Academic Neocolonialism: Clickbait and the Perils of Commercial Publishing

My colleagues Lisa Ann Richey, David Simon, Ilan Kapoor & Stefano Ponte with a timely guest post as the International Studies Associations (#ISA2019) annual meeting kicks off in Toronto.
The topic is once again the journal
Third World Quarterly which is sponsoring the reception of ISA
s Global Development Section and the broader questions these discussions raise for higher education and academic publishing.

In recent years, universities have been embroiled in debates about the appropriate ways to incorporate social justice concerns into teaching and research. From attempts to place hoax articles in academic journals in order to demonstrate biases in the editorial process to claims that campus activism impinges on free speech, these debates often suggest that radical and progressive politics are responsible for a decline in tolerance and academic standards. But the opposite is often true.

Take, for example, “The Case for Colonialism,” an article published by Third World Quarterly (TWQ) in 2017 which infamously argued that many “poor” countries would be better off today if colonial systems of government were reinstated. While the controversy around the article, which was ultimately retracted, has been well covered, what is less well known is that the Editor-in-Chief was the sole owner of this journal (and now owns it jointly with his daughter). Although the academic publisher, Taylor & Francis, publishes TWQ, the editor derives a healthy profit from it.

As former members of the TWQ Editorial Board who resigned over “The Case for Colonialism,” we remain concerned today about the ways that this unique financial arrangement influenced the decision to publish, and the way such commercial pressures continue to threaten the integrity of academic publishing. In short: “clickbait” can dictate what is published, even when the published content is of questionable quality.

To begin, it is worth reviewing briefly how the TWQ controversy unfolded. In September 2017, amidst growing debates about colonialism’s impact, an article by the political scientist Bruce Gilley appeared in TWQ defending colonialism’s record and calling for its return. The article immediately attracted controversy, with scholars debunking its underlying cost-benefit analysis and drawing attention to its lack of citations to existing literature that would contradict Gilley’s assertions. These concerns, entirely on grounds of academic merit, would ordinarily have been raised during peer review, and the journal – historically respected for its academic rigor as well as its commitment to anti-colonial politics – began to face questions about how the article had been peer reviewed.

Critics wondered whether “academia has been hacked” and they were right. Prior to publication, no board member had ever seen the Gilley article, and when the article appeared, we as board members began contacting the editor, wondering whether the publication was a hoax, a mistake, or an exercise in irony. In the ensuing board debate over how to respond to the controversy, we discovered that the article had initially been rejected by two guest editors of a then-forthcoming special issue on imperialism, with the editor deciding nonetheless to send it out for peer review as a standalone paper instead. When one of the peer reviewers rejected the paper, while the other called for “major revisions,” the editor nevertheless decided unilaterally to publish the paper. In short, the article did not pass the peer-review process, but was published anyway for its ability to spark political debate, rather than for its scholarly merit.

Half the board called for a retraction of the article, on either ethical or procedural grounds, and a quarter (all middle-aged white males, it must be noted) defended the editor’s right to decide unilaterally over the journal’s board and peer reviewers and argued against retraction on grounds of “free speech.” Briefly, the resigning board found consensus around a plan to use the article as a basis for a peer-reviewed debate on the issues raised, accompanied by an apology for the initial misjudgment in publishing, which the editor initially agreed to and then reneged upon. It was only at this point that we became aware of the unique financial status of the journal as a single-owner, for-profit enterprise. This revelation threw into relief past unsuccessful efforts to encourage the editor to make the journal more accountable and transparent by involving the board in editorial and policy decisions. Moreover, throughout the controversy over the article, the editor remained unresponsive to our queries as board members and to the wider public outcry for a response. Even after the article was retracted, citing reported threats of violence to the editor and author (which – like threats to the leaders of online petitions against the article – we unequivocally condemn), the editor did not share information on the threats and any associated police investigation with the board.

All of this suggests that, as the sole owner of a profit-seeking journal, the editor (as much as the corporate publisher) had every incentive to publish a controversial article, even one that flouts scholarly standards or the journal’s own mandate. Indeed, during the backstage negotiations, the editor admitted that his intention in publishing the piece was to provoke debate. Clickbait and controversy, after all, translate into readership. In fact, the Gilley article clocked 16,205 views in the span of the few months it was available on the TWQ site, becoming the 4th highest viewed article since the journal began recording such metrics.
A larger readership often leads to higher impact metrics, which are key to publishers’ profitability, journal editors’ status and authors’ career advancement prospects. Commercially-driven altmetric scores, rather than peer review, can play a significant role in determining what gets published, and evidence can be expediently sacrificed for profitable controversy.

Moreover, in a wider environment of debates over social justice and “free speech,” and with the reality of the subverted peer review concealed from public view, editor and publisher were able to present their position as one of defending academic freedom and their critics as policing speech, when in fact the opposite was true. A Taylor & Francis list was used to distribute an email titled “Third World Quarterly Solidarity Letter” which opened with the author stating that he was “writing to you as members of the editorial teams of the leading journals in Politics, Political Theory and International Relations to ask you sign a letter of solidarity with the journal Third World Quarterly and its editor-in-chief.” Some academics signed this letter in support of TWQin defense of the vital principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom.”

To stem some of the public criticism, the publisher printed posters and flyers to display at the International Studies Association’s 2018 Annual Meeting, advertising their search for a new managing editor. Two bids were received from scholars but were rejected. To date, no new editor has been announced. No public apology has been issued. Many of the new board members who replaced us were invited to join without any explicit mention of the Gilley controversy. Some of them, after having been contacted with the relevant information, suggested that they prefer a policy of “constructive engagement.”

Two years on, the editor continues to own and operate the journal as before, even as this financial arrangement is concealed from readers, authors and peer reviewers. The risk of substandard scholarship being pushed through editorial processes for commercial reasons remains, while continued debates about the alleged academic threat posed by social justice concerns can serve as a smokescreen for more dangerous profit-seeking agendas.

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