Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

“Credible threats of personal violence” against editor prompt withdrawal of colonialism paper

with 10 comments

A journal has withdrawn an essay that called for a return to colonialism after the editor received alleged threats tied to the article.

Soon after Third World Quarterly published the controversial essay, readers began to object. When the journal defended its decision, 15 editorial board members resigned in response. More than 10,000 people signed a petition to have it retracted. On September 26, the publisher posted a statement — including a detailed timeline of the paper’s peer review process — and said the the author had requested to withdraw the article. However, in the statement, the publisher said that “peer-reviewed research articles cannot simply be withdrawn but must have grounds for retraction.”

The journal has since changed its position, and withdrawn the paper entirely from its site, posting this notice in its place:

This Viewpoint essay has been withdrawn at the request of the academic journal editor, and in agreement with the author of the essay. Following a number of complaints, Taylor & Francis conducted a thorough investigation into the peer review process on this article. Whilst this clearly demonstrated the essay had undergone double-blind peer review, in line with the journal’s editorial policy, the journal editor has subsequently received serious and credible threats of personal violence. These threats are linked to the publication of this essay. As the publisher, we must take this seriously. Taylor & Francis has a strong and supportive duty of care to all our academic editorial teams, and this is why we are withdrawing this essay.

The retraction prompted even more reactions from the community, including this post on Daily Nous:

I’ve never heard of an academic article prompting credible death threats against the editor of the journal in which it was published, let alone a journal withdrawing an article on the basis of such threats. Have others? This is a disturbing development, which I hope remains, if not unique, highly unusual.

I think it is important that academics very vocally resist such threats, and try very hard to not be moved by them. This is not to second-guess the decision of Taylor & Francis—I have no idea what informed their judgment that the threat was “credible.” But if we all stand up against this, well, they (whoever “they” are) can’t credibly threaten all of us. So, person/people who threatened this journal editor: fuck you. And fuck you for making me say this over such a shitty article.

Inside Higher Ed reported some other reactions to the journal’s decision to withdraw the article:

John K. Wilson, an independent scholar of academic freedom and co-editor of the American Association of University Professors’ “Academe” blog, told Inside Higher Ed that academic misconduct within an article itself is the only reason to remove it from the scholarly record.

“There’s a real danger when we give into death threats, whether it’s canceling speakers or censoring publications,” he said. “The obvious danger is to free expression. But it also creates a greater incentive to threaten, if people know that they can accomplish their goals by making a threat.” People are actually less safe as a result of giving in to threats, he added.

In its September 26 statement, Taylor & Francis explained how the article ended up being published:

Using the checks in our systems, we can be absolutely clear on the path through peer review this essay took. It was double blind peer-reviewed by two referees (in line with the journal’s policy). The first review was returned with a minor revision recommendation, and the second reviewer made a reject recommendation. Due to the opposing review reports, the final decision to publish was made by the Editor-in-Chief, following the author making major revisions.

Under the subheading “Why can we not just withdraw the article?”, the September 26 statement noted:

In publishing this essay, it was never our, or the Editor-in-Chief’s, intention to cause offence or to open academic discourse up to ‘click-bait’. We wholeheartedly apologize to those who have seen this as such but, as the publisher, we stand by the peer review process which led to this essay being published and defend the right of our academic journal editors and editorial boards to remain independent in their decision-making.

The statement concluded that the editor was trying to build bridges with the editorial board members who had resigned:

Over the course of the last two weeks, the Editor-in-Chief has been in touch with those members of the editorial board who have tendered their resignation to clarify the rigor of the peer-review process and express his heartfelt sorrow at the upset the publication of this Viewpoint essay has caused. It was never his intention to cause the pain this piece has generated but instead to bring a controversial view to light so that it could be challenged by researchers within the field. He has also informed the journal’s editorial board that he would like to work with them to examine the editorial decision-making process. This would include creating an Advisory Board to implement and oversee a new editorial structure that better supports a future Editor-in-Chief to lead the journal’s future. In these actions, he has our full support as his publisher.

This isn’t the first time the publisher has taken steps to protect its editorial staff; in 2015, it said it would no longer accept submissions from a plant biologist over his continued challenges to their procedures and use of “inflammatory language.”

Update, 13:52 UTC October 10: We’ve received a statement from Taylor & Francis:

These threats were of a serious and credible nature, centred around physical violence and included posting highly personal details about the journal editor which would enable people to easily identify him. I hope you can appreciate that we do not want to be more specific than that for obvious reasons.

To withdraw an article for this reason is unprecedented for Taylor & Francis and is step we have taken only after incredibly serious consideration. As an organization, and for the team working on this, we are deeply shocked and saddened at what has happened in the last week. As you mention in your article, the editor has been in touch with the editorial board to propose a new editorial structure on the journal. As the publisher, we would now like to focus on supporting him as he begins this process.

