Feminist studies journal retracts paper after post-acceptance editing dispute

The journal Feminist Legal Studies has retracted a paper by a controversial Canadian scholar, Sunera Thobani, after the researcher evidently disagreed with post-acceptance edits.

Thobani, of the Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia, became a figure of some international repute for statements in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that were highly critical of the United States and its response to the assaults and of the West in general:

This new fight, this new war against terrorism, that is being launched, it’s very old. And it is a very old fight of the West against the rest. Consider the language which is being used. Calling the perpetrators evil-doers, irrational, calling them the forces of darkness, uncivilized, intent on destroying civilization, intent on destroying democracy That hate freedom we are told. Every person of colour, and I would want to say also every Aboriginal person, will recognize that language. The language of us letting civilization representing the forces of darkness, this language is rooted in the colonial legacy. It was used to justify our colonization by Europe …

… But the people, the American nation that Bush is invoking, is a people which is bloodthirsty, vengeful, and calling for blood. They don’t care whose blood it is, they want blood. And that has to be confronted. We cannot keep calling this an understandable response. We cannot say yes, we understand that this is how people would respond because of the attacks. We have to stop condoning it and creating a climate of acceptability for this kind of response. We have to call it for what it is: Bloodthirsty vengeance.

The paper in question, “Empire, Bare Life and the Constitution of Whiteness: Sovereignty in the Age of Terror,” appeared in March 2012. But according to the notice:

This article is not available because the Editorial Board made substantive changes to the text after communicating its acceptance of the paper to the author and the author has withdrawn the paper rather than accept those changes.

At first glance, there seems to be something appropriate in Thobani’s principled move to pull the plug on her article rather than bend to edits she didn’t see before publication.  The paper has her name on it, after all. But we don’t have any details other than what’s in the notice, so we’ve reached out to Thobani and the editorial staff of the FLS for more on this one and will update the post if we hear back.

As for the paper, it’s not available anymore. But here’s the abstract:

The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, like the bombings of Pakistan, Yemen and Libya have highlighted the complex nature of sovereignty within the international juridical order. Invasions and occupations—widely treated by major Western intellectual traditions in the late twentieth century as phenomena of a colonial order safely consigned to the past—emerged as central to global politics in the early twenty-first century. This paper examines what its ‘War on Terror’ reveals about the nature of sovereignty in the new millennium by way of engagement with two theories of sovereignty—one post-structuralist, the other (neo)marxist—that have become highly influential. In Homo Sacer , Giorgio Agamben theorizes sovereign power in Western politics to argue that the ‘state of exception’ that enables the sovereign’s capture of ‘bare life’ has now become the rule. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri make the case in Empire that the global economic order has transcended twentieth century forms of imperialism characterized by the nation-state system. The emergent order—‘Empire’—instead deploys ‘postmodern’ forms of decentralized power and hybrid forms of subjectivity. I argue neither Homo Sacer nor Empire are up to the task of explicating post/modern sovereignty as they do not engage with its central problematic, namely its racial logic of power. Demonstrating that race remains central to the constitution of sovereignty, both in the Nazi ‘camp’ (in the limit figure of the Musselman) and ‘empire’ (through invasions and occupations), I argue that contemporary struggles for emancipation need to address the centrality of the racial logic of power. To do otherwise is to reproduce coloniality and the recuperation of whiteness-as-sovereign power.

Update, 6:15 p.m. Eastern, 9/18/12: Thobani responded to our email:

As I am still in the process of getting this article published in its entirety, I would prefer to wait until then before I discuss this matter.

15 thoughts on “Feminist studies journal retracts paper after post-acceptance editing dispute”

  1. Difficult to tell from the abstract, but her basic approach appears methodologically sound. I wonder if she works in the theme of the positioning of Kanada in the Auschwitz camp hierarchy vis a vis Canada’s role in the war on terror – I rather think she might,

    I look forward to her finding an appropriately ethical outlet for her work.

  2. is this science?

    The editors consider it’s appropriate to make “substantitive changes to the text” without consulting the author.

    Innteresting contrast with a journal (retraction story here a couple of days ago [*]) whose editors can’t be bothered to correct an abstract from a non-English-speaking group containing sentences like:

    “Because, pregnant woman is take all of these substance.” (Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry)

    [*] http://www.retractionwatch.com/2012/09/17/retraction-count-for-scientist-who-faked-emails-to-do-his-own-peer-review-grows-to-35/#more-9761

    1. It’s not entirely clear that the journal didn’t consult the author on the changes. Reading between the lines a bit, the following scenario seems plausible:

      The accepted version of the paper was “published as a preprint.

