Friday, January 22, 2016

No more free labour by me for Synthese

UPDATE: March 2019
Well, it's been over three years. The editors never apologized, although they did give a kind of half-hearted implied acknowledgement of error. Everyone has moved on. I spent three years declining special issue invitations, referee requests, etc. I am disappointed that more people didn't join me in this kind of statement, but I guess the profession on the whole thought enough had been done. Reluctantly, and a little sadly, I'm ending my little protest now. The next time I refuse to referee a Synthese paper, it will be because I'm too busy, not because I'm unwilling to contribute my labour to this particular journal.

Original post follows:

Like most philosophers who are active on social media, I was amazed and horrified this week to learn from Feminist Philosophers about an article by Jean-Yves Beziau, nominally on logical pluralism, published in Synthese and containing irrelevant and incoherent sexist and homophobic ramblings. (See also the Daily Nous coverage/discussion here.) The article represents an extremely serious editorial failure; in my opinion, its publication is inconsistent with Synthese's status as a high-prestige philosophical journal. The editors need to apologize (really apologize) and retract the article. Unless and until that happens, I plan to exercise the little bit of personal power that I have in this matter, and refrain from contributing any more of my labour to a journal that has so dramatically failed to live up to its responsibilities.

So just what happened? The whole article is a mess, but the passage that has drawn the most outrage is this one:
"Logical pluralism" is linked in another way to sexuality: it is connected to homosexuality. The flag of homosexuality is the rainbow seen as a general symbol of pluralism opposed to the black and white dichotomy. It is a bit weird to promote plurality through a sexual activity between people of the same sex. It would be similar to promote democracy through dictatorship saying that democrats are open to every politicians including dictators. However supporting homosexuality is politically correct.

To be pluralist is a politically correct way of being. The expression politically correct has progressively flourished during the last 30 years. It is now being used to characterize what is correct or not in the same sense that morally correct was used before. Moralism now looks quite old-fashion, but politically correct is just a new skin for the old ceremony. What is correct or not has changed by the correctness mood is the same: political correctness shares with the old-fashioned moralism the same blind normative aspect. One has to think or behave in a way without really understanding why and if one disobeys she (to use a politically correct way of speaking, contrasting somewhat with the sexism of using "sexy expressions") is considered as an eccentric or/and a dangerous female. And political correctness like the old moralism is full of absurdity and hypocrisy: for example, it is not politically correct to eat dogs; at the same time it is politically correct to eat cows; although it is politically correct to recognize the plurality of religions, the fact that for Hindus eating cows is not good.

Logical pluralism is fashionable and fashion is ephemeral and superficial, like a sexy young woman that 1 day will be a not so attractive old lady. (pp. 1947–8)
Set aside the dubious grammar and orthography, which I have transcribed faithfully. Set aside even the fact there is nothing argumentative or illuminating about this passage (or in my opinion, in the rest of the paper). Set aside the ableist metaphors, and the author's apparent ignorance of the connotations of the phrase 'politically correct'. Pause briefly to note that this is merely a rambling series of nebulous associations of thought and focus with me on the blatant homophobia and misogyny. Those with greater expertise should correct me if I'm wrong about this, but I'm pretty confident that Beziau's assertion that logical pluralism is 'connected to' homosexuality is mere assertion—it is connected only by his own rather bizarre train of thought. The connection he has in mind seems merely to be that he considers each a perversion, tolerated only because of an insincere commitment to an arbitrary moral standard. Beziau is arguing, in a paper about logical pluralism, against tolerating homosexuality.

Then he drops a completely gratuitous simile, identifying the value of women with their sexual appeal—and assuming that older women are unattractive and therefore without value. In a paper about logical pluralism.

This is not just bad taste, or 'politically incorrect', or a mere oversight in judgment. This is a toxic denigration of most people. Philosophers who spend their entire lives surrounded by the perception that their sexual identity is a perversion, or that their value is essentially tied to their appearance (which is essentially tied to youth) should at least have a break when reading philosophy journals. (At least articles about logical pluralism!) The so-casual-it's-supposed-to-be-obvious message is: if you're not a straight man, you're a deviant or an expiring sex object (or both). The publication of this article was a very serious harm to the discipline of philosophy.

Rightly or wrongly, journals play a very important role in academia. Publication in peer-refereed journals is the single biggest factor in hiring and promotion decisions. Journal editors, therefore, are in positions of tremendous responsibility; editors regularly make decisions that dramatically impact people's careers. This is especially true for journals like Synthese that occupy a high-prestige status. Publishing this paper bestowed a significant degree of philosophical prestige on repugnant and ill-considered ideas.

