About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Academic posturing behind the scenes

by Massimo Pigliucci

As I mentioned earlier, Maarten Boudry and I are in the process of putting together an edited book on the philosophy of pseudoscience for Chicago Press. We invited a number of philosophers, skeptics, historians, and sociologists of science to contribute to the volume, the first comprehensive re-analysis of what Popper famously dubbed the “demarcation problem” (what distinguishes science from pseudoscience) in a number of years.

It has been much fun, and we have learned a lot from a number of colleagues who submitted chapters for the book. Except that we also got embroiled in a several months long controversy of which you will never hear, because it will not make it into the light of academic publishing. I’m going to tell you about it anyway, because it is an instructive “behind the scenes” look at what, sometimes, goes on in the academy.

A couple of disclaimers first. Naturally, this is my version of the story, and I recognize that I am biased in this regard. Nevertheless, this is my blog, so that’s the version you get. Moreover, I will not disclose the names of the two colleagues involved in the controversy, and I will make as few references as possible to the specifics, because I am not interested in smearing individuals but rather in having a discussion about the internal workings of academic scholarship. I will refer to the two colleagues in question as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, just so that we can keep their different actions and reactions straight in our minds in the course of the narrative.

The story begins when Maarten and I got the first draft of both Tweedledum’s and Tweedledee’s chapters. Upon reading them, the reviewers thought Tweedledum’s was marginally acceptable, while Tweedledee’s was highly problematic. The problem arose from the fact that Tweedledee’s entire argument reduced to the idea that it is not at all clear why “serious” parapsychological research doesn’t get nearly as much respect in the scientific community as “clearly” questionable speculations on, say, string theory.

We (and the reviewers) couldn’t believe our eyes. What serious research on parapsychology? Yes, from time to time a psychologist or other holder of a PhD publishes a paper claiming marginally statistically significant results purporting to demonstrate telepathy, clairvoyance and the like. But typically, said papers are quickly debunked on the grounds of sloppy experimental design, bad statistical analyses, and sometimes simple fraud. String theory, on the other hand, as empirically directly untested as it remains, is a sophisticated mathematical theory built on more than a century of previous successful theories (quantum mechanics and general relativity in particular), not to mention numerous highly replicable experimental results.

At any rate, we wrote to Tweedledum notifying him of the acceptance of his paper and — separately — to Tweedledee saying that we were sorry but we couldn’t accept his contribution. We included in the letter the detailed comments of two reviewers, in case he decided to take their criticisms into consideration and submit a modified paper for publication somewhere else. Notice that this is, of course, standard procedure: just because one gets invited to contribute to a book or special issue of a scholarly journal there is no implicit guarantee that one’s work will be accepted. Peer review is still needed, or the academy would become a chummy club where everyone publishes his own friends’ papers.

Imagine therefore Maarten’s and my surprise when we get a response from Tweedledum (not Tweedledee) saying that he would withdraw his (accepted) chapter unless we reconsidered our decision not to publish Tweedledee’s contribution. Moreover, Tweedledum also proposed that he and Tweedledee get to decide to whom to send their papers for review, and that they be allowed to write a special introductory section of the book to explain the difference between their “approach” and everyone else’s.

Nonsense, we responded. This amounts to blackmail and to an attempt to wrestle editorial control for a section of the book. Unacceptable. But the dialog continued, mediated by our patient and highly professional editor at the Press. After several weeks, we agreed to consider a revised version of Tweedledee’s paper in which he would do his best to respond to the reviewers’ comments. (Remember, Tweedledum’s chapter had been accepted.)

That was far from the end of it. We got the new version of Tweedledee’s paper (which was barely improved, but still, the guy made an effort) and what should have been only a slightly edited version of Tweedledum’s contribution. Instead, we discovered that Tweedledum’s chapter now featured a lengthy “appendix” which basically functioned as the editorial introduction which had already been rejected, and which included direct attacks on one of the editors’ (me) point of view. What the hell?

The next step was for us to accept Tweedledee’s resubmission (as I said, the guy tried, and it would have been good to include significantly divergent perspectives in the volume), and tell Tweedledum that his originally paper was accepted, sans the appendix.