      The paper was copyedited and proofs were sent to the author for approval.

      The author didn’t like the copyediting and couldn’t resolve the issue with the editorial staff/editorial board.

      The author decided against having the edited paper published in an actual issue of the journal.

      The preprint had to be retracted because it was already “published.”

      1. Yes that’s quite possible Joel. Obviously the changes made by the editors were done without approval by the author and this is a valid reason for withdrawing one’s paper. If the reviewers (and editor) considered the final version of the manuscript acceptable for publication it’s difficult to imagine the sort of post acceptance/copy-editing changes required by the editor that the author would find so contentious. Seems with limited knowledge to be a fault of the editor in attempting to force alterations in an accepted MS, and it would be interesting to know the details.

        Copy-editing can be funny/maddening when one receives proofs containing sentences having their meanings entirely altered by over-zealous copy-editors! However it’s not easy to imagine a situation whereby unsatsfactory copy-editing would lead to the withdrawl of a paper. Perhaps in the potentially contentious subject matter of the paper, certain words and phrases preferred by the author are considered unacceptable by the publisher/editors, and the author refused to accept altered terminology???

      2. The editor of a journal I used to work for routinely accepted papers that probably ought to have gone through another round of minor revisions, asking the authors to make sometime significant additional changes after the formal acceptance. He did this in order to shorten the submission-to-acceptance times. Something like this could be going on.

        Whatever the specifics, some issue in the paper so important that neither the editors nor the author would back down surely should have been dealt with in the review process, and that it wasn’t probably points to some problems in the journal’s processes/procedures/policies.

      3. In my experience, the journal’s production people will send you the page proofs for approval prior to putting it up on their website. However if they don’t hear from you in a timely manner (a couple days, sometimes) they will just go ahead and post it as-is. So there is a small window of opportunity to fix any changes they made. Sometimes though, you are not around when the email comes directing you to approve the proofs. Other times authors just don’t have time to read the whole thing through to be sure nothing’s been changed in production.

        Some journals are fixing this by now explicitly highlighting any changes they made in production. Usually these are stylistic changes (capitalization, hyphenations, spelling out abbreviations). Frustrating, but at least not content-ful. Other times an overzealous copyeditor will decide they can write more clearly than you, and put words in your mouth. It’s nice to be able to see that at a glance.

  3. Where is author’s freedom of speech (First amendment or similar of Canada)?, why she cannot express herself even in academic setup?

    1. What an odd comment… I don’t see any evidence of censorship presented so far. Besides, in this internet age, a high-profile author has many outlets for publicizing her opinion – even if it clashes with the opinions of journal editors.

      As for “why she cannot express herself”, perhaps it has something to do with the jargon-heavy style of discourse fashionable in post-neo-de-constructionalist circles.

    2. Free speech is in public arena, A journal if private can censor whatever it wants. Or do you expect a communist journal to have pro free market texts?

  4. Details of wording have a peculiar significance for both post-modern scholarship and for legal scholarship, all the more so for both combined. In post-modern work, as I understand it, words for groups, concepts and relationships are treated as never value-neutral. Such terms express not only a definable idea in isolation, but, depending on speaker and context, bear the entire freight of a set of ideological assumptions and a culturally-conditioned world view. Furthermore words not only express a point of view, but also necessarily become part of a power struggle in which the speaker attempts, knowingly or otherwise, to dominate the reader and enforce the speaker’s underlying assumptions and views on people who may have competing assumptions and viewpoints.

    Scholarship in this mode is extremely difficult to edit, for obvious reasons. How do you edit a bar room brawl? Yet, it’s also fairly easy to see why a scholar writing in this mode would be seriously upset by anyone attempting to change her language without her consent.

    Sure, the stuff also sounds like delusional gibberish to most people. It probably is. But those are the rules of that game. Dr. Thobani is entitled to hit her readers with the same bar stool she threw.

  5. “At first glance, there seems to be something appropriate in Thobani’s principled move to pull the plug on her article rather than bend to edits she didn’t see before publication.”
    I would think that editors should not make any changes whatsoever after the author has accepted the final galley proofs as there should be no surprises to the author when she sees her paper in print for the first time. Maybe they have changed her corresponding address to Gitmo as a practical joke.

  6. It is very common – indeed standard – that authors are told that they need to make changes during the review process (or not be published). i find it odd that changes were made after a presumably ‘last draft’ version was accepted, but not that changes were required. The fact is, they were publishing the paper. Whether the changes were significant or not is another matter, and worth discussing.

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