In this instance, the paper in question was part of a special issue, guest edited by Gergely Székely. The stated procedures for guest editing at Synthese (laid out in the Daily Nous post) involve the same refereeing standards as regular issues do, and involve peer review by the editors-in-chief—Otávio Bueno, Gila Sher, and Wiebe van der Hoek. The editors-in-chief are ultimately responsible for the publication decisions of the journal, as they themselves observed in a statement given to both Daily Nous and Feminist Philosophers:
We are truly sorry about any offense caused by the special issue article published in Synthese. We are strongly committed to feminist and LTGB values. We take full responsibility for every article of published in Synthese, and are committed to learning lessons from every problem that arises. We are now looking into the problem, and although we would like to react as soon as possible, we also want to do a thorough investigation and discuss this with all concerned. Thank you very much for your concern and patience.
While I appreciate the difficulties of timely coordination, it is disappointing to me that the most they've said is that they are sorry about any passive-voice offense caused. This is a very obvious case of a very inappropriate publication decision. There is no reason they shouldn't be apologizing for printing the article. Do they doubt whether it was a regrettable mistake? Then they lack the judgment necessary for their positions of responsibility. If they know it was a regrettable mistake, then the very first, instant step should be to apologize for it. And yes, a full accounting of how it came to be is also crucial. But mistakes of this magnitude do not occur in a properly functioning organization. Either someone in a position of high editorial authority read this material and decided it was appropriate to publish it, or it was published without having been read by such a person. Each possibility implies a serious problem with a journal that can make or break a philosophical career.

Journals depend on the free labor academics give them, as editors, authors, and referees. I cannot in good conscience contribute to a journal that is so clearly failing in its responsibility to the academic community. To do so would literally be to be part of the problem. (Students and untenured philosophers have little choice but to play the game and be part of the problem, but I am tenured.) So I will do what I can do: I'll make some noise about this issue, for instance by writing this blog post. I'll also refuse, until it's clear that the situation has been rectified, to contribute my labour to Synthese. I won't edit, referee, or write for the journal. (I have just withdrawn from their planned special issue on epistemic justification, to which I'd previously been committed.)

Some people will say that I should wait until the editors have provided a fuller explanation of how this paper came to be published. I don't want to wait, for two reasons. One is that it's too easy to lose attention, to forget, over time—if they say, give us a bit of time to figure it out, it's only just come to light today (though one hopes the editors-in-chief didn't only just learn what they've previously published!), the community may give them time until it forgets about it and focuses on the next big scandal. The other is that, for the reasons I've already articulated, it's clear that whatever the explanation is, the journal has misused its power in an unacceptable way.

As far as I'm concerned, at this time, Synthese is not a professional publication worthy of prestige or respect. To be one again it must, at least, apologize for publishing the article, and retract it. It also must demonstrate clear, substantial reform—probably with at least some people in positions of authority stepping down—to ensure that enormous errors of this kind aren't made again. Until this happens, I for one will have nothing to do with it.

I also encourage my tenured colleagues to consider whether they are comfortable supporting a journal that behaves in this way.


  1. "Journals depend on the free labor academics give them, as editors, authors, and referees. I cannot in good conscience contribute to a journal that is so clearly failing in its responsibility to the academic community."

    Well said, but why doesn't this apply to Springer journals across the board, given the exorbitant prices they charge?

  2. I agree, and I certainly never referee for Synthese, but I don't think this goes far enough.

    It is more objectionable for editors to publish work that harms particular people rather than feeble attempts to denigrate broad classes. The amount by which this article will increase sexism or homophobia is exactly zero, but when articles dishonestly characterize the publications of particular people, they do real harm, though, of course, nowhere remotely near the top of the list of injustices in this world.

    If you have an accepted paper in hand, you can easily insert a passage that mischaracterizes someone to make them appear incompetent or stupid. Editors don't check these sorts of things, especially if you wait until the final stages of publication to insert the damaging comments. Given the low rate at which philosophers read publications carefully, and the much lower rate at which they double-check the veracity of paraphases, and the even much lower rate at which someone in the know will challenge a prestigious figure for being dishonest or the journal for publishing it, prominent philosophers are able to get away with a lot of mischief, even ending careers. And they sometimes succeed. The blanket excuse that people can have honest disagreements and misunderstandings covers up a lot of bad faith.

