Article defending colonialism draws rebuke, journal defends choice to publish

Facing a volley of criticism for publishing an essay that called for a return to colonialism, a journal editor has defended his decision to print the article.

The Case for Colonialism,” published Sept. 8 in Third World Quarterly (TWQ), was written by Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University. For an idea of what the piece was about, here’s the beginning of the abstract:

For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy. Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found, using realistic measures of those concepts.

Since the essay came out, scholars have criticized both the article itself and the journal’s decision to publish it. Several critics have called for retraction. [Update: 15 members of the editorial board have resigned in response.]

One group of critics wrote that they objected to the essay because:

The sentiments expressed in this article reek of colonial disdain for Indigenous peoples and ignore ongoing colonialism in white settler nations.

Those critics also called the article “poorly executed pseudo-‘scholarship.’” One member of the TWQ editorial board has threatened to resign if it’s not retracted.

Monday, TWQ Editor-in-Chief Shahid Qadir issued a response defending the decision to publish the article, noting that the journal embraces controversial pieces:

As a peer reviewed, scholarly journal, our Aims and Scope sets out that TWQ “…examines all the issues that affect the many Third Worlds and is not averse to publishing provocative and exploratory articles.” Throughout its 40 year history, TWQ has been at the forefront of shaping development discourse, with Viewpoint essays enabling challenging opinions to be tested though (sic) rigorous double-blind peer review and then debated upon publication by fellow researchers.

Qadir writes that Gilley’s essay was no different and underwent double-blind peer review before being published.

Still, Qadir distanced the journal from the arguments contained in the piece, saying:

By publishing this article we are not endorsing its pro-colonial views, as would be the same for any Viewpoint piece. We are however presenting it to be debated within the field and academy, which this justifiably has been.

The TWQ article isn’t the first brush with controversy for Gilley. In 1995, as a reporter for the Hong Kong Eastern Expressa short lived, English-language newspaper that shuttered in 1996 — he published a questionable story about Chinese medical centers selling aborted fetuses as dietary supplements. The story has become fodder on internet message boards investigating urban legends, such as

Gilley did not respond to our request for comment.

In a Sept. 11 Tweet, Vijay Prashad, a member of TWQ’s editorial board, said that he has threatened to resign if the article isn’t retracted. Prashad is also a professor of history and international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. [Update: Prashad and 14 other members of the TWQ editorial board have since resigned over the decision to print the article.]

A trio of scholars, led by Jenny Heijun Wills, an English professor at The University of Winnipeg, have voiced their specific objections to the piece in a petition posted to, requesting that TWQ retract the article and publicly apologize for publishing it. The petition was first reported by a news site associated with the right-leaning Leadership Institute.

In the petition, Wills and company wrote:

we originally thought this work was satire; if that is the case, it is satire that fails … Your journal will continue to lose credibility the longer this article remains published.

They added that they were “suspicious” of Gilley’s intentions. Regardless of intentions, they said the article was “harmful” and “should be retracted immediately.”

In Qadir’s response, he wrote that he welcomes critics of Gilley’s essay to submit responses to the journal:

We will now continue this debate by publishing contradicting anti-colonial Viewpoints, to firmly challenge this opinion in the very best academic tradition. We invite academics from across the field of development studies, or related fields, to submit serious responses to the Viewpoint essay ….

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27 thoughts on “Article defending colonialism draws rebuke, journal defends choice to publish”

  1. Instead of petitioning to have the article removed, why don’t Prashad and Wills et al. simply write a follow-up article or series of articles refuting the points in the Gilley article? That way, the readers are exposed to a variety of viewpoints on the subject and can decide for themselves who has the best argument. The academic credentials of the critics are impressive, so why not leverage it to convince the readers instead of simply trying to suppress the article? If Gilley’s article is so flawed (history/sociology is not my field so I cannot make that judgement myself), it should be a simple matter to show that it is problematic without resorting to censorship. Hiding controversial ideas only drives them underground and strengthens them – sunlight is the best disinfectant for bad ideas on both sides of every issue.

    1. Yes, to focus the debate, we can ask two sides to write an article on King Leopold’s slaughter and starvation of 10 million Congolese: pro and con. How about a pro and con debate about the Boer War, and the British-imposed famine that killed 1 million Indians? Or the dozens and dozens of other genocidal famines colonialism imposed on the world. A debate on it, that’s the only balanced thing to do!

