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.
[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.