    If you accept Jonathan's argument, there are many more journals that are much worse and therefore also don't deserve any free labor from anyone, much less respect.

  3. Lee and Doug: yes, I think you're right. I agree that there's a case to be made for stronger stances on similar grounds.

  4. I suspect that the journal’s policy might be to just publish the conference talks verbatim in the special Issue. That would explain, but not justify, how those passages were able to escape editorial scrutiny. If so, what needs to be changed is the policy of publishing conference proceedings verbatim.

    Wayne Fenske

    1. That does not appear to be the (stated) policy.

  5. I agree with your evaluation of Beziau's paper, and I'm sympathetic to many of the other things you said (though it seems hyperbolic to say that the publication of this paper "was a very serious harm to the discipline of philosophy," but maybe I misunderstand what you mean).

    I have mixed feelings about your penultimate paragraph, where you say that Synthese is not now worthy of prestige or respect. But I have skin in the game: I currently have a paper under review at Synthese, which I just resubmitted after an R&R request.

    Now, I'm an NTT, and although I have published in highly-regarded journals, this would be the longest and probably best publication in my career so far. I actually considered withdrawing the paper, but I can't bring myself to do it. I very much don't want to wait another three or more months to hear word from a different editor at a different journal. I suppose that you wouldn't blame me for this, since I'm an NTT and "have little choice but to play the game."

    Which brings me to my worry about your post: It potentially could do harm to my career. Suppose that Synthese apologizes but doesn't demonstrate what you yourself would consider "clear, substantial reform." And suppose that you convince many others that Synthese is not worthy of any respect. And suppose finally that my paper is accepted for publication. Then the value of my paper is greatly diminished, which does harm to my career (as you yourself said, publication in a respected journal can have a significant impact on the careers of philosophers, especially junior philosophers).

    So, there you have it. I know I haven't offered a polished philosophical argument to make you reconsider your assertion that Synthese is not worthy of prestige or respect. Mostly, I am just trying to explain why I have mixed feelings about your position.

    There is more to be said, of course, but I've written a lot already! I would publish my name, but that might complicate the anonymity of my manuscript.

    1. Sythese has lost credibility regardless of what Jonathan says, so it's not Jonathan who is harming your career. All he's doing is drawing attention to the truth, which is, of course, our job.

    2. Basically I agree with Aeon Skoble, although I want to emphasize, Anonymous, that I empathize with your situation. Because journals do have such an important role to play, our careers, especially early on, are tightly tied up in these strange entities that don't always live up to their responsibilities.

      Perhaps you can take some solace, though, if your paper is published, that my own ability to influence measures of prestige in academia is very limited indeed. People will still be impressed by your CV line, whether or not I think they should.

    3. Jonathan, thanks for replying to me. You say that you basically agree with Aeon Skoble. But, to be honest, I find his response to be kinda dismissive. I'll explain why, but first I'd like to know a little more about the position that you're taking.

      Aeon Skoble says that Synthese "has lost credibility," and you suggest in your last sentence that people should not be impressed by my CV line if my paper is published in Synthese (we're working again under the assumption that Synthese doesn't demonstrate what you consider "clear, substantial reforms.") The idea, I guess, is that Synthese is no longer a credible journal and so any paper published by Synthese is not a credible paper. And this is why, if you had your way, people would not be impressed by my CV line.

      Am I correct so far? If so, I assume that you'd also say that any paper published by Synthese in recent years is without credibility, since any such paper would've been published under the same editorial circumstances. But doesn't this seem rather harsh? I'm sure some of your friends have published works in Synthese under those circumstances. In fact, your wife published a paper in Synthese just this year (a special issue of Synthese, no less). Wouldn't it bother you if people didn't regard the paper as credible on the grounds that Synthese also published that really crappy paper in an entirely different (special) issue? And wouldn't you be justified in being bothered? And wouldn't you be more bothered if she wasn't yet established and so it's very important that people not dismiss the paper? It would bother me. It would seem downright unfair.

      Now, I said above that Aeon Skoble's reply struck me as dismissive. The main thing I took away from his reply is that, if people no longer regard my paper as credible, then my career has been harmed, not by you, but by the editors of Synthese (and I suppose Beziou). I certainly agree. But you're a pretty well-known philosopher, especially amongst philosophers who use social media, and you've been the most vocal and vehement critic of Synthese on this issue (contrast your position with that of Catarina Dutilh Novaes). If it was you that convinced people that Synthese is no longer respectable (and, yes, this is purely hypothetical), then it was partly because of you that people don't respect my paper. So, although the editors harmed me by failing in their duties, so have you. You've harmed me in the straightforward sense that you've made my life worse than it would have been if it weren't for you.

