‘Colonialism’ Article Flap Highlights Push for Transparency in Publishing

Just because the author of a controversial article on colonialism wants it stricken from the scholarly record doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere. Critics see clickbait corrupting scholarship.

September 26, 2017
 

Third World Quarterly is in no hurry to pull “The Case for Colonialism,” despite author Bruce Gilley’s request last week that the journal withdraw his contentious essay.

“Whilst we fully appreciate the many competing voices that have debated the publication of this ‘Viewpoint’ over the last week, we will continue to address this situation in a rigorous, methodical and measured way,” Elaine Devine, a spokeswoman for the journal's publisher, Taylor & Francis, said via email.

“The Case for Colonialism,” which was published as an opinion essay, will remain online while Third World Quarterly follows guidelines established by the international Committee on Publication Ethics, Devine said. Known as COPE, the group helps some 12,000 members and others navigate ethical gray areas in scholarly publishing.

“This is the process we work through when any request is received to change the scholarly record, and we will apply these same standards here,” Devine said.

As of Monday, COPE had yet to receive a formal request for assistance from Taylor & Francis.

That answer didn’t particularly interest Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, who resigned from the journal’s editorial board last week over the matter.

“The fact that the journal ran the piece in the first place is the problem,” he said. “And just because I’m saying the journal shouldn’t have published the essay doesn’t mean that I’m operating on behalf of the state to curtail free speech. But the journal has certain values, and this is coloring outside the lines.”

Prashad added, “I’m willing to have a debate about real issues, but the question is who sets the terms of the debate? This essay was just juvenile. It set the debate at such a low level, I feel embarrassed to have to respond to it. It’s like saying, ‘Let’s debate whether women are inferior to men.’ It’s not the place you want to start that conversation.”

Third World Quarterly rattled many of its readers -- including members of its editorial board -- earlier this month when it published the pro-colonialism piece by Gilley, who is an associate professor of political science at Portland State University. In addition to arguing that countries that embraced their colonial pasts upon liberation fared better than those that didn’t, the essay proposed recolonization of developing nations by Western powers in some instances. Third World Quarterly, established 38 years ago, is typically devoted to more nuanced questions about challenges facing postcolonial and other developing nations.

Critics immediately objected to Gilley’s premise, since it goes against decades of scholarship on the ills of colonialism. They also highlighted what they called methodological flaws and a near-complete failure to grapple with atrocities committed in the name of colonialism.

More than 10,000 names -- many belonging to academics -- soon appeared on a petition to retract the article. Perhaps most significantly, some 15 members of the journal’s editorial board, including Prashad, resigned in protest, saying that three peer reviewers had rejected Gilley’s piece: first as an article, then as an opinion essay. The editorial board members' objections shifted the debate in that they weren't just about content, but about a publication process in which editorial norms may have been bypassed.

The resignations brought to the fore common concerns about the opacity of scholarly publication standards, as well as the role of editorial boards today.

For Prashad, the latter issue was significant.

“Across the board, editorial boards have just become window dressing,” he said. “The use of editorial boards should be to provide intellectual gravity and, in this case, when there was conflictual evidence coming from outside reviewers, or when the editor realized there was some conflict, that might have been a good time to consult the editorial board.”

Third World Quarterly’s editor, Shahid Qadir, did not respond to a request for comment about the role of the editorial board in editorial decisions. And while Taylor & Francis has said it will be consulting COPE guidelines as it looks into Gilley’s request for withdrawal, COPE is an advisory body that stresses, above all, transparency and consistency in editorial policies. The body doesn’t recommend that peer reviewers, editorial boards or editors dictate what gets published, for example, but rather that a journal establish its own policies and procedures and stick to them.

COPE’s Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing says that peer review policies and procedures should be clearly described on a journal’s website. The organization also considers editorial boards to be governing bodies whose members are recognized experts in the field at hand.

A position statement on international standards for editors and authors that COPE helped develop says that editors should make decisions on academic merit alone and take full responsibility for their choices. Among the most important responsibilities of editors “is to maintain a high standard in the scholarly literature,” according to the statement, and “editors should work to ensure that all published papers make a substantial new contribution to their field.”

Editors may reject a paper without peer review when it is deemed “unsuitable for the journal’s readers or is of poor quality,” the statement says. The decision should be fair and unbiased and criteria should be made explicit. Some editors regard peer reviewers as advisors and may not necessarily follow — or even ask for — reviewers’ recommendations on acceptance or rejection, it says.

In any case, “Something went wrong here,” said Geraldine Pearson, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut and co-chair of COPE’s governing council. “I don’t have enough data or information to know what that looked like, but there was a major difference of opinion … Perhaps our Principles of Transparency should have been applied a while ago.”

Many see transparency in scholarly publishing as lacking across journals, but it’s particularly germane to the Third World Quarterly debate. That's because critics of the journal have charged that it published Gilley’s article, against the advice of expert reviewers, as “clickbait.”

In a post for the London School of Economics and Political Science’s blog “Impact of Social Sciences,” for example, Portia Roelofs, a fellow in international development, and Max Gallien, a Ph.D. candidate in international development, wrote that academe has been “hacked” by scholars and journals looking to up their citation and impact figures, respectively. They note that Gilley’s essay, of which they are highly critical, is already on its way to becoming Third World Quarterly’s most popular article ever.

“The paper has, in a few days, already achieved a higher Altmetric Attention Score than any other [Third World Quarterly] paper. By the rules of modern academia, this is a triumph. The problem is, the paper is not,” Roelofs and Gallien wrote. “The [article] is a travesty, the academic equivalent of a Trump tweet, clickbait with footnotes.”

The Council of Science editors also stress transparency and consistency for journal editors. The council says that editors’ obligations to authors include establishing a system for effective and rapid peer review and establishing a procedure of reconsidering editorial decisions.

John K. Wilson, an independent scholar of academic freedom and co-editor of the American Association of University Professors’ “Academe” blog, said that, in general, “Editors make the choices, not reviewers. So it's not a question of veto power, it's editorial judgment.” At the same time, he said, “peer review exists for a good reason. If an editor is going to reject the judgment of all the reviewers, that editor ought to have a very good reason and inform the editorial board about it.”

Prashad didn’t rule out ever returning to Third World Quarterly’s editorial board, but said, “Surely there are questions a person of integrity would ask, to avoid coming back merely to be window dressing again.” Among them: What procedures are in place to assess articles that have garnered split decisions from reviewers? And every two or three months, will there be a letter from the journal editor to the board letting to them know what’s coming up?

Gilley did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement Thursday, Gilley said he'd asked Third World Quarterly to withdraw his essay and that he regretted the "pain and anger" it had caused. He said he hoped that his action would "allow a more civil and caring discussion on this important issue to take place.” A spokesperson for Portland State said the university did not encourage or ask him to withdraw the paper.

Farhana Sultana, an associate professor of geography at Syracuse University who helped organize the petition against Gilley’s essay, said via email that Third World Quarterly “should never have published a thrice-rejected piece that failed on basic scholarly standards of intellectual rigor, accuracy or integrity.”

Many members of the editorial board resigned last week due to the journal’s failure to uphold academic publication standards and processes, she added. So the “responsibility to maintain scholarly rigor in academic publishing or to retract rests with the journal's editor and not with the author.”

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