Coercion in Academic Publishing

One of the hallmarks of libertarianism is its antipathy to the coercion of innocent persons. Because the state enjoys a monopoly on force, libertarians uniformly hold that compulsion by its officials is by far the most dangerous threat because there is no realistic possibility of escape, other than exit. So, for example, if the state passes a law that prohibits you, a competent adult, from consuming certain substances or condemns your property in order to build a new sports stadium, there is nothing to be done.[i]

In contrast, coercion by private parties is generally less threatening, because there are almost always alternatives open to the victim. For example, in a capitalist economy an employer that requires his workers to join and attend his church would lose most of them to competitors who impose no such insulting and burdensome condition. While libertarians would generally oppose state intervention to regulate such a mandate, it would still be reprehensible.[ii]

Thus, even though libertarians typically reject the use of legislation to redress (non-violent, non-fraudulent) wrongdoing in the private sector, it is still worth calling it out. The purpose of this post is to explore whether academic publishing uses practices that are morally objectionable in this way. To set the stage, I will briefly describe the peer review process typically followed in academic publishing. 

Once a paper is submitted to a (selective) journal for publication, it is reviewed by the editorial staff. If the editor-in-chief deems it to be of sufficient interest and merit, the manuscript is forwarded to at least two anonymous referees, experts in the relevant field, for review and comment. While it is possible for a referee to recommend that the paper be published as submitted or published conditionally, the much more typical advice is either outright rejection or “revise and resubmit,” meaning that the paper might be suitable for publication if the author is able to satisfactorily answer or address the questions/objections raised by the referee.[iii] If the editor decides that “revise and resubmit” is the appropriate response to the submission, the author may either elect to do so, or may seek publication elsewhere. The final publish/not publish decision is made by the editor-in-chief, taking into account the referees’ recommendations.

The existing process of peer review is generally defended as necessary to ensure that only high quality scholarship is presented to the journal’s readership. This practice has been widely criticized on a number of grounds, including ineffectiveness and the suppression of novel ideas and dissenting voices (see the link in the previous sentence). However, I wish to focus here on a different issue, which I will illustrate by means of my own experience.

As I was in the process of writing Libertarian Philosophy in the Real World (“LPRW”), it occurred to me that the Cato Institute would be the ideal home for this project, as it had the resources and reputation to bring my work to the attention of a broad audience. I imagined this think-tank would be willing to publish a well-informed Nozickian perspective on issues of public policy that generally aligned with its own, but from an angle not previously explored in its literature. After I had several chapters in draft form, I forwarded them to this think-tank.

Their staff there was very receptive, and expressed strong interest. They reviewed my draft chapters and made a variety of helpful editorial comments. However, there proved to be one—unexpected for me—insurmountable hurdle. In LPRW I express the judgment that there are certain issues that have no resolution within the natural rights libertarian framework, including abortion, immigration, and defense policy. In other words, there is no clear and convincing logical path from core libertarian principles to specific policy recommendations in these areas. Cato simply would not accept this argument with respect to foreign relations.

This surprised me because I was not actually advocating a “hawkish” stance, and acknowledged that non-interventionism might well be the wisest course in our current circumstances. I was merely asserting that a rigid policy of this sort could not be derived from our first principles and might not serve us well in all cases. I continue to believe, for the reasons stated in LPRW, that I am correct here; but nevertheless Cato would not be moved, and so we reluctantly parted ways.[iv]

Now, imagine that I am a non-tenured academic with a piece under consideration by some prestigious journal such as Ethics. Suppose one (or more) of the referees thought the manuscript was meritorious in the main, but had an objection to a key argument or contention. Perhaps the disagreement is an honest difference of opinion; that is, the author and referee simple disagree about whether the argument is sound or the conclusion is plausible.

In addition, there is the possibility of ideological conflicts. For example, perhaps a philosopher is making an apparently abstract argument that if followed to its logical conclusion would imply a pro-life position on abortion, which the referee will not accept. In both scenarios, if the author unsuccessfully attempts to persuade the referee(s) that their objections are not meritorious, she is then faced with the choice of editing her paper as suggested or risking rejection and harm to her career aspirations.[v] Is this process unjust?