      To be clear, I'm very open to the possibility that the harm is justified. But I think it's somewhat disingenuous to claim that you haven't harmed me (in this purely hypothetical scenario!). It seems to me more honest to acknowledge the harm and then argue that it's justified (so although you've harmed me, perhaps, you haven't really wronged me).

      Again, there's more to be said. I apologize for the long message and for any unclear passages (it's been a long week). For the record, I'm willing to somehow privately identify myself just so you know I'm not one of the editors of Synthese or something!

    4. In my ideal world, academics would accrue glory to the extent to which they've produced research of a high quality. Write a great paper and show it to the world; its quality is recognized, and it brings you acclaim.

      In the actual world, this appropriate form of prestige is part of what happens. There's also this other big influence, which to my mind, distorts things quite a bit. Although the quality of your paper makes a difference to your academic glory, the venue in which it's published also makes a difference—in many contexts, a big difference. These two possible versions of you will be perceived substantially differently:

      1. You write a great paper and publish it in a brand-name journal
      2. You write the same great paper and publish it in a lesser-known journal

      Version 1 of you will have an easier time being hired, promoted, etc. (This is basically why I think brand-name journals shoulder a big responsibility to the discipline at large.) Version 2 of you still wrote a great paper, and hopefully people will notice and talk about it and bring glory upon you, but it is less likely. I think this is a non-ideal state of affairs, but it's one that I haven't figured out how to avoid living with.

      My suggestion is that Synthese is demonstrating itself not to deserve the ability to make for this kind of difference. We shouldn't be more impressed by someone's publishing a Synthese article than we would be if they published the same article somewhere less famous.

      I certainly don't think we should *dismiss* an article just because it was published in Synthese (any more than I think that about any other less famous journal). Papers should be judged on their merits. So I don't think, as you suggest I do, that any paper in Synthese is not a credible paper. There are many papers published in Synthese that I think are great papers, and I think we should site them and be impressed by them—but we shouldn't be impressed by their *having appeared in Synthese*.

      Thanks for the offer to reveal yourself—I'll leave that to your discretion. (Certainly I won't out you if you do.) I am more inclined to engage with named people than anonymous ones, but I can certainly see why this is an occasion you wouldn't want to use your name publicly.

    5. Anon, I wasn't trying to be dismissive of _your plight_; merely claiming that it's not on Jonathan. Actually, I sympathize with you, and have empathy for all seeking TT positions, esp those who, like you, are doing all the right things. My only point was that whatever negatives this episode entail for you, it's not wrong for Jonathan to publicly carp about it. But the good news is, I suspect no one will hold it against _you_ that this guest issue had crap editing. So you're probably in good shape anyway. But again, not trying to be dismissive of your situation, just defending Jonathan.

    6. @Aeon Skoble, thanks for replying to me. Actually, I should apologize because it only occurs to me now that I should have responded to you directly rather than responding only to Jonathan. Anyway, I didn't mean to imply that you were being callous and dismissive of my plight. Rather, it seemed to me that you were being dismissive of my main point, which is that Jonathan's post could potentially harm my career. What I meant is that you didn't seem to acknowledge this point. I tried to explain this point more thoroughly in my most recent response to Jonathan.

      I've been trying to think of some analogy. Here's an imperfect one: Suppose that Boss owns a company where Employee works. Employee really needs the work, and he does his job well. Now, one day Boss does something wrong (maybe she failed to fulfill one of her duties, as the editors of Synthese seem to have done, or maybe she said something repugnant about marginalized groups, as Beziou did). Now, Protester calls for Boss to make amends. Boss refuses and so Protester launches a campaign against Boss's company. As a result Boss's company closes down, which means that Employee has lost his job. Now, there is room to disagree about the metaphysics of harm (I know that Hanser and Thomson debated the issue in a series of PPR papers). But I think it's correct to say that Protester harmed Employee, since Protester's action made Employee worse off. It would be disingenuous for Protester to insist that it was Boss alone who harmed Employee. Protester would just be shirking responsibility. Now, although I think that Protester has harmed Employee, I'm prepared to consider the possibility that the harm was justified, so that Protester didn't do anything wrong, all things considered. Whether this is true would probably depend on the details of the case (it would probably depend on what exactly Boss did wrong).