    2. It is not censorship to withdraw a work that did not meet the original standards for publication. This is not a situation in which there are competing viable theories. This is not whether the peopling of the Americas occured in one migration over the land bridge or in boats over time. This is not even geocentrism vs. heliocentrism but flat Earth vs. round (near sphere) Earth. The claims and conclusions are morally objectionable, but the underlying science is so shoddy that it is not worthy of serous critique.

    3. I tend to find that people, no matter their credentials, who want to cover things up rather than debate it do so because they know they haven’t a good enough counterargument to convince people. Perhaps there is reality in the piece? I really wouldn’t be surprised.

  2. I find the editors’ response truly baffling.

    They had to have worked really hard to find peer reviewers who would have overlooked the startling lack of engagement with scholarship and history displayed in Gilley’s article. I cannot imagine any of the authors or editorail board members of TWQ having allowed it to go through. At least one Board member has been reported (in a private FB post, so can’t share) to have been asked to peer review it and to have immediately rejected it, as any scholar in the field would have done. Note that this is not about the kinds of arguments made in the piece, but the fact that they are completely disconnected from the scholarship TWQ has published for decades. Something is not right about this.

  3. There’s more on this today — I assume the statement by resigning editorial board members will reach you. Possibly Shahid Qadir has not been totally up-front re the review process.

    Re AEP above, journals need to uphold basic standards of scholarship. You don’t publish every rant that floats over the transom. There is in fact considerable nuanced literature and debate on effects of colonialism and respected academic defenders of it. Gilley is ignorant of the literature.

  4. 15 members of Third World Quarterly’s editorial Board resigned in protest of Qadir’s remarks, calling them false.

    19 September 2017


    Dear Shahid Qadir, Taylor & Francis, Colleagues and Interested Public,

    We are deeply disappointed by the unacceptable process around the publication of Bruce Gilley’s Viewpoint essay, “The case for colonialism,” which was published in Third World Quarterly without any consultation with the Editorial Board. As International Editorial Board Members, we were told in an email on 15 September from Shahid Qadir that this piece was put through the required double-blind peer review process. We asked for these reviews to be sent to the Editorial Board, and they were not.

    We have now been informed by our colleagues who reviewed the piece for a Special Issue that they rejected it as unfit to send to additional peer review, and they stated in an email to us:

    “We would question the editorial process that has led to the publication of the piece. It was initially offered to guest editors Dr John Narayan and Dr Leon Sealey-Huggins as an article to consider for inclusion in the aforementioned special issue. The guest editors relayed their unease with the article and rejected considering the piece for peer review. It has subsequently come to light that the article was later reviewed as a standard article and rejected by at least one reviewer and then repackaged as an opinion piece.”—email from Dr John Narayan (Birmingham City University)
    Dr Leon Sealey-Huggins (Warwick University)
    Dr Kehinde Andrews (Birmingham City University)
    Dr Eugene Nulman (Birmingham City University)
    Dr Goldie Osuri (University of Warwick)
    Dr Lucia Pradella (King’s College London)
    Professor Vijay Prashad (Trinity College)
    Dr Sahar Rad (SOAS, University of London)
    Professor Satnam Virdee (University of Glasgow)
    Dr Helen Yaffe (London School of Economics)

    We have also been informed through correspondence between Prof Ilan Kapoor and our colleague who was the peer-reviewer, after the piece was rejected by the Special Issue editors, that her review also rejected the Viewpoint. Thus, the fact is established that this did not pass the peer-review when we have documentation that it was rejected by three peer reviewers.

    As the Viewpoint did not pass the double-blind peer review as claimed by the editor in the statement he issued in the name of the journal, it must be retracted and a new statement issued.

    The Viewpoint fails criterion #1 of the Committee on Publication Ethics COPE guidelines that state: “Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if: they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error).”…/Retractions_COPE_gline_fina…
    These COPE guidelines are Taylor & Francis’s reference documents for ethics of retracting a publication the editorial board was told in an email on 18 September by Shahid Qadir.

    Thus, Bruce Gilley’s Viewpoint essay, “The case for colonialism” must be retracted, as it fails to provide reliable findings, as demonstrated by its failure in the double-blind peer review process.

    We all subscribe to the principle of freedom of speech and the value of provocation in order to generate critical debate. However, this cannot be done by means of a piece that fails to meet academic standards of rigour and balance by ignoring all manner of violence, exploitation and harm perpetrated in the name of colonialism (and imperialism) and that causes offence and hurt and thereby clearly violates that very principle of free speech.

    The Editor of TWQ has issued a public statement without any consultation with the Editorial Board that is not truthful about the process of this peer-review, and thus, as we fully disagree with both the academic content of the Viewpoint and the response issued in the name of the journal, we are forced to resign immediately from the Editorial Board of Third World Quarterly.

