Friday, April 22, 2011

This Synthese Hullabaloo

I've been following the hullabaloo about the special issue of Synthese dealing with "Evolution and its Rivals" with interest. Very briefly, what happened was that Synthese had a guest-edited special issue this past January dealing with Intelligent Design. One of the articles, Barbara Forrest's "The Non-Epistemology of Intelligent Design," is I would say pretty critical of Francis Beckwith's ID advocacy. According to the guest editors, after the article was published online (but before it appeared in print) friends of Beckwith and of ID protested to the editors-in-chief. The EiCs attempted to get Forrest to revise the article (after it had been published), but she declined. The idea of inserting a disclaimer into the issue was broached and rejected--the guest editors claim that they were assured on two different occasions that no disclaimer would be attached. Beckwith was then given space in (a later issue of) the journal to respond to the Forrest article.

So the guest editors were really pissed when the editors-in-chief did attach a disclaimer to the print version of the issue, vaguely indicating that some of the articles included in the issue violated the journal's editorial standards with respect to tone.

Leiter thinks the EiCs caved to the ID lobby and is urging people to boycott Synthese unless they can present a satisfactory explanation or make things right some other way. The EiCs have issued a response. The most interetsing discussion so far has appeared in this thread at New APPS.

There are, obviously, a bunch of issues here. But one thing I would like to know more about is this: what kind of editorial procedures are normally in place for guest-edited special issues like this? Do the editors-in-chief just hand over the keys to the guest editors and then leave and not come back until the issue is done? I am naive about this sort of thing, but that strikes me as unlikely. It seems to me that even if the guest editors are doing the hands-on work of finding authors, selecting and editing the articles, sending them to reviewers, assembling the issue, and that sort of thing, the editors-in-chief would still have to be reading penultimate drafts and exerting final executive authority. Right? The editors-in-chief do not just totally cede all executive control over those pages of the journal to the guest-editors, do they?

If my sense of how these guest-editing procedures would work is correct, then the decision to disclaim the issue is ludicrous. If the EiCs read the Forrest article in advance of publication and felt that it would violate their editorial standards for tone or whatever, they should have taken steps in advance of publication to correct the problem. And if they read the article in advance of publication and felt that it would not violate their editorial standards, then they should stand by the issue and their guest-editors now. And if they are going to disclaim the issue, they should let the guest editors and contributors know about it beforehand, and they should not assure the guest editors that they aren't going to do it.

--Mr. Zero


Dr. Killjoy said...

Right on, M. Zero. Regardless of whether or not the editors-in-chief were pressured from the ID crowd, the language of, explanation for, and manner in which the disclaimer was attached to the print issue beggars belief.

My question then is to the surprising number of folks who think unwarranted a boycott of Synthese (no submissions and no refereeing insofar as it remains under its current editorship): just how unprofessional (not to mention duplicitous and craven) must an editorship be to merit a boycott?

Anonymous said...

I voted the 'misbehaviour but no boycott' in the Leiter poll based on the following reasoning.

Agree with Mr Zero that it is unlikely that the editors in chief just handed over the keys to the issue. So it's reasonable to assume that they did not have an issue with the paper per se. Hence something must have occurred later that 'changed their mind' (as in the sort of offer that cannot be refused). We do not know what that something is -- we infer from other events that it was likely pressure from the ID crowd (which seems likely in the light of Beckwith's past behaviour, but we do not know).

My problem is that there exists one charitable interpretation of the behaviour of the editors. The charitable interpretation is that the 'something that changed their mind' was the threat of some sort of libel suit, with them named personally. This was averted by inserting the disclaimer and putting a gag order on the editors in chief, which I think explains all the facts we know at present. This explanation also seems to be more or less in line with what seems to happen in these cases. It explains the facts, but places the behaviour of the editors in a more charitable light.

Just my opinion. If that had happened to me, though, I'd resign as editor at the first opportunity. If this theory were to be correct, where were the deep pockets of Springer?

Word verification: 'crearr' as in a creaky reassignment of possibilities.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that several ID proponents made a generous donation to the journal, bank-rolling them for the next few years, so they can afford to publish shit and still have a glossy covered "respectable" journal.

Anonymous said...

I think it's a very real possibility that the Editors-in-Chief simply handed over total control of the issue to the guest editors, failing to even read the papers in detail until it was far too late to do anything about them. This actually strikes me as the most plausible explanation for their odd behaviour.

Furthermore, it's very unclear whether the papers were ever peer-reviewed. The authors don't thank any referees, and the guest editors have made no mention of the papers having passed peer review.

If the papers weren't peer-reviewed, that looks very bad for both the guest editors and the editors-in-chief.

Mr. Zero said...

In this comment, left at Certain Doubts, James Fetzer indicates that the special issue was subject to review by the EiCs. So if there was something wrong with the tone employed in the issue, they should have done something about it at that stage of the process. And if there was nothing wrong with it then, they should be standing by it now. And if there was something wrong with it then that they overlooked, the disclaimer should more clearly indicate that the failure belongs to the EiCs, not the guest editors or the authors.