      As I said before, Jonathan is pretty well-known, and he has been the most vocal and vehement critic of Synthese, going so far as to say that the journal is not worthy of respect. If (hypothetically, of course) Synthese fails to satisfy Jonathan's demands for reform, and Jonathan succeeds in convincing people of his opinion, then he would have harmed me, in basically the same way that Protester harmed Employee. Again I'm open to the possibility that this harm is justified, so that Jonathan did not do anything wrong, all things considered. But again I think there should be some consideration and appreciation of the fact that harm was done (to innocent parties).

      One final point: You said in your original comment that Jonathan is merely drawing our attention to the truth. But Jonathan's original post does more. It's a call to arms. I don't mean this as a criticism. I think his cause is just.

    7. @Jonathan, Sure I'll send you an email identifying myself. I imagine it's annoying to engage with an anonymous figure. Honestly, if my manuscript weren't still under review I would be comfortable using my name.

      I'll have to think more about your most recent reply to me, but it seems to me that your view is less extreme than the one that you presented in your original post.

      You wrote in your most recent reply that we shouldn't be more impressed by someone's publishing a Synthese article than we would be if they published the same article somewhere less famous. But you were very clear in your original post that you believe Synthese is not worthy of respect. This seems inconsistent unless you hold that the less-famous journal is not worthy of respect. But I'm probably nit-picking.

      More importantly, you wrote in your original post that you won't have anything to do with Synthese. Now that I re-read it, your focus is on editing, refereeing, and submitting. But when you said that you won't have anything to do with the journal, I assumed you meant that you also won't subscribe to it or read it. Effectively, you're boycotting it (please correct me if you didn't mean to suggest that you're boycotting Synthese). But, in your most recent response to me, you allow that many papers published in Synthese are great (I personally think that the average quality of a Synthese paper is much higher than most other journals) and that people should cite them and be impressed by them. But people can only cite them and be impressed by them if they read them and they can only read them if they aren't boycotting the journal in which they're published.

      Another point. You wrote in your most recent response that papers should be judged on their merits. Sure. But I'm going to be on the job market (again) next fall. And, let's be honest, most people in a position to hire me aren't going to carefully read any of my papers (some of which are rather technical). They are, however, going to read my CV. Your position is that they shouldn't be impressed by my paper having appeared in Synthese (rather than some journal they haven't even heard of?). You can see why this position is difficult for me to accept (especially since I hold that Synthese generally publishes great papers).

      One last question: You drew a distinction between being impressed by a paper and being impressed by a the paper's having appeared in journal X. I want to think more about this distinction. It seems legitimate to me, but I wonder: Is there any journal such that you'd be impressed by a paper's having appeared in that journal (even if you've read the paper and aren't actually impressed by the paper itself)?

      Sorry again for the length of this message. I'm sincerely interested in hearing more replies, but I myself might be slow to respond, since I teach tomorrow and have a professional deadline to meet at the end of the week. I'll close by saying that I don't want my worries about Jonathan's original post to detract attention away from the many significant points that he raises.

    8. To clarify: I am not advocating boycotting the journal in the sense of refusing to read its papers.

  6. After reading a few of Beziau's other papers (that he has on his website), I'm really shocked at how similar they are to this paper in terms of quality. It seems bizarre to me that he has been writing articles like this for a while, and no one has noticed. (I should also mention that I am a grad student, and so there is the possibility that his other papers are fine and I'm just too stupid to understand them, but I doubt it.)

  7. Now that time has passed we can easily verify, by comparing with the fragments above, that Ichikawa's interpretation of Beziau's fragments is just adding non-existent claims:

    "Beziau is arguing against tolerating homosexuality."


    "...identifying the value of women with their sexual appeal—and assuming that older women are unattractive and therefore without value"

    So, has philosopher Ichikawa a poor reading comprehension skills? No! And that is what worries me. So what happens? (And of course this applies to all academic philosophers that seemed unable to properly interpret the (weird) fragment).

    Are we aware that if we fight sexism and homophobia in such embarrasingly misled ways we are going to fail?

    1. Anonymous, obviously I disagree with your assertion that I've misread Beziau. Since you haven't offered any substantiation for that assertion, there's nothing further for me to engage with. I'll leave it to other readers (if any there be on this year-old blog post) to decide whether "we can easily verify" that I was wrong to be upset by this paper. Certainly you haven't changed my mind. I don't know if that was among your ambitions.