Synthese Editors in Chief diss their own journal

And now for something completely different. Philosophers scoring an own goal.

John Wilkins give the full story, but here’s a summary, and then my own views.


Synthese is a philosophy of science journal that usually publishes papers with titles like “Underdetermination, realism and empirical equivalence”, and “The inverse spaceship paradox”. Meat and drink of professional academics in a small field everywhere. But recently they published a special issue about “Evolution and its rivals“, guest edited by Glenn Branch and James Fetzer. This is an examination of the usual issues in the debate between evolutionbiology and ID/creationism.
Well, it appears some people weren’t too happy. The paper edition has this statement inside:

Statement from the Editors-in-Chief of SYNTHESE
This special issue addresses a topic of lively current debate with often strongly expressed views. We have observed that some of the papers in this issue 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.
We believe that vigorous debate is clearly of the essence in intellectual communities, and that even strong disagreements can be an engine of progress. However, tone and prose should follow the usual academic standards of politeness and respect in phrasing. We recognize that these are not consistently met in this particular issue. These standards, especially toward people we deeply disagree with, are a common benefit to us all. We regret any deviation from our usual standards.
Johan van Benthem
Vincent F. Hendricks
John Symons

Yep, the Editors in Chief (EiCs) are saying that they published some papers which they now don’t think are suitable. From what we’ve been told, the problem was with one paper, by Barbara Forrest who looks at the work of Francis Beckwith (Beckwith has been on the edge of ID without quite supporting it). According to the guest editors, some people complained about the paper after it had been accepted and put up online. So the EiCs responded with the disclaimer above.
For me, this is a pretty silly way to behave. The papers in the special issue were handled by the two guest editors (one of whom has past experience editing the journal). But the decision to accept a paper must ultimately lie with the editors in chief. Presumably they abrogated their authority to make decisions, and left it to the guest editors. That’s fine, but if you’re going to let someone else make the decisions then let them do it.
Look at this from a guest editor’s point of view. The EiCs have publicly thrown them under the bus with this statement. How would you feel as a future guest editor if you can’t be confident that the EiCs will publicly support your decisions, once after it too late to change anything?
The EiCs have also thrown all the authors of the special issue under the bus. In their statement complain about “some of the papers in this issue”. but they don’t say which. We’re only aware of one having been complained about. So why cast doubt on all of the others? I think they would be justified in feeling insulted by this.
Doing this also doesn’t help the editors. They’ve just publicly admitted that they don’t oversee what’s published in their journal, and also that they won’t support either their authors or their editors. Indeed, they’ll happily insult their authors even if they’ve done nothing wrong. Even worse, they give the impression that they’re not prepared to stand up to criticism: they are less concerned about the journal than they are about their own positions.
What could they have done? GrrlScientist’s solution would have involved this:

But anyway. The first thing would have been to given Beckwith the chance to respond in the journal. And – good news! – they did. But after that, they should either have said nothing publicly (perhaps privately discussed this with the guest editors, and perhaps admitted that they erred by not keeping a close enough eye on the process of putting together the special issue).
But what if the editors felt the paper shouldn’t have been published? They could have retracted it. Apparently they tried to get it altered, but the publishers weren’t too happy (remember, it had already appeared online, so it had gone through the process of typesetting etc.).
What if they weren’t happy and wanted to make this known? Well, they could have written an editorial, perhaps to appear in the same issue as Beckwith’s reply. But they should certainly have also explicitly acknowledged that they had erred in letting the paper be published as it was. This is tricky though: they would have to find a wording that was acceptable to the guest editors (who are implicitly being blamed).
The EiCs should also have been clearer about which papers were troublesome, and why. If any of you follow Retraction Watch, you will know that Ivan regularly complains about opaque retraction notices. This is similar: as readers we deserve to know which papers are troublesome. In some ways, I think this is where the EiCs have really screwed up here. They have cast doubt on all of the papers in the special issue. Even if a reader has been following this online, they are only aware of one problematic paper, but not the others that the EiCs’ statement implicate in having an improper “tone and prose”. They owe it, I think, to the innocent authors, to say which papers they have problems with, and which are acceptable.
In many ways this is a storm in a teacup: it’s an academic dispute in an obscure discipline. For most of us it matters little – I doubt I’ll ever publish a paper in Synthese, and the journal is obscure enough that only a small proportion of academics will care about it. On the other hand, how journal editors more generally deal with their authors and guest editors does matter.
I’m a guest editor for a journal at the moment, so I’m hoping the EiC will behave better that the EiCs at Synthese. I can’t see a problem with an EiC insisting on the last word on acceptance of a manuscript: it is ultimately their responsibility. And guest editors are probably tricky, because they may not appreciate how the journal usually operates, and they might get too much internal momentum (e.g. by trying to accept every manuscript for the issue). But I hope an EiC would either do their job, or if they decide not to, won’t come in too late to try and “rescue” things. They make everyone look bad.
Mind you, they do give us things to blog about.

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Scientist, poet, gadfly
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One Response to Synthese Editors in Chief diss their own journal

  1. Mohan Matthen says:

    I don’t know how obscure Synthese is, or philosophy for that matter. However, I have often refereed for the journal, and take their behaviour seriously. It’s simply wrong for the E-in-C’s to diss one of their authors after publication on-line. Doubtless they were poorly advised and thought they were acting correctly. However that might be, they should reflect on the ethics of using their privileged position to publish an attack on a paper that was accepted by the Guest Editors.
    A simple apology, and a promise to behave better in the future, would put things right. Until things are put right, it would be silly to publish in Synthese or to referee for them. You don’t want to be the victim of a random E-in-C epiphany.