A Revolt at a Journal Puts Peer Review Under the Microscope

September 25, 2017

The backlash against "Third World Quarterly" was swift after it published a defense of colonialism. Nearly half of its editorial board resigned, saying the piece had been published even though peer reviewers had rejected it.
Even longtime admirers of Shahid Qadir were puzzled.

Mr. Qadir, editor of Third World Quarterly, a journal about international studies, this month published a paper provocatively titled "The Case for Colonialism." The abstract sets the tone for the piece: "For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy."

A full-throated defense of colonialism would stand out almost anywhere; it was especially surprising at Third World Quarterly. How did the paper find a home in a journal described by some of the scholars closest to it as "anticolonialist," one that counts Noam Chomsky as a member of its editorial board?

That remains a mystery. But the backlash was swift. A petition seeking a retraction drew more than 10,000 signatures. Fifteen people on the journal’s 34-member board resigned. And on Thursday even the author of the piece, Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University, asked it to be withdrawn.

"I regret the pain and anger that it has caused for many people," Mr. Gilley wrote in a brief statement on his website. "I hope that this action will allow a more civil and caring discussion on this important issue to take place."

When controversial papers prompt editorial-board mutinies, critics often see examples of political correctness run amok. But this case doesn’t quite fit that narrative. While many scholars who resigned from the board and signed the petition freely admit they find the views expressed by the author reprehensible, their primary concern centers on a matter of editorial process: The paper was rejected by peer reviewers, editorial-board members say, but it was published anyway.

To them, the controversy shows how academe’s broader headwinds, like the growing importance of metrics and the need for professors and journals to stay relevant in a hypercompetitive environment, can corrupt the peer-review process. It also is a cautionary tale about what can happen when communication breaks down between a journal’s editor and its board, and transparency in peer review becomes a casualty.

While every journal handles the details of peer review a little differently — some especially rigorous ones have processes that include several peer reviewers and additional editorial-board review — the centerpiece at top publications is the double-blind peer review, in which neither the author nor the reviewers know one another’s identity.

Mr. Qadir, who did not respond to messages seeking comment, said in a written statement last week that the paper had gone through the standard double-blind peer-review process. He did not, however, indicate what the reviews had concluded, which the board members who resigned say is misleading. Their resignation letter states that the board members asked to see the reviews, but that Mr. Qadir would not provide them.

‘There Has to Be Some Record’

If true, that would be a violation of journal norms. Transparency is essential to the integrity of the editorial process, says William M. Breichner, journals publisher at the Johns Hopkins University Press. The 85 publications he oversees each has its own rules, governance, and operations. "The umbrella, though, is we do insist that there be some transparent form of peer review," he says.

Criticism leveled at a journal often takes a form opposite to the Third World Quarterly case: An author disagrees with a journal’s decision not to publish a piece, arguing that the reviewers erred in recommending rejection. Scholars — especially graduate students and assistant professors — have much riding on whether a leading journal, or any journal, accepts their work, so they deserve a clear process that can allay their concerns, Mr. Breich­ner says.

"There has to be some record of the process, so an editor can go back and substantiate or validate the decision that’s been made," Mr. Breichner says. "That’s not to say exceptions shouldn’t be allowed, but where there are exceptions, that policy for exceptions should also be transparent."

According to their resignation letter, the 15 editorial-board members learned through backchannels that a pair of guest editors, who had been offered Mr. Gilley’s piece to edit, expressed their unease with the paper and rejected even considering it for peer review. It was then peer-reviewed and rejected by at least one reviewer, according to the letter, before being "repackaged" as an opinion piece.

“This did not pass the peer review when we have documentation that it was rejected by three peer reviewers.”
At Third World Quarterly, opinion pieces also go through peer review, and the same peer reviewer who had rejected it earlier also rejected it as an opinion piece, according to the resigning board members. "Thus, the fact is established that this did not pass the peer review when we have documentation that it was rejected by three peer reviewers," their letter concludes.

