Epistemic community and the Synthese boycott

Mon 18 Apr 2011 03:01 PM

Brian Leiter is calling for a boycott of Synthese. He gives details of the case at his blog, but the gist of it is this: The January issue was a special issue on the theme Evolution and its rivals. It included a paper by Barbara Forrest excoriating intelligent-design mountebank Francis Beckwith. The ID flak machine went to work long before the issue appeared. There was discussion of adding a disclaimer or revising the paper, but (after much ruckus) the guest editors were assured that the issue would appear without such tampering. In the end, however, the print version of the issue contained an apology from the journal editors for breaches of the "usual academic standards of politeness and respect." Some of the papers, they say, "employ a tone that may make it hard to distinguish between dispassionate intellectual discussion of other views and disqualification of a targeted author or group."

The guest editors of the issue are understandably miffed. Leiter leads with the headline Synthese Editors Cave in to Pressure from the Intelligent Design Lobby, and that doesn't seem overblown. The editorial note basically condemns some of the papers in the issue for resorting to ad hominem. The editor who wrote it were bungling, craven, duplicitous, or some combination of these.

I have published in Synthese in the past, and I have a paper working its way through their editorial process right now. If my present paper were just a regular submission, I would withdraw it.

The bind for me is that my paper was prepared for a special issue. The issue is on the theme The epistemology of inclusiveness. I was invited to submit the paper, I would not have written it but for the invitation, and the paper does not really make sense out of that context. Indeed, it's titled The epistemology of inclusiveness (or) Particular epistemic communities are always a mess.

Of course, losing a publication for principle would not cost me too much. I have tenure, and one paper more or less won't make much difference for my CV. Yet the guest editors who invited me have put time into the issue, as have other authors. They may not be in a position to be as cavalier about it as I could be, and none of them were involved with caving in to pressure from ID hacks. So I think that I will not withdraw my paper from the special issue.

I will join the boycott to this extent: I will not submit anything else to Synthese or review papers for the journal until there is a satisfactory reckoning. An apology from the editors would help here, but what can they say?

Of course, I will also keep an eye on the case. The editors have not given their account of it publicly.


from: Tony Lloyd

Tue 19 Apr 2011 06:12 AM

I would have thought that withdrawl of your paper was exactly the sort of thing that would make the boycott work:

1. Synthese have a special issue, half the papers for that special issue are withdrawn.

2. The special issue's editors have no choice but to withdraw from the special issue.

3. There is a big hole in Synthese's publishing schedule.

It would, certainly, have more effect than not submitting anything else in the future (how would they tell the difference between you not submitting anything because you'd decided to submit elsewhere and not submitting because of a boycott?)

That being said, I think a key problem in the boycott is a lack of clarity about what "a satisfactory reckoning" is. What are the war aims? An apology? New editors-in-chief? Pulp and re-issue of the special edition? A donation to charity? Another special edition on "are the editors-in-chief nobbers"? The destruction of the journal?

from: P.D.

Tue 19 Apr 2011 08:23 AM

Tony: Regarding impact of the boycott, there is a further complication. I was told when I was invited to contribute last Fall that the journal has such an enormous backlog of accepted papers that special issue will not appear until 2013. So withdrawing putting the kibosh on the issue will not materially impact the journal for some time. It will more seriously impact the journal's operations to refuse requests to referee papers.

Also, this update: My understanding is that the list of boycott participants will not be announced immediately, in hopes that the editors might make a satisfactory response. As Tony notes, however, there is a continuum of possible responses from mumbling to heads-on-pikes. And it is unclear exactly what would count as satisfactory.