reverting to the original decision to accept, he would be admitting everything people here have strongly suspected about this process. The only thing to hope for now is that someone above James overrules him, though I doubt this happens.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Bad Arguer
1 month ago

I think he has a rather clear case to T&F that one of their editors is violating their code of conduct. He might as well find out if they’re willing to enforce it.

Mahmoud Jalloh
Mahmoud Jalloh
1 month ago

Shameful behavior by the editor.

Louis
Louis
Reply to  Mahmoud Jalloh
1 month ago

Indeed!

Louis
Louis
1 month ago

Seeing the editor an an academic journal grovel and kowtow before a mob of puritanical progressives is a sad and pathetic sight indeed.

It is also a bit chilling.

The whole affair is a storm in a teacup. There is not much to discuss here. If the paper passed blind review, then it should be published, as per the journal’s policy. If it’s a bad paper, then it should be excoriated in published critical reviews, or if it is not worth the ink, then simply let it disappear into to the fog of academic obscurity.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Louis
30 days ago

But what seems to need special attention here is not the paper itself, but the editorial practices and attitudes that have been revealed. It seems that a mechanism that works (de facto) as a thumb on the scale of ideological neutrality has been revealed, and that needs to be dealt with regardless of what we do with the paper.

Curious
Curious
30 days ago

I get the impression that much of the pushback against actions like this editor’s letter has to do with the recognition that such responses create more problems than the standard blind peer review process.

That seems reasonable, but I am curious whether there is any data available regarding that process itself and the possibility of bias that exists in the process (within the discipline of philosophy)?

A brief internet search didn’t yield much for me, though I noticed that some disciplines (i.e., psychology) have studied the ways that implicit racial bias may exist in the peer review process.

Basically, what I’m asking is, what do we know about our peer reviewers? If, for instance, it turns out that 75% of reviewers in a particular area are white men, that could make a difference as to what papers are accepted, even given blind peer review.

Just wondering if the data exists and where it might be.

Kaisersaschern
Kaisersaschern
Reply to  Curious
30 days ago

Let me register (as you do not deny—but just to mark the position explicitly) that at least some of the pushback against editorial actions like these goes well beyond an analysis of tradeoffs and the claim that blind review is better, all things considered. A central objection against such actions holds them to be unjust in principle because they treat research differently on the basis of the race (or whatever) of the researcher. There’s a longstanding view that doing that kind of thing is bad.

I suppose the suggestion is that blind review might somehow do this too. Worst case, we might then be dealing with two counterbalancing injustices, in which case it might seem reasonable to treat this as a matter of tradeoffs. But that premise either reveals telepathic powers among reviewers which I myself do not possess or involves simple errors in its conceptualization.

Curious
Curious
Reply to  Kaisersaschern
29 days ago

Sorry, I’m not sure what ‘simple errors in its conceptualization’ you are referring to?

Last edited 29 days ago by Curious
Kaisersaschern
Kaisersaschern
Reply to  Curious
29 days ago

The premise I claimed involved an error in conceptualization is that blind review can involve treating researchers’ work differently on the basis of their race (etc.). If it turns out that is true, I predict widespread agreement that blind review can involve an injustice, perhaps even reaching the same level of badness as this editor’s decision. (This might sound like an empty appeal to the majority. I actually take it to suggest a piece of ordinary moral knowledge. But you can just read me as just expressing a liberal opinion, if you want!)

Underlying this widespread agreement, though, is an understanding of “treating differently on the basis of x” which ties it directly to human judgment. In other words, it suggests that somewhere in the process of blind review, reviewers implicitly or explicitly allow bigoted views of authors’ identities to inflect their assessments of the truth or plausibility or interestingness of the claims they’re reviewing. 

But it’s blind review, so barring slip-ups, the above is not happening. Putting aside work that by nature reveals author identity, the remaining sense in which blind review might be said to treat researchers’ work differently on the basis of their identities concerns outcomes of the review process. And this is the error: it does not follow from inequities in the outcomes of blind review that the process is morally miscalibrated. But it appears to follow because the concept of “treating differently” (or related concepts like discrimination or bias) is being repurposed so as to make no reference to anyone’s judgment. But all such concepts either have their intrinsic moral valence and entail human judgment or are morally neutral. You can see for yourself why they are morally neutral by considering that there is no evidence nor any a priori reason to believe that work submitted for review is of uniform quality when broken down by all the relevant identity categories.

I note that, in your original post, you wondered something more general, i.e., whether bias might exist in the process of blind review. One obvious sense in which bias probably does exist is in selection of reviewers and editors. It is of course reasonable to be concerned about this. But it’s compatible with identity playing no role in the selection of research for publication; in fact, it’s an argument for blind review in and of itself. Lastly, the position expressed above passes over objections from standpoint epistemology. But if standpoint epistemology is correct, peer review should be abandoned for epistemological reasons and the moral discussion is moot. 