The 15 scholars who resigned make up slightly less than half of Third World Quarterly’s editorial board; not all of its members favor a retraction. Mr. Chomsky, who did not resign, opposes retracting the essay, saying that a published rebuttal would offer an educational opportunity, according to The College Fix.

"Journals often don’t follow proper procedure," Mr. Chomsky told the website. "In such a case, the editor should explain and apologize publicly, as I assume he will. I don’t think that that’s a sufficient reason to destroy a journal — the likely consequence of mass resignation."

In addition to Mr. Qadir, the journal’s publisher, Taylor & Francis Online, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

‘Clickbait With Footnotes’

In his essay, Mr. Gilley argues, contrary to the overwhelming majority of recent historical scholarship, that colonialism led to the improvement of many lives. Its negative connotation should be rethought, he writes, "in light of the grave human toll of a century of anticolonial regimes and policies."

Some critics who find that argument unconvincing have accused Mr. Gilley and Mr. Qadir of seeking attention by publishing the piece. A pair of scholars at the London School of Economics and Political Science wrote a scathing essay calling the paper "a travesty, the academic equivalent of a Trump tweet, clickbait with footnotes."

Portland State U.
Bruce Gilley, the author of the controversial paper, eventually asked it to be withdrawn, saying, "I regret the pain and anger that it has caused for many people."
Mr. Gilley also did not respond to messages seeking comment. But his curriculum vitae indicates that he, like many scholars, sees the reach of his research as an important indicator: Before his list of publications, he features a section titled "Scholarly Impact Metrics." It lists his publication citations, updated to this month, in Google Scholar and Scopus.

Mr. Breichner says, in his 16 years as journals publisher at Hopkins, the biggest change he has noticed is that graduate students and professors are under increasing pressure to publish to land tenure-track jobs and earn promotions. The desire to look for ways that would capture their productivity is a natural outgrowth of that incentive structure, he says, but it underscores the need for journals to make sure their pieces are rigorously researched, are well argued, and withstand the peer-review process.

A provocative piece can benefit both scholars and journals — like sparking conversation. But at what point does a submission fall below the threshold that makes it scholarship? "A good editor is always balancing the desire to be provocative and relevant with the necessity of being transparent and following a process," says Kennan Ferguson, editor of Theory and Event, an international journal of political theory. "If an editor disregards the peer-review process, he or she may as well be editing a blog."

The Editor and the Board

Mr. Qadir’s statement does not make clear how, if at all, he or the journal wrestled with those questions. But one fact is apparent, Mr. Ferguson adds: "There weren’t very clear lines of communication between the editors and editorial board of Third World Quarterly. That, I assume, is more of a problem than the content of one contentious piece."

Ilan Kapoor, a professor of critical development studies at York University, in Toronto, was one of the editorial-board members who resigned. He says three things are necessary for his faith to be restored in the journal: a retraction, an apology, and a commitment to make the editorial process more transparent. He wants the editorial board, which was largely titular, to have a greater role in the decision-making process.

That’s how it works at many journals, including American Quarterly, the journal of the American Studies Association, which has occasionally found itself at the center of controversy. Each piece at that journal is first read by the editor and an associate editor. If either editor thinks the work is good enough for peer review, it’s sent to two external reviewers. Some pieces are rejected at that point; the ones that aren’t are sent back to the author for revisions, and the original and revised pieces are sent to the full 14-member board for review and debate.

It’s a process that even the editor, Mari Yoshihara, an American-studies professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, sometimes finds frustrating but ultimately necessary to maintain the rigor of the scholarship.

"I’m a person, too, and I sometimes have strong preferences," Ms. Yoshihara says. "Sometimes I receive a piece that I like very much personally, but the reviewers hate it and the board hates it, and it gets rejected. I feel bad for the author and also for myself, but that’s not the issue. The editor should be accountable to the process and also to the board."

Vimal Patel covers graduate education. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232, or write to him at