22 January 2018
by Rebecca Schendel

Our mission to speak truth to power is under threat

Dr Rebecca Schendel looks at the challenges facing academic freedom in University World News.

In early September, Third World Quarterly (a peer-reviewed development studies journal) published an essay by Bruce Gilley, associate professor of political science at Portland State University in the United States, entitled ‘The Case for Colonialism’, which argued for a return to Western colonialism as a solution to the problems facing weak and fragile states.

Within hours of its release online, an enormous groundswell of anger had exploded across social media, culminating in two petitions calling for the essay’s retraction. Within a few weeks, half of the Third World Quarterly editorial board had resigned, including the editor (who had received ‘credible threats of personal violence’ and resigned for his own safety).

Approximately one month after its publication date, the article was withdrawn by the journal’s publisher.

In the typically staid world of academic publication, the Gilley controversy stands out for its drama and intrigue. However, it is easy to be distracted by the vibrant personalities and questionable motivations involved and miss the fact that these events highlight two crucial challenges facing higher education, both of which – if left unaddressed – present an existential crisis for the sector.

Falling standards?

The first relates to the conditions in the sector that allowed the essay to be published in the first place. Gilley’s essay is replete with unsubstantiated assertions, unverified claims and numerous inaccuracies. (As I don’t have space to outline these in detail here, I refer interested readers to an excellent essay by Sahar Khan on the subject.)

If a student had submitted such a piece to my undergraduate module, they would have received a very poor, if not a failing, grade – so the presentation of the essay as serious scholarly reflection is highly problematic.

The fact that the journal’s editor has continued to insist that normal standards of peer review were followed makes the situation even worse. Although the desire to save face is understandable, insisting that there were no procedural anomalies only serves to make a mockery of the whole exercise (particularly given that it has now come to light that reviewers had, in fact, recommended that the piece be rejected from the journal).

Peer review is supposed to ensure that published work is credible and of an appropriate level of academic rigour. But what happens when this system breaks down? How can the work presented in journals ever be taken seriously if such flawed ‘scholarship’ makes it through the net?

Academic freedom

The second challenge is found in the critical response to the essay’s publication. Given the serious flaws in the essay, condemnation was warranted, as was the call for retraction. However, the rationale for retraction stated in one of the petitions, as well as by many individuals online, was that the essay should be removed due to the offence that it caused. (The threats of violence against the editor were, of course, also inexcusable, but I will refrain from taking up that rather obvious point here).

Although there is no question that the essay was offensive to many, that fact alone is not why the essay should have been removed. In fact, such an argument represents a serious threat to higher education as an institution.

It is highly dangerous in our current political climate to insist that publications avoid causing offence, as such an insistence leaves the academy wide open to criticisms of censorship and political correctness run amok (allegations which were emphatically advanced by the US attorney general in his recent address at Georgetown).

More fundamentally, such an argument reflects a serious misunderstanding of one of higher education’s most vital societal roles: higher education is one of the few social institutions that can (indeed, when necessary, must) expose controversial (and, yes, sometimes offensive) truths. The crux, of course, is that any controversial truths advanced by the academy must be defensible – and that is where this essay failed.

Yes, the journal should have retracted the piece, but not because it was offensive; it deserved retraction because it was sub-par.

Pressure to publish

It is vitally important that higher education maintains its credibility as an institution capable of exposing unattractive truths in society, but that will only be possible if there is both a willingness to publish controversial ideas when they can be defended and an insistence that they not be published when they cannot.

However, the unfortunate reality is that current trends in the higher education sector push against this ideal. The global ranking industry and its near-myopic emphasis on the importance of publications has led to a serious epidemic of ‘over-publishing’ across the sector.

As promotion and, in many cases, job security requires a constant supply of publications, academics are incentivised to occasionally publish work that would not normally be considered strong enough for public consumption.

The ceaseless pressure to publish also creates an ever-expanding body of published work that cannot be adequately monitored by the academics within any given field, particularly as rising student numbers at many institutions have significantly reduced the amount of time that academics have to read and critique the work of others.

In the face of such constraints to our informal ‘peer review’ function, academics increasingly rely on journal editors to maintain the standards of our profession. However, the ‘publish or perish’ mentality is now endangering this assumption as well.

With the volume of submitted papers increasing year on year, it is becoming more and more difficult for editors to identify a sufficient number of qualified reviewers – and, even when they do, the reviewers often do not have enough time to subject submitted papers to a sufficient level of scrutiny.

Although these factors do not appear to have contributed directly to the Third World Quarterly scandal, they clearly work against the possibility of preventing such circumstances from arising in future.

And that is why this episode cannot simply be dismissed as a series of unfortunate errors of judgment. Indeed, we ignore the implications of these events at our peril. For, if we allow peer review to lose its credibility as a guarantor of publication trustworthiness, we lose our authority as reputable voices in society.

And, if we allow our academic colleagues to police ideas, rather than academic standards, we undermine our collective ability to speak truth to power (as nobody will see our words as ‘truth’ if we only allow one version).

Either scenario would represent a fundamental dissolution of one of higher education’s most important social roles. Gilley’s essay was never worthy of public attention. However, its publication could ultimately prove to be beneficial if it serves as a wake-up call, one that reminds us of the urgent need to find a way to return to the guiding principles and values of our profession.