Aeon Skoble
Aeon Skoble
Reply to  Curious
29 days ago

Someone is going to have to explain to me like I’m a 12-year-old how there could be racial bias in double-blind reviewing.

ECD
ECD
Reply to  Aeon Skoble
29 days ago

I think the argument wouldn’t be that there is racial bias in ‘double-blind reviewing’ as a concept, but rather that either:

1) There is racial bias at earlier steps in the process (whether educational, or publishing) skewing the pool of applicants (or, as Kaisersaschern suggests above, skewing the pool of editors/reviewers and what sort of philosophy they believe is appropriate/publishable); and/or
2) There are stylistic/educational/cultural markers in the writing being reviewed, which while they do not effect the quality of the argument, do act as class/race/gender/sex markers, which reviewers can instinctively react negatively too. Certainly, for something like transcribed speech, my brain is likely to conclude that someone who uses ‘like’ rather than ‘uh’ as a filler word is more likely to be younger and female; and/or
3) The double-blinding is failing somewhere.

I’m uncertain on the actual argument being made in this case, or how convincing it is.

Last edited 29 days ago by ECD
Curious
Curious
Reply to  Aeon Skoble
28 days ago

Hi, fair enough! I was asking in a more general sense, along the lines of:

If we assume various implicit racial biases, is it possible that if, say, 95% of reviewers were white men (not saying this is actually the case), would this increase the possibility that papers, written about topics (or with other markers) indicating they may not have been written by a white man, be rejected even given blind peer review? I was wondering if there is any data available related to that at all.

Last edited 28 days ago by Curious
Enrico Matassa
Enrico Matassa
30 days ago

This is egregious, but rather than belabor that obvious point I’ll point out something revealing. Justin was at pains to point this out and I don’t see anyone here defending it. I remember him calling out bad behavior on the part of Hypatia’s editors in the same way. And in that case practically none of us on the left defended censorship. My point is that philosophers on the left by and large do a pretty decent job calling out our own.
While there are some principled voices on the right on free speech the folks who comment here aren’t in that number. They can’t even call out their side when the abuse is obvious and indefensible. Take the Columbia protests and the harassment and surveillance of a professor at UNC. Both are equally indefensible. Whatever you think of the Columbia protesters Shafik violated Columbia’s explicit framework for dealing with protests and calling in law enforcement (See here: https://fortune.com/2024/05/07/columbia-created-new-rules-protests-police-report/)
The UNC case is equally clear. It’s a case of harassment and reprisal for a professor not just expressing his political opinions but doing so as part of his teaching. It’s could serve as a paradigm case for violating academic freedom.
In both cases not only did right wing academics who comment here fail to call out their own side they tried to offer a sort of defense. Though I’ll note in both cases the defense took the form of bad faith hypotheticals and other gotcha questions and did not engage with the actual details of either case. (I suspect because even they knew that when you consider the details it was obvious they were defending the indefensible).

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Enrico Matassa
30 days ago

I just don’t trust my recollection to make these sorts of inferences Enrico. I don’t know who you’re considering as “the right” but given that your “point is that philosophers on the left” seem to do a good job, I’ll imagine that you mean “philosophers on the right.”

If I understand you that way then my own recollection is that philosophers on the right do just as well as philosophers on the left – which is to say that it’s a mixed bag. Plenty of “philosophers on the left” seem happy to abuse positions of power to make sure that views they find objectionable never see the light of day. As you note, Tuvel’s case along with quite a few others (Stock, Byrne, Lawford-Smith, etc etc) are being deplatformed by leftist philosophers so the fact that some “philosophers on the left” like Justin decry that behavior- which…by the way…Justin are you okay with being referred to in that way? – does not mean that all, many, or even most philosophers on the left do.

This all just sounds so very “no true Scotsman” and it’s exactly the problem of relying on our intrinsically biased recollections to make generalizations like this. Better to focus on specific cases and specific issues, at least we can get specific views on the record that way instead of nebulous “this side good, that side bad” claims that are impossible to actually verify.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Enrico Matassa
30 days ago

“I remember him calling out bad behavior on the part of Hypatia’s editors in the same way. And in that case practically none of us on the left defended censorship. My point is that philosophers on the left by and large do a pretty decent job calling out our own.”

I think you are misremembering. Justin (defensibly) largely avoided editorializing in his original post on Tuvel (https://dailynous.com/2017/05/01/philosophers-article-transracialism-sparks-controversy/), though he called out some factual issues. The discussion thread is mostly critical of the attacks on Tuvel, but there are plenty of exceptions – to say nothing of the 130 signatories of the original Open Letter and the two thirds of the Board of Associate Editors who signed an apology in response. The APA’s subsequent ‘white paper on publishing ethics in philosophy’ rather conspicuously failed to draw the right conclusions about the Tuvel affair, perhaps unsurprisingly given the prominent role played in drawing up that white paper by leading signatories of the Open Letter.

