Monday, November 12, 2018

All the Power, None of the Responsibility

In a move that's sure to please Michael Rectenwald, an international group of academics is launching a Journal of Controversial Ideas which promises to publish authors pseudonymously. The journal, one of its founders Jeff McMahon told the BBC, "would enable people whose ideas might get them in trouble either with the left or with the right or with their own university administration, to publish under a pseudonym."

Academic researchers are already looking askance at the journal, and for good reason. Part of academic research is being intimately familiar with who it is you are citing. A literature review, done well, gives a sense not only of what has been said in the literature, but the kinds of people saying it. With the advent of pseudonymous publication, this becomes difficult.

The journal promises to be widely interdisciplinary (beyond just the humanities) which would make quality peer review difficult. Peer review, a cornerstone of quality control for academic research, relies on knowledgeable reviewers being able to determine whether a piece of research, presented to them anonymously, is worthy of publication. Without editorial board members knowledgeable in a particular field, finding worthy reviewers becomes all that much more unlikely. This journal, with no criteria for publication beyond being self-described as "controversial," promises to make peer review an intractable task. Do we really expect that they will have and editorial board consisting of those familiar with Quinian metaphysics and quantum physics?

One proposed advantage to the journal's offer to publish articles pseudonymously is to allow untenured faculty to publish and then claim their work later. This seems a bit of a stretch given that said faculty member would be just as well off sitting on their paper and publishing after getting tenure. Although a paper may seem timely, a proper peer review and editing process often takes over a year.

Additionally, authors who fear "political correctness" will prevent publication in both the top journals in their field and the heterodox ones are said to find a haven in this journal. In this regard, this seems to exploit the problem of expertise illustrated above. Every discipline has heterodox journals that in one way or another goes against the grain of their field. If an author can find no journal willing to publish their findings, in all likelihood those findings are wrong.