Fetzer doesn't say whether the articles were subject to blind review. I agree that they ought to have been subject to blind review, and that if they weren't that would be a (big) mark against the special issue. And the guest editors.

But it is worth pointing out that the disclaimer doesn't say anything about the editorial procedures the guest editors employed; it objects to the tone of some of the articles.

It is worth emphasizing that the disclaimer was attached to the issue after the guest editors were assured by the editors-in-chief that no disclaimer would be attached. The EiCs have not disputed this. That makes it seem like they lied to the guest editors about whether they would disclaim the issue. That, by itself, makes me want to boycott Synthese.

It is worth mentioning that the accusations in the anonymous comment at 9:39 are baseless, absurd, and ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

The whole thing depends on the claim by Leiter that Synthese gave into the ID 'lobby'. (Leiter used this term in his first post on this without any evidence). I still haven't seen any proof of this, and yet this was the first conclusion that Leiter jumped to! I take it to be a witch-hunt and nothing more than a squabble between the E-I-C and the guest editors/Forrest. I agree with the E-I-C that language should be neutral when discussing such issues.

I personally am not a supporter of ID.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Zero:

Surely it is a possibility that the EICs had serious reservations about the editorial procedures employed by the guest editors, but avoided airing these concerns publicly in the (misplaced) hope of averting a major scandal.

Mr. Zero said...

anon 9:28,

I guess anything's possible. But surprising the guest editors and authors by disclaiming the print edition is no way to avoid a public scandal.

If they had problems with the editorial procedures employed by the guest editors, they had the opportunity to deal with them prior to publication. They (apparently) did not avail themselves of this opportunity, then they privately assured the guest editors that they would stand by the issue, and then they have publicly refused to stand by the issue. This is no way to avoid a public scandal.

I don't think it matters why the EiCs are doing this. If they caved to pressure from the ID lobby, that would be especially craven and awful. But even if this is merely a result of the procedures they followed in assembling the special issue, this would still constitute editorial misconduct and a reason to boycott the journal.

Seriously. The least nefarious scenario is this: the guest editors submitted a special issue for publication. This special issue contained several articles whose tone was unacceptable. The EiCs accepted the issue for publication anyway. The EiCs published the issue online. After the issue had been published the EiCs asked one (and not more than one) of the authors to revise her published article and let it be known that they were considering attaching a disclaimer to the special issue, at which point the guest editors intervened and lobbied against the proposed changes (to material already published). After some deliberations, the EiCs withdrew their request for revisions and assured the guest editors that no disclaimer would appear. Then the EiCs disclaimed the issue anyway without telling them.

I'm sorry, but that is not an example of a journal being run responsibly, or even competently. As Dr. Killjoy says, "just how unprofessional (not to mention duplicitous and craven) must an editorship be to merit a boycott?"

Anonymous said...

Contrary to the manifestly false statement by the 9:03 am anon, my first posting on the subject recorded the testimonial evidence by the Guest Editors supporting the inference that the EICs had been subjected to and then succumbed to pressure from Beckwith and the ID crowd. The testimonial evidence of the Guest Editors gains support from the fact that the story they tell about what transpired is consistent with the well-established modus operandi of this crew in other contexts.

Since then an additional piece of evidence has emerged: namely, objections to the mediocre piece in the same volume by Rob Pennock (including from its target Larry Laudan) together with the fact that the Guest Editors were *never* asked to do anything about that piece (even though, in my view and the view of some others, it is really the one problematic piece in the entire volume). That this manifestly deficient piece was never challenged by the EICs also supports the allegations of the Guest Editors.

All of this is defeasible evidence, but so far it has not been defeated.

--Brian Leiter

Anonymous said...

Just a quickie with regard to the suggestion that the EiC may have been responding to the threat of a libel claim: I was editor of a reviews journal for Springer and found myself the subject of a similar threat some years ago. Springer were hugely supportive of me in responding to the threat and extremely robust in rejecting any basis for such a claim, pointing out the lack of any grounds for such a claim in Dutch law. I think it is unlikely that they would not have responded in a similar manner in this case or would not have fully supported the EiC in resisting any lobbying from ID supporters.
I have always enjoyed excellent relationships with the editorial team at Synthese but I feel they have blundered terribly in this case and in their non-response response have simply succeeded in making matters worse. The thing to do at this point is to hold one's hands in the air, admit the blunder, apologise humbly to all concerned and promise to do better in the future. As things stand, there is the appearance of lax editorial procedures at best, caving in to political pressure at worst and in either case a refusal to have anything further to do with the journal (ie a boycott) is entirely justified.
- Steven French

Anonymous said...

I don't know about you, but I'm submitting a paper to Synthese pronto. My guess is that they'll be accepting just about anything now. I'd never have a chance in hell of getting something accepted there before this fiasco.

Anonymous said...

Anon @8:23:

If enough [prominent] people are boycotting Synthese to make it easier to publish in, wouldn't it also mean that publishing there will be considered much less prestigious than before? Of course, maybe the EiCs will apologize and things will be back to normal so no one will care if your paper appeared there during this little drama. Good luck, in any case.