    As scholars, we remain ever-committed to the ideals that this journal has stood for over the past 40 years, and we would consider serving on an Editorial Board under different editorial arrangements.


    Ilan Kapoor (York University, Canada)
    Stefano Ponte (Copenhagen Business School, Denmark + Duke University, US)
    Lisa Ann Richey(Roskilde University, Denmark + Duke University, US)
    Mahmood Mamdani (Makerere Institute of Social Research, Uganda + Columbia University, US)
    Asef Bayat (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, US)
    Naila Kabeer (London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)
    Katie Willis (Royal Holloway University of London, UK)
    David Simon (Chalmers Univ. of Technology, Sweden + Royal Holloway Univ. of London, UK)
    Walden Bello (State University of New York at Binghamton, US)
    Giles Mohan (The Open University, UK)
    Ayesha Jalal (Tufts University, US)
    Uma Kothari (University of Manchester, UK)
    Vijay Prashad (Trinity College, US)
    Klaus John Dodds (Royal Holloway University of London, UK)
    Richard Falk (Princeton University, US)

  5. AEPrinting
    Instead of petitioning to have the article removed, why don’t Prashad and Wills et al. simply write a follow-up article or series of articles refuting the points in the Gilley article? That way, the readers are exposed to a variety of viewpoints on the subject and can decide for themselves who has the best argument. The academic credentials of the critics are impressive, so why not leverage it to convince the readers instead of simply trying to suppress the article? If Gilley’s article is so flawed (history/sociology is not my field so I cannot make that judgement myself), it should be a simple matter to show that it is problematic without resorting to censorship. Hiding controversial ideas only drives them underground and strengthens them – sunlight is the best disinfectant for bad ideas on both sides of every issue.

    If scholars wish to censor the written word, we are in big trouble. Put opposite views, with reason, and debunk, if appropriate.

    1. Except that there are gazillions of articles that have written on the evils of colonialism already. The offensive piece did not engage with any of them, but simply wrote a simplistic rant that can be debunked by any first-year sociology student. One has to wonder why the journal takes us, the so-called serious academics, through a rigorous process of double-blind peer review if it would publish such a tardy work of research that could not be bothered to engage existing literature or even think its way through a simple argument. If the journal had that much of a high standard, why did they lower it in this case? The allure of ratings and stats?

    2. This situation is like a security guard letting a fan run onto an NFL field. If ths happened we would eject the fan and fire the guard. We would not say let teh fan continue to play.

    1. I am also a journal editor, and if I did what this editor did, I would have to step down. Let’s get a COPE publication ethics case underway, hopefully leading to retraction. This happens all the time in STEM disciplines when articles are found to have unreliable findings or methods even after peer review, and it is time for the social sciences to step up and start patrolling their pond too .

      While we are at it, we need to encourage the outgoing board members to establish a mirror or ‘flipped’ journal outside the commercial publishing sector.

  6. Such actions don’t really help anyone. As others have stated: if the ideas put forth in the article in question are wrong or dangerous, then rebut them. If Gilley is “ignorant of the literature” it should be easy to do.

    To resign because you don’t like something only serves to fuel the fires of those whom might have an alternate agenda.

    1. They resigned because the paper failed to pass the peer review process. It is one thing to debate ideas and another to publish papers which are not of sufficient quality, I think the paper is not even worthy or a discussion because it is so fundamentally flawed. You just give legitimacy to a poorly developed argument if you do this in the same context.

    2. From reading the resignation article the members of the board resigned because the article was a) apparently published despite numerous rejections by reviewers and b) the editor-in-chief made erroneous statements regarding the “rigorous” double-blind pear review that the article (apparently) did not actually receive.
      They did not resign because “they did not like it” but rather because they considered the article to be published without regard to both COPE guide lines and any regard to reviewers comments (rejection).
      In other words they (I believe) considered the editor-in-chiefs actions in publishing the piece to be “inappropriate” at best.
      As their names are tied to the journal I think they feel they have had no other choice but to disassociate from the article as publically as possible…and I tend to agree with them.
      I take the point that contrary views should and must be published in the interest of scientific debate but if the view is made without proper or sufficient reference to the academic body of works then it is no more than a “rant”. Having not read the article I cannot say if it was the case in this instance – but – clearly the members who resigned (all from prestigious institutions) and reviewers did. One can only conclude from available evidence that the article should not have been published in this journal.

