Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why I Will Not Boycott Synthese

Yesterday Brian Leiter posted a long entry on his blog discussing the dispute surrounding a special issue of Synthese on "Evolution and Its Rivals". Leiter mentions several concerns, and I encourage anyone interested in the issue to read over what he has posted.

The main problem he identifies is that journal editors inserted the following preface to the special issue:

Statement from the Editors-in-Chief of SYNTHESE

This special issue addresses a topic of lively current debate with often strongly expressed views. We have observed that some of the papers in this issue employ a tone that may make it hard to distinguish between dispassionate intellectual discussion of other views and disqualification of a targeted author or group.

We believe that vigorous debate is clearly of the essence in intellectual communities, and that even strong disagreements can be an engine of progress. However, tone and prose should follow the usual academic standards of politeness and respect in phrasing. We recognize that these are not consistently met in this particular issue. These standards, especially toward people we deeply disagree with, are a common benefit to us all. We regret any deviation from our usual standards.

Johan van Benthem

Vincent F. Hendricks

John Symons

Editors-in-Chief / SYNTHESE

This insertion was made over the objections of the guest editors of the special issue.

Leiter calls for a boycott of the journal:
I would urge all philosophers to stop submitting to Synthese; to withdraw any papers they have submitted at Synthese; and to decline to referee for Synthese until such time as the editors acknowledge their error, and make appropriate amends.
Based on what I can find out about this, a boycott seems unwarranted. The editors of Synthese have elected to dramatically expand the number of issues they publish, and this has involved a proliferation of special issues where much of the editorial work is delegated to guest editors. Full disclosure: I am currently co-editing one such issue now. So, for me, the issue concerns the propriety of the journal editors inserting a preface over the objections of the guest editors. I believe that the journal editors should be allowed to exercise their judgment on such an issue. Of course, others might have acted differently. But the editors of the journal are ultimately responsible for the articles printed in the journal, and for this reason they should not be expected to delegate all questions about a special issue to the guest editors.

For Leiter, the issue seems to be related to debates about intelligent design. I would concede that a pattern of behavior which suggested that the editors were advocating for intelligent design at the expense of competing views would be disturbing and might warrant a boycott of the journal. However, there does not seem to be any such pattern, and a boycott would damage not only the editors, but also the many contributors whose articles meet the high standards of scholarship of a leading philosophy journal.


Steven French said...

Hey Chris,
I respect your stance and I'm reluctant to join the boycott myself. But I will unless we get appropriate assurances from the guys at Synthese. I agree that journal editors have the right to add an editorial statement or even over-ride the comments of guest editors but this should be done in consultation with them and not in a way that undermines their integrity or besmirches the contributions they have edited. By simply imposing their statement in the way they have, the editors of Synthese have added to the unfortunate impression that they are reacting to pressure from the ID lobby. I really hope they state unequivocally that they are not and that they apologise to the guest editors and contributors. If they don't, then much as I value Synthese and would like to continue contributing to it, I will feel compelled to take what action I can to block what appears to be the thin end of a dangerous wedge!

Chris said...

Leiter has added an update to his original post.

Steven, thanks for posting your position. We will see what happens, I guess.

Wesley said...

As an author in the special issue in contention, I am less sanguine than you about the events. You see, the broad-brush vagueness of the Editors-in-Chief statement casts aspersions upon my academic integrity. Do the Editors-in-Chief have the right, in your estimation, to tar my reputation without notice or recourse? If I had been informed ahead of time of the intention to run that disclaimer with my paper, I would have retracted it on the spot. I was given *no* prior notice that any such criticism would be part of publishing in the special issue. I was given *no* opportunity to either revise or retract to escape the criticism leveled at the papers of the special issue. Is that also just their unquestioned right as Editors-in-Chief?

In my estimation, it is not simply business as usual for an academic publication to treat its authors as the Synthese Editors-in-Chief have done in this case. I don't know that a boycott is absolutely the right response, but I disagree with the idea that no response is justified.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Chris said...

Inside Higher Education leads with Leiter's call for a boycott, so I expect the issue to get a wider airing.

Wesley, thanks for explaining your position. I agree with you that this note deserves some scrutiny and might eventually prove sufficient for others like myself to stop supporting the journal through our submissions, refereeing and guest editorial work. However, I do not think we are at that stage yet. As one who was not involved in the process, the editors' main comment is that "tone and prose should follow the usual academic standards of politeness and respect in phrasing". So, I think they have criticized the "politeness and respect in phrasing", but this is something less than attacking the "academic integrity" of all the contributors. I guess if I was one of the contributors, I might feel differently.

I hope that the editors will clarify the process that lead to their decision.

Chris said...

A summary of different positions can be found at Evolving Thoughts.

Chris said...

A letter from the editors has been posted here. New Apps has opened that letter for discussion here.

Ingo Brigandt said...

I basically agree with Steven French and Wes Elsberry, and have stated my reasons for joining the boycott at this site.

Anonymous said...

As an economist looking in from outside, I find this episode somewhat humorous. I think less of philosophy, but not for the same reason as Brian Leiter. Rather, it looks as if the journal took a strong position against a philosophic idea, but had qualms about ad hominem attacks, and so was insufficiently strong in its advocacy from the point of view of Prof. Leiter.

When I first read of this, I thought Leiter's complaint must be that a philosophy journal had dared to have a journal issue that advocated for intelligent design. Instead, I found the opposite: the issue was entirely one-sided, but against intelligent design-- just insufficiently so for his politics.

In economics, a leading journal wouldn't have a special attack issue like that in the first place. It might have an issue with articles on both sides, but not just on one side of a controversy. That's where I fault the editors.

As for the editors' special comment denigrating the integrity of one of the articles, that raises a different issue, one very relevant to the author of the blog post above. If a journal's editors delegate editing to a special editor for a special issue, and they think he's going to publish a poor article that is well beneath the journal's quality (in tone or substance) what should they do?

As for tone, I don't think there should be any question that they could override the special editor and ask for revisions. After all, if the special editor wanted to use a special font or citation system, the general editors would be able to override him, and a rude--- or even overly informal--- is something along the same lines.

As for substance, that is trickier. There, too, however, I'd want the general editors to override the special editor. Readers and tenure committees will have some suspicion that special issues contain lower-quality articles. There is temptation by a special editor to publish all the papers from a conference he organized, or to publish friends' papers, even if they aren't all that good. The only way to deter that is for the general editors to have the threat of intervening. If the general editors publicly state a policy of not overriding special editors' decision, I myself wouldn't consider special issue articles as "real" articles of that journal.

--Eric Rasmusen, Indiana University