At which point Tweedledum decided to withdraw his chapter (which, remember, had been accepted from the beginning!) because he just couldn’t live without the polemical appendix. Throughout, he continued to copy Tweedledee on all the correspondence, even though Maarten and I kept trying to treat them as separate individuals, rather than as academic siamese twins.

This left Tweedledee in the very uncomfortable position of having his (initially rejected) paper accepted because of Tweedledum’s interceding, at the same time that Tweedledum had withdrawn from the project! What to do? Naturally, after more than one agonizing week of pondering the dilemma, Tweedledee also withdrew, thus bringing the whole indecorous affair to completion.

I don’t know how often this sort of thing happens in academia. I have enough experience as both a professional scientist and philosopher to have witnessed or heard of many bizarre occurrences, and I am sensitive enough to sociology and psychology of science to know perfectly well that academics are human beings characterized by all the foibles of ordinary human beings. Still, it was highly disturbing to see the whole thing unfold before my very eyes and clearly see it spinning out of control despite what I thought were our best efforts. (I must acknowledge that the tone of some of my emails to Tweedledum and Tweedledee became far from friendly, but the facts are as I reported them above.)

Helen Longino famously wrote that science works in part because it is a social activity where people are free (and, indeed, encouraged) to criticize each other’s works. This is true for scholarship in general, including in philosophy, sociology, history and the like. Criticism includes the idea that papers may be rejected if reviewers or editors don’t think they pass the bar. Reviewers and editors can be wrong, which is why it is good to have many outlets for academic publishing. But when one begins to throw one’s weight around to force things through, we have a breakdown of the basic academic social contract, and the whole affair begins to look a lot more like politics and ideology than an open and frank exchange of ideas. It is only because of the professionalism of our editor at Chicago Press, and because I’m not a young untenured professor, that things went the way they did. The bottom line: reader beware, caveat emptor!


  1. Good story; thanks for writing it up for the rest of us!

  2. This is not so surprising.

    I recently had an author submit a paper to a journal I edit. The paper was accepted subject to some mild revisions suggested by a good referee. Whereupon said author flew off the handle, demanded that his paper be accepted as is, with no revisions, and that I had 24 hours to accede to his demands or he would destroy the reputation of the journal. Needless to say, I declined his kind offer.

  3. "academics are human beings characterized by all the foibles of ordinary human beings."

    Along with particular occupational hazards which can make for some amusing character...quirks.

  4. This story was one part very amusing and one part very disturbing. Tragicomic, I suppose.

    By the way, I found your piece on free will--it's available here: http://www.berfrois.com/2011/12/feel-the-urge-rising/--also quite good, though in this case far less disturbing.

  5. W.D Hamilton successfully played a similar gambit against Nature demanding that Price's paper on the covariance equation of natural selection be published first, because his accepted paper rested on his equation. I suppose, however, that Tweedledum did not base his string theory paper on the parasychology of Tweedlede?

  6. Why did you accept 'Dee's paper after mild revision? The justification you state here is pretty weak: rewarding (questionable) effort, rather than competence, and completely rationalizing that a far out "perspective" is a good thing now.

  7. I am becoming increasingly convinced that, while academia can both encourage and select for a variety of skills and virtues, maturity is not among them.

  8. Massimo, is it common to have edited volumed reviewed by reviewers other than the editors? I always thought that the editors decide what revisions are needed and if a chapter is rejected. I assume that what you describe here is quite rare because usually editors know what to expect from the writers, right?

    In any case, it seems that the writers do not know how the peer review process works.

  9. gil,

    it's usually a mix of editors' and reviewers' feedback. The editors decide whether to seek outside reviewers, and obviously they have the last word on whether to accept contributions or not. Rejection is relatively rare, but certainly not unheard of.

  10. Massimo,

    There is something that is not clear to me:

    You are reviewing articles to include in a book you are making.

    Is this correct?

  11. Oscar,

    as I said above, the review process is both internal and external, depending on cases. The final editorial decision is, of course, made by the editors.

  12. None of you can answer Rorty. So what is the point of philosophy anymore?

  13. Rorty is best answered with a shrug of the shoulders. I have no sympathy for postmodernist like "philosophy," I'm afraid.


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