There is a way to avoid such situations. That is, journals—with the assistance of whatever panel of referees they choose to employ—could simply select for publication the best papers submitted. Of course, after acceptance these institutions might still solicit referee comments, but the final editorial decisions would be the author’s alone. This proposal, if adopted, would ensure that authors are not forced to espouse views they do not sincerely hold, and that readers have access to their unvarnished thinking.

I would also hope that the first journal to adopt this procedure would increase its share of first-rate papers, as academics might well be attracted to the prospect of unfettered expression. Nevertheless, I do not have great confidence that this is a good or useful proposal, but merely suggest that it is worth exploring further. To that end, I have invited my friend Danny Frederick to share his thoughts on this topic or any other relating to the ethics of academic publishing. In light of his extensive publication record, he no doubt has greater relevant experience in these matters than do I. Comments from other interested parties are also welcome.

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[i] These are of course just familiar illustrations. A much more comprehensive itemization and analysis of abuses by the state may be found in my Libertarian Philosophy in the Real World.

[ii] Much less so of course if this requirement was known to candidates for employment at this firm. Unless announced in advance, there might well be contractual remedies for such conduct.

[iii] I may be wrong about this, but my impression is that book submissions are typically either accepted or rejected on the basis of detailed proposal, including sample chapters, and then less intensely scrutinized by referees than are papers.

[iv] This is not to be construed as a criticism of Cato. They are a private organization with a defined political mission and philosophy, and are plainly entitled to advance their goals as they see fit. I am pleased to say that I found a perfectly acceptable alternative, Bloomsbury Academic.

[v] If there were competing publications that operated on a more author-friendly model, she could submit her paper there, but so far as I know all peer-reviewed journals in the humanities employ this system.

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4 Responses to Coercion in Academic Publishing

  1. Hi Mark,

    Just some brief comments for now (as I have a lot on). I am not clear how the proposal would work. Is it like this? The editor and the panel of experts read the paper and then decide whether it crosses the threshold for publication? If it does they solicit referee comments, which are sent to the author, who is at liberty to re-write the paper or ignore the comments. They then consider the revised (or unrevised) submission and decide whether to publish.

    That looks very similar to what already happens. I think the key difference is supposed to be that the author does not have to satisfy the referees. But to some extent that happens already. I have had a few revise-and-resubmits where I explained why I was not taking account of some referee comments (i.e. because they were mistaken). In some cases (a minority) the paper was accepted. Presumably, the editor thought that I was right about the referee – or, at least, that I might be.

    In most cases, though, a revised paper is sent back out to the referees to get the nod from them, which is unlikely to be forthcoming if you have not done what they said. But under your proposal, would not the editor and panel want the paper to go back to the referees? The editor is not likely to be an expert in the subject; and even if there are people on the panel who are, they may be reluctant to go against the objections of another expert.

    So, my initial thought is that, even if the proposal is intended to be different to what happens, it would be likely to revert back to the status quo. Of course, I might have misunderstood your proposal.

  2. Mark Friedman says:

    Hi Danny:
    I’m afraid you have misunderstood me. My idea is that the journal’s editor-in-chief, and whatever outside panel of experts he or she has assembled, would make a single, irrevocable publish/not publish decision based on the author’s initial submission. That would constitute the peer review process. I would naturally hope that even after the decision to publish, the journal would still solicit comments on the accepted papers from outside sources, but all revisions to the paper would be solely at the author’s discretion. Hope that clarifies things.

  3. Yes, Mark, it does. It puts the editor on the spot, doesn’t it? At present, if a journal publishes a stinker, the editor can at least say “but two expert referees recommended publication!” Of course, on your proposal, the editor can call on the panel. But if they are named as the ‘editorial board’ or whatever, then they will be taking the rap. Yes, it is better for accountability (something the current system lacks), but it may put off people from taking the positions. I am just thinking out loud at the moment. The current system does need improving, and alternative options will all have their upsides and downsides. I’ll have to think this over some more.

    • Mark Friedman says:

      Thanks, Danny. In an ideal world, I envision something like this. Assume a particular journal publishes quarterly, and has a group of 20 outside referees (I have no idea if that is a realistic number). Each quarter, a different set of five is chosen by the editor-in-chief to make recommendations on which manuscripts should be published in that issue. In the best case, there is discussion/debate among panel members before each member separately submits their list (with a brief rationale for each choice). The editor than makes the final decision. The editor would then select two or more referees to comment on the accepted drafts, but as previously indicated, changes would be entirely at the discretion of the author.

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