“While there are some principled voices on the right on free speech the folks who comment here aren’t in that number. They can’t even call out their side when the abuse is obvious and indefensible. Take the Columbia protests and the harassment and surveillance of a professor at UNC.”

There are right-of-center philosophers who comment on DN but I don’t recall any of them commenting on either case. (I haven’t done a detailed check given how voluminous the discussion was on the Columbia protests, so I may have forgotten someone.) But in any case I’m not sure these are good comparisons: in the Columbia case the issue was mostly factive and insofar as it wasn’t concerned when disruption was protected by free speech or academic freedom; in the UNC case the DN original post had no information as to what the action was by the professor that triggered surveillance, other than that it led to student complaints, and the debate was largely whether surveillance was an infringement of rights (I don’t think anyone disagreed that secret surveillance was an infringement of rights). If you want some clearer comparisons, the obvious examples are Tommy Curry, Steven Salaita, and Nathan Jun. I think in all three cases, condemnation of admin’s actions on DN was pretty unanimous.

Last edited 30 days ago by David Wallace
Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  David Wallace
30 days ago

The APA’s subsequent ‘white paper on publishing ethics in philosophy’ rather conspicuously failed to draw the right conclusions about the Tuvel affair, perhaps unsurprisingly given the prominent role played in drawing up that white paper by leading signatories of the Open Letter.

I don’t think there was an APA white paper. There was a white paper, but it was not produce by the APA.
It’s possible that there is some APA white paper I’m not aware of, so I’ll be happy to be corrected on this.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
29 days ago

You’re right, sorry. I’d forgotten the details, but having checked: the group that put together the White Paper had some institutional support from the APA (e.g. the project was announced in an APA press release), was quite focused on the APA, and the APA Executive Director was one of the six people leading the project, but the eventual white paper wasn’t an official APA document.

ECD
ECD
Reply to  Enrico Matassa
29 days ago

I think this is going to depend on what ‘defended censorship’ means and who counts as ‘on the left.’ The very first comment in the Tuvel thread ends: “I defer to the condemnation [that] has been nearly universal among experts in the relevant subfields.”

I’ll also say that I believe literally everyone involved in the Tuvel incident on the side you define as pro-censorship was ‘on the left’ correct?

Enrico Matassa
Enrico Matassa
30 days ago

One follow up point and then I’ll let this rest….
Let’s also be honest about what sort of journal this is. I work in bioethics and I’d never heard of it. I did a little digging though and it’s just lousy no two ways about it.
That’s important to keep in mind for a few reasons. First, you can’t really say that getting a publication retracted there will damage anyone’s career since getting a paper in there is pretty much meaningless (they accept 69% of submissions according to their own web page) and no one will read it. Being able to spin yourself as a free speech martyr is a lot more useful than putting “The New Bioethics” on a CV. Moreover, a decent number of people will read this now when pretty much no one would have had it been published in “The New Bioethics.” (I think there’s a lesson for the more censorious folks on the left here and I’d offer an analogy when confronted with a flaming bag o dog poop the last thing you wanna do is stomp it).
This is also important to keep in mind before anyone draws any sorts of grand and ideologically convenient conclusions from this. Rather than the “woke mob censors promising young scholar who has courage to tell truth” line so many here are flogging a more accurate summary of this case is “lousy journal has lousy editorial practices.”

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Enrico Matassa
30 days ago

Rather than the “woke mob censors promising young scholar who has courage to tell truth” line so many here are flogging

I’ve just re-read every post on this thread. I don’t see a single person taking that line. Every single critical comment is specifically about this policy at this journal. If you really stretch it, maybe two sarcastic observations could be construed that way. So I have no idea what ‘so many here’ could possibly refer to.

Nick
Nick
29 days ago

99% of us can only dream of the level of promotion and exposure that this paper is getting.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Nick
29 days ago

The Streisand Effect in action.

Julian
Julian
Reply to  David Wallace
28 days ago

I don’t think this applies here. Preventing exposure for this paper didn’t seem to be anyone’s goal. Rather, I’d guess it’d be to raise attention towards the sad state of what passes for publishable work in bioethics.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Julian
28 days ago

Probably fair, it was a flippant comment.

Joona Räsänen
Reply to  Julian
27 days ago

For what is worth, the journal is not among the best bioethics journals (neither by subjective evaluation or objective measurements). For instance, according to it’s H5 index the journal does not belong among the top 30 bioethics journals. Their editorial board does not include famous philosophical bioethicsts. The EiC do not have a PhD. And based on the papers they have published and the scholarly profiles of the editors, the journal is biased towards pro-life. More than that, this particular paper was for a special issue on some narrow (pro-life?) topic.

Joel Pust
Joel Pust
29 days ago