A journal has withdrawn an essay that called for a return to colonialism after the editor received alleged threats tied to the article.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 However, in the statement, the publisher said that “peer-reviewed research articles cannot simply be withdrawn but must have grounds for retraction.”
The journal has since changed its position, and withdrawn the paper entirely from its site, posting this notice in its place:
This Viewpoint essay has been withdrawn at the request of the academic journal editor, and in agreement with the author of the essay.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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