A Very Controversial Idea

Scholars will launch interdisciplinary journal that allows authors to publish under pseudonyms, citing recent threats against polarizing academics. Some like the idea, while posing practical and ethical objections.

November 13, 2018
 
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Academic freedom is meant to protect scholars with controversial ideas. But a group of philosophers says academic freedom isn’t protection enough in an era of campus speech debates, internet trolls and threats against professors -- and that academics now need a place to publish their most sensitive ideas pseudonymously.

That venue, The Journal of Controversial Ideas, will launch next year. Co-founder Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, and no stranger to controversial ideas, mentioned the idea for such a journal in a 2017 interview. But plans for it took shape in a BBC Radio 4 documentary on viewpoint diversity, which airs for the first time this week.

Jeff McMahan, White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at University of Oxford, told the BBC that the need for more open discussion is “really very acute.” There's “greater inhibition on university campuses about taking certain positions for fear of what will happen,” he said, with the political right and left alike stoking that "fear." Threats to academic freedom and free speech from within the university tend to come the left, he added, while outside threats tend to come from the right.

McMahan told Inside Higher Ed Monday that the journal doesn’t have a confirmed publisher, but that it will be open access, from a “reliable and well-established” source. It will be peer reviewed, with an editorial board that is diverse, ideologically and otherwise. There will be no restrictions on academic disciplines, though organizers expect most submissions will be from researchers in the humanities and social sciences, perhaps tilted toward philosophy. Natural sciences submissions also are welcome, and McMahan said he’s received offers to help review from scientists in those fields. Possible ideas include moral issues in research on weapons technologies and animal experimentation, for example, he said.

Will anything be off the table? Say, eugenics, which many say doesn’t merit a place in academic discourse? McMahan said he guessed that even a pro-eugenics article, were it well reasoned, might find a home in The Journal of Controversial Ideas.

McMahan, Singer and their third collaborator, Francesca Minerva, a moral philosopher at Ghent University in Belgium, sit on the political left. But they envision their journal as a home for all well-reasoned, if dangerous, ideas.

“We want both left-wingers and right-wingers on the editorial board,” McMahan said. “Here’s the way I think about it: for any article we publish, we want some member of the editorial board who is from a background or tradition whose members would object to that article.”

That’s proving somewhat challenging: McMahan said that while some potential board members have welcomed the opportunity to participate, others have questioned the premise of author pseudonyms.

Asked if he was conceding something to those who would threaten or seek to silence professors with unpopular arguments, McMahan said yes. But his concerns are outweighed by what he described as an urgent need.

“There is a part of me that says we should fight all this out in the open -- that we shouldn’t be afraid of these people who want to silence us. On the other hand, there are too many instances of people who nowadays receive real threats to their families and careers, particularly young, vulnerable untenured academics,” he said. “They sometimes face a choice, or perceive a choice, between not publishing something and risking all these terrible consequences. We want to provide a way to avoid that dilemma.”

McMahan said he doubted that he or Singer, as senior scholars, would publish pseudonymously, but stressed that other academics need options.

The journal will help verify authorship to institutions in a secure way, so that contributors may receive credit for their work for promotion and tenure purposes, he said. And authors may shed their pseudonyms at any time.

Minerva did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the journal. But McMahan said she faced serious threats after she co-authored a 2012 article discussing whether the same arguments that apply to abortion can applied to “after-birth abortion.” (The article did not argue that the latter was a good alternative to the former.) McMahan mentioned the backlash against Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College who published a 2017 article comparing being transracial to being transgender in the journal Hypatia, as another example of why the new journal is needed.

Commenting on the general climate for academics, McMahan said that students at the American University of Beirut attempted to disinvite and then shout him down during a recent speech there, over a what he described as his vague affiliation with Hebrew University of Jerusalem, even though he has otherwise been a vocal critic of Israel's policies on Palestinians.

Other instances of threats against academics, some explicit, and attempts to censor their speech, abound.

In short, it’s hard out here for an academic. But is assuming a fake name a valid response?

Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and editor of the philosophy blog Daily Nous, wrote in a post there that it’s thus far unclear whether the “creation of such a journal will foster more of ‘a culture of fear and self-censorship’ compared to other options,” or if it “plays into and reinforces expertise-undermining misconceptions about academia bandied about in popular media that may have negative effects.”

Yet, given that the founding team “is comprised of people noted for views that emphasize empirical facts and consequences,” he wrote, “one might reasonably hope for a public discussion of such evidence and arguments.”

Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said he didn’t know if the AAUP had ever before weighed in on the idea of pseudonymous publications. Yet the organization’s Statement on Professional Ethics clearly states that professors should “practice intellectual honesty,” he noted.

“That could be extended to mean a prohibition on pseudonyms, but not necessarily,” Reichman said. “And there is surely precedent.” Pen names are common in literature and have occasionally been used in scholarship, he said, citing George Kennan’s “X Article,” which turned out to be the seminal statement on containment. Kennan at the time did not have an academic position, however, he noted.

Reichman further mused as to whether there was a meaningful difference between assuming anonymity versus pseudonyms. Anonymity at least “makes clear that identity is being hidden,” he said. Of course, pseudonyms are the very public premise of the new journal.

Speaking for himself and not the AAUP, Reichman said he understood the motivation behind the journal, since “faculty members have been under vicious assault for their research.” But he said he doubted whether pseudonyms were an effective solution, since harassment of faculty members “rarely, I think, stems from what they've published in professional journals, but more from statements made to the media,” such as op-eds, letters to the editor and TV interviews, or on social media or in the classroom. That's indeed the case in many recent examples of threats against professors.

He also cited a risk of people trying to uncover authors’ real identities, which he guessed might not be difficult in some instances.

Aside from ethics, Reichman said there is “potential for abuse” of such a journal, in that “academic research is generally assessed by peers in open discussion and debate.” And what if any author publishes one view under one name and a slightly different one under a real one? Or self-plagiarizes? Still, Reichman said, “it seems an interesting if potentially dangerous endeavor.”

Heterodox Academy, a group of several thousand scholars working to promote viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding and constructive disagreement, has criticized some of the same academic and cultural dynamics that have birthed The Journal of Controversial Ideas. Debra Mashek, the group’s executive director and a professor of psychology at Harvey Mudd College, said in a statement that she applauded the journal organizers’ efforts to “advance scholarship that raises difficult questions and confronts readers with challenging findings.” It’s “unfortunate -- for scholars, as well as for the production and use of knowledge -- that the current climate in many disciplines doesn't unabashedly encourage, celebrate or enable such exploration,” she said.

And while a peer-reviewed journal with rigorous evaluation criteria “could provide anonymous scholars with a short-term mechanism for advancing open inquiry,” Mashek said, “the health of the academy ultimately depends on people engaging colleagues constructively and respectfully across lines of difference. Anonymity should not be an essential ingredient.”

Musa al-Gharbi, a senior fellow for Heterodox Academy and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Columbia University, also praised the mission of helping “get otherwise taboo ideas in the open.” That’s provided that the journal is open access with a rigorous peer-review process undertaken by experts in relevant subfields, he said -- something that could prove difficult with submissions coming from a range of disciplines.

Absent that kind of effective peer review, he said, such a project could end up “as a repository for inflammatory, half-cooked work that would not have made it through review in disciplinary journals for legitimate reasons,” not just problems related to bias.

As for pseudonyms, al-Gharbi said that taking a public position “is important because it helps create permission and a model for others to stand up, as well.”

Via email, he added that “Successfully changing the dynamics will require people not only to trade provocative ideas behind a veil of anonymity, but also to stand up and refuse to go along with the prevailing orthodoxies -- to leverage, and indeed stake, their social capital on holding the line, and even pushing back against censorious trends.”

Heterodox Academy, for instance, doesn’t allow for anonymous membership, since “membership is a meaningful commitment precisely because it is public.”

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