We will also be working with the Committee on Publication Ethics to review this case and to better understand how to respond to cases such as this in the future.

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Comments
  • rfg October 9, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    “…the journal editor has subsequently received serious and credible threats of personal violence. ”

    “There’s a real danger when we give into death threats, whether it’s canceling speakers or censoring publications,” he said. “The obvious danger is to free expression. But it also creates a greater incentive to threaten, if people know that they can accomplish their goals by making a threat.” “People are actually less safe as a result of giving in to threats, he added.”

    This is unusual in that it was an Editor being threatened for not retracting an articles. The usual case is where threats are made are against whistleblowers or their administrators by the accused. I’ve myself have been a target of such threats, so I can assure you it’s not a pleasant experience. On the other hand, I totally agree that giving in to threats is not the right approach either.

  • Stephan Ortmann October 9, 2017 at 9:34 pm

    Actually this case is troubling and calls for an independent investigation. Death threats, especially credible ones, should be investigated fully and in a transparent matter. Otherwise, it can have a chilling effect on academic freedom.

  • micheal October 9, 2017 at 9:47 pm

    Death threats are not the way to go under any setting. That sets a new low for scientific discourse. But, Taylor and Francis ought to change the name of this journal. The term “Third World” is held with such contempt, disdain, and anger by peoples of most the countries placed under that category. Those were once proud nations whose ways of life were systematically destroyed thanks to colonialism, and still struggling to undo the damage and right themselves.

  • CRD October 10, 2017 at 12:57 am

    I think we should all agree with the Daily Nous and give a collective “fuck you” to those making the threats, and a vehement, “how fucking dare you!?” to the journal for giving into the death threats.

    Controversial views need to be protected! The idea that colonialism was good was the default position a century ago; today, just because the negative position has become the default, we should never give in to censorship to silence the idea that colonialism is good. Colonialism had beneficial elements, and it had deleterious elements. To focus wholly on the deleterious at the cost of understanding the beneficial does everybody a disservice. Virtue signalling needs to be expurgated absolutely from academia. Puerile notions of morality need to take a backseat to reality, but we can never fully understand reality so long as these people are given power over what enters and remains within the academic record.

  • TL October 10, 2017 at 4:19 am

    Social “justice” at its best.

    • Matt Weiner October 13, 2017 at 3:11 pm

      Why do you assume that the threats came from the sort of leftish activists who are usually mocked by phrases such as “social ‘justice’”? The only claim I’ve seen about the source of the threats is Peter Wood’s claim (http://www.mindingthecampus.org/2017/10/the-article-that-made-16000-profs-go-wild/) that they were from “Indian nationalists,” who are not leftish activists by any stretch of the imagination. Wood doesn’t provide any citation or specific detail, but it doesn’t seem like he’d rush to cover it up if the threats had come from the leftish activists, given that he calls for retaliation against those very activists (specifically, he says that he would like to see “some non-appointments” of job candidates who signed petitions protesting the article).

      Without further evidence, we shouldn’t conflate these reprehensible threats with the peaceful protests, which were legitimate exercises of free speech, and the more justified given that the article was (by all accounts I’ve read from scholars in the field) very bad and was, as SRD noted, published via an irregular process.

  • fernando pessoa October 10, 2017 at 7:22 am

    Did the journal editor call the police?

    • Hap October 10, 2017 at 10:33 am

      That seems like it would have been a more appropriate response (though maybe the publisher has done that, in addition to everything else). I don’t know if the publication of personal information is a crime, but making terroristic threats sure is.

  • SRD October 10, 2017 at 9:42 am

    It’s outrageous that the editor has received death threats for this. This should not be the way that people in a civilized democracy operate and especially not people who supposedly believe in human rights, equal opportunity, freedom from discrimination etc.

    I also have some more procedural questions about the review process for this article:
    The paper was originally submitted for a special issue but the guest editors assessed the paper and declined to send it out for review. In my experience, this is the same as rejection. The editor is not obliged to send it out and the response of the guest editors suggests it was not suitable, so why did they choose to try again? My papers don’t get a second chance after desk rejection.

    The paper received a minor revision and a reject review, so the editor made a major revisions decision – seems kind of reasonable and easier than finding a third reviewer, but the Editor accepted the article without sending it back out to reviewers. Is that normal for a major revision? Isn’t the difference between a minor revision and a major revision that the major revision goes back out for review and a minor revision can be accepted by the editor?

  • Justin W. October 11, 2017 at 3:38 am

    Since you have been successfully corresponding with Taylor & Francis, could you ask them which law enforcement agencies they reported the death threats to, and then let your readers know? Thank you.

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