      1. A follow up article, or series of articles, by the authors may be entirely Justified given deviation from the accepted “academic” or “learned scholars” views demonstrates independent thinking of a unique sort. We all remember when it was heresy to speculate the World was not flat as the “academics” and “scholars” of the time taught.

        1. “We all remember…”
          I assume you meant that ironically? I don’t think many will remember much from pre-Aristotelian times!

  7. This is alarming. If the essay itself and/or its publication process had been deeply flawed, but the content had not been controversial, would it have led to an outcry and to mass resignations? No.
    The fact is that unpopular or unfashionable opinions attract disproportionately intense scrutiny, and this causes publication bias (and groupthink) on a massive scale. Different publication standards are applied to different points of view.
    There are plenty of academics out there who routinely publish shoddy research, but as long as their views are conformist, few seem to notice, and even fewer seem to care.
    The next time academics snigger about the pressures that funders place on their colleagues in think tanks and commercial research institutions, they should remember this episode and reflect on the peer pressure and pack mentality within academia.

    1. I think that Till Bruckner identifies a (if not the) central lesson from this brouhaha. Having read the paper, it is evident to me that it is polemical rather than analytical. As such it should readily be amenable to a corrective critique. The irony of Calvin’s comment lies in how easily he is able to identify several examples that could be deployed in such a critique. It seems to me that this demonstrates the salience of debate in providing a corrective to Gilley’s paper and not its irrelevance. Nor does criterion 1 of the COPE guidelines conclusively demonstrate the need for retraction rather than debate. It requires clear evidence of unreliable results caused by misconduct or error to justify retraction. This lends itself more to the hard and fast results associated with a quantitative/hard science approach rather than the debatable results that might be associated with the broadly qualitative approach adopted by Gilley and much social science analysis (whatever happened to such ideas as essential contestability). These considerations lead me to agree with Bruckner that demands for censorship rather than debate are in their own way as objectionable as Gilley’s one sided account of colonialism.

  8. I’d agree with Till Brucnker, above.
    I haven’t read the article, so I cannot judge it’s merits. But I read some of the author’s arguments and so, I can follow his line of thought. Gilley is obviously convinced that it is necessary to think ‘dispassionately’ about regimes and the net costs/benefits those regimes have, without moral/ideological prejudice, which makes sense, since he has written a lot on China. Clearly, given the choice of title, his article has a ‘devil’s advocate’-aspect to it. Which makes sense, given the author’s background in philosophy. I suspect that those that decided to publish it considered it in the same light, felt it was something worth discussing. Not every scholarly article needs to be the final word, with perfect backing in research and earning a universal nod of approval, after all. Many articles with non-controversial conclusions aren’t.
    It might very well be that his perspective is limited, that he glosses over important recent work, that his arguments & conclusions don’t stand up to scrutiny. But then… stand up to them and scrutinize.
    The apparent tendency to substitute moral/political outrage (call for resignations, attacks on publishers) for good old fashioned debunking is ultimately very harmful for academia. Being seen as ‘censoring’ delegitimizes institutions and fields to a large part of the outside world.

    1. Well you can go and give a read. The major argument from the author is that “Western colonialism” did some good dead and the turmoil in some of the post-colonized Africa is due to “Anti-colonial ideology”. I am not sure that’s what a modern scholar should do. History is complicated: every continent and every country came from its own path. What we know is that there are countries industrialized itself through reformations and revolutions without the help of colonization; there were hard-core colonization wiping out the entire native residence; and there were many cased in between. You can not simply make a conclusion “western colonization is good” or blame a single ideology “anti-colonial ideology is bad” based on the whole 19-20th century history!!! Which country are we talking about? Kenya? Ethiopia? Indonesia? Taiwan? Hongkong? North America? The whole situation is muddy, ugly, and in the grey area, it is not black-and-white. Then what is the point of single out “anti-colonial ideology”? As far as I can see, the local warlords could pick up whatever slogan to push its campaign and agenda, be it “anti-colonial” or “jihad”.

  9. This is what happens when you publish something politically unfashionable. The political Left operates on censorship and silencing of ideas. If there’s something wrong with the conclusions of the paper, write a rebuttal.

  10. I’d really like to read the article, even if I don’t agree with it. It seems that all those who have read it and dislike it so much haven’t had their minds rotted by it, so it’s probably not going to contaminate me either…. unless you all believe that you have some superior power that permits you to judge what I should and shouldn’t be allowed to read for my own good. So where can I find a copy? If I can’t, I’ll just have to find a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover instead. Of course I won’t let my valet read it…

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