Mitchell’s Musings 9-25-2017: Retraction is the Wrong Action

23 Sep 2017 2:24 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 9-25-2017: Retraction is the Wrong Action

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

Here’s the beginning of the story, as it appeared in Inside Higher Ed:

Denounced by some as “clickbait” and others as poor scholarship, a new article on the supposed benefits of Western colonialism has prompted calls for retraction. And while detractors are plentiful and pointed in their criticism, the debate and others like it has some wondering if retraction threatens to replace rebuttal as the standard academic response to unpopular research. “The offending article has brought widespread condemnation from scholars around the globe,” begins a petition submitted Monday to the editor of Third World Quarterly and its publisher, Taylor & Francis, demanding the retraction of “The Case for Colonialism.”[1] The petition says that the paper, written by Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University and published earlier this month as a “Viewpoints” essay, “lacks empirical evidence, contains historical inaccuracies and includes spiteful fallacies. There is also an utter lack of rigor or engaging with existing scholarship on the issue.” With more than 10,000 signatures -- many from faculty members -- as of Monday, the petition continues, “We do not call for the curtailing of the writer's freedom of speech … Our goal is to raise academic publishing standards and integrity. We thereby call on the editorial team to retract the article and also to apologize for further brutalizing those who have suffered under colonialism.”[2]


Fifteen members of Third World Quarterly’s editorial board resigned Tuesday over the publication of a controversial article they said had been rejected through peer review. The news comes a day after the journal’s editor in chief issued an apparently contradictory statement saying that the essay had been published only after undergoing double-blind peer review.[3]

And finally:

Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University, has asked the journal to withdraw the paper. “I regret the pain and anger that it has caused for many people,” Gilley said in a statement Thursday. “I hope that this action will allow a more civil and caring discussion on this important issue to take place.”[4]

Let’s start with the following two disclaimers. 1) I have no special knowledge of economic development in third world countries. 2) I don’t read the Third World Quarterly and never heard of it before the controversy. So I have no knowledge of the journal’s history, reputation, slant, etc. But I do think there are two elements in the controversy that are relevant to academic journals generally. One is the question of retraction. Another is the role of a journal editor.

After looking at the article, it appears to me to be an extended opinion piece rather than a research essay. In fact, it appeared as a “Viewpoint” article in the journal. I can imagine a journal retracting a research article which turned out to be based on fake data or which violated some other expectation one might have of a research piece. But it’s harder to justify a demand for retraction of an opinion piece. One member of the editorial board who didn’t resign and who opposed the demand for retraction was Noam Chomsky, someone with whom I would normally not share many opinions. But in this case my sympathies are with what Chomsky said:

Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor and professor of linguistics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology… told Inside Higher Ed that it’s “pretty clear that proper procedures were not followed in publishing the article, but I think retraction is a mistake – and also opens very dangerous doors… Rebuttal offers a great opportunity for education, not only in this case.” Chomsky added, “I’m sure that what I publish offends many people, including editors and funders of journals in which they appear.”[5]

Despite my admitted lack of expertise in economic development, I couldn’t help but notice that the articled didn’t go into a comparison of China vs. India. The former has been the home of rapid growth, but didn’t retain governance structures of the various European powers (or of Japan) that carved it up into spheres of influence in colonial days. India has been less of an economic success story, despite retaining governance structures inherited from Britain.

Both countries are huge compared to some of the examples cited in the paper. And, curiously, Gilley has elsewhere written extensively on China.[6] Wouldn’t someone making a case for the benefits of colonial inheritance want at least to deal with the largest examples of third world countries on the planet? In short, I doubt that it would be hard for someone with actual expertise on the subject of post-colonial development – unlike the author of this musing - to develop a rebuttal.

I have been a journal editor and have been on journal editorial boards, so I do have some experience, if not expertise, in those roles. In this case, the journal’s editor is accused by those members of the board who resigned of misrepresenting the peer review process and of not properly following it. I can’t judge the issue of misrepresentation. But the board’s understanding of the role of a journal editor was certainly not my understanding when I played that role. Even allowing for differences in expectations across fields, I can’t imagine that an editor of any journal is expected simply to follow a mechanical process of review.

Yes, any respectable journal will have an external review process as its major gateway to publication. But I never thought of my role as editor as being one of just handling the paperwork involved in contacting reviewers and soliciting their opinions. If that were the role, why not hire a clerk to do it? Why would any busy academic want to do it, if that were the role? If I, as editor, thought a submission was worthy despite reservations by reviewers, I would go ahead with it. (There are always reservations by reviewers.) In short, editors – at least in my understanding – exercise judgment. They are expected to exercise judgment.

In one case, I did resign from an editorial board over an article. But in that instance, a paper that I regarded as little more than an ill-disguised diatribe had been published. When I protested to the journal’s editor, he asserted that he had no choice but to publish it because the outside reviewers had approved. In short, I resigned because the editor had not exercised good judgment, not because he used his judgment. And I certainly did not demand retraction or apology.

As of this writing, the Third World Quarterly paper is still posted on the web, despite the author’s request for retraction. The journal has not taken it down. And it shouldn’t. As the author’s explanation – reproduced earlier – indicates, his retraction request is based on “pain and anger” caused to readers. The author did not indicate that he now had an epiphany and thought his article’s viewpoint was incorrect. In contrast, Chomsky – in opposing the demand for retraction - notes that his (Chomsky’s) published viewpoint “offends many people.”

If indeed, as the retraction petition asserts, “there is… an utter lack of rigor or engaging with existing scholarship…,” then surely someone among the 10,000+ petition signatories can easily write a response to the article. Nothing really vanishes from the web, even if the paper is formally taken down. If no one writes a rebuttal, and instead the paper remains quasi-available somewhere in the internet ether, then it will remain the last word on the subject. And if someone does write a rebuttal, but the paper is not readily available, the juxtaposition will suggest that academic bullying – not reasoning – accounts for its absence. If that’s the final result, it would not be a good outcome. A much better outcome would be for the signatories to retract their petition.


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