Resignations at ‘Third World Quarterly’

Much of the journal’s editorial board resigns, saying that a controversial article arguing in favor of colonialism failed to pass peer review but was published anyway -- and that the journal’s editor then misrepresented the process.

September 20, 2017
 

Fifteen members of Third World Quarterly’s editorial board resigned Tuesday over the publication of a controversial article they said had been rejected through peer review.

The news comes a day after the journal’s editor in chief issued an apparently contradictory statement saying that the essay had been published only after undergoing double-blind peer review.

The paper, written by Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University and published earlier this month in the journal’s “Viewpoints” section, advocated a return to colonialism in some instances.

Gilley's essay was subsequently criticized as lacking in rigor, failing to engage with the broader literature on the topic and ignoring colonial-era atrocities. Current Affairs even compared Gilley’s treatment of the topic to Holocaust denial. But the resigning editorial board members focused their criticism Tuesday on what they described as a failed editorial process and dishonesty from Shahid Qadir, editor in chief.

“The editor of [Third World Quarterly] has issued a public statement without any consultation with the editorial board that is not truthful about the process of this peer review,” their public resignation letter says. Thus, “as we fully disagree with both the academic content of the ‘Viewpoint’ and the response issued in the name of the journal, we are forced to resign immediately from the editorial board of Third World Quarterly.”

Concerns about the editorial process led many academics to sign a petition, submitted to the journal's editors Monday, calling for the retraction of Gilley's essay. But the editorial board members’ resignation letter appears to confirm that the piece was initially rejected as an academic article during peer review, later rejected by at least one reviewer as an essay, and then published anyway.

The board members’ resignation letter says Qadir told them last week that Gilley’s paper was put through the required double-blind peer-review process, but that Qadir did not honor their subsequent request that he share the reviews with them.

The board members wrote, “We have now been informed by our colleagues who reviewed the piece for a special issue that they rejected it as unfit to send to additional peer review.” (The resignation letter quotes what it describes as an email from the guest editors and other concerned scholars.) Moreover, they wrote, a colleague who reviewed the piece as a “Viewpoints” essay after it was rejected by the special-issue editors also rejected it for that purpose.

“‘The Case for Colonialism’ must be retracted, as it fails to provide reliable findings, as demonstrated by its failure in the double-blind peer-review process,” the resignation letter says. “We all subscribe to the principle of freedom of speech and the value of provocation in order to generate critical debate. However, this cannot be done by means of a piece that fails to meet academic standards of rigor and balance by ignoring all manner of violence, exploitation and harm perpetrated in the name of colonialism (and imperialism) and that causes offense and hurt and thereby clearly violates that very principle of free speech.”

The resigning board members also demanded a new public statement from the journal about the circumstances under which it published Gilley’s piece. They’d “consider serving on an editorial board under different editorial arrangements," they added.

Other members of the journal’s editorial board remain. Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor and professor of linguistics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, told Inside Higher Ed that it’s “pretty clear that proper procedures were not followed in publishing the article, but I think retraction is a mistake – and also opens very dangerous doors. … Rebuttal offers a great opportunity for education, not only in this case.”

Chomsky added, “I’m sure that what I publish offends many people, including editors and funders of journals in which they appear.”

Neither Qadir nor spokespeople for Taylor & Francis, the journal’s publisher, who are based in Britain, immediately responded to requests for comment.

Ilan Kapoor, a resigning board member and professor of critical development studies at York University in Canada who said he corresponded with the third reviewer, declined to share the reviewer's identity with Inside Higher Ed. But Kapoor vouched for the reviewer, describing her as an “established academic at a highly reputable” institution based in Britain. He said he had email proof that the reviewer was asked by the journal to review Gilley’s piece blind and that she rejected it after doing so.

Kapoor said that "Viewpoint" essays must be peer-reviewed. Qadir's note from Monday also says that all articles, including “Viewpoints” pieces, undergo double-blind review.

Farhana Sultana, an associate professor of geography at Syracuse University who helped organize the petition for retraction, said via email Tuesday that her efforts have been about “upholding academic journal publishing standards.” The petition was not a call for “retraction based on difference in opinion or to curtail free speech,” she said, but rather, about “shoddy pieces being published in academic journals and the fact that the journal failed to follow proper procedures in place so that academic publications are rigorous and scholarly -- that article by Gilley was not scholarly and was rejected after peer review, but the journal still decided to publish it.”

Gilley did not respond to a request for comment about the matter.

Margaret Everett, Portland State's interim provost, released an updated statement about the essay Tuesday, expressing continued support for Gilley’s academic freedom but also distancing the university from him. “‘The Case for Colonialism’ has generated a robust conversation and significant public and scholarly reaction,” Everett said. “The ideas and perspectives offered by Professor Gilley are his own and do not represent Portland State or our department of political science.”

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