Peer Review

Just a little more of this (as Don called it) labyrinthine topic, then I’ll talk about different, straight up and down topics. I just want to say just this one more thing, as an old friend used to say on the phone when we were fifteen. (She’s a public radio producer now, so she has to do that fund-raising stuff; she’s in the middle of it right now, it’s ‘Pledge Week’. Terrible.) Just this one more thing on the moral right and people ought not to prevent us.

Lies and falsifications are generally (and certainly in the case of Holocaust-denial) morally wrong. And it does seem puzzling, even paradoxical, to say that we can have a moral right to do that which is morally wrong. Nonetheless it’s true that we do: we sometimes have the moral right to act – that is, people ought not to prevent us from acting – in ways which are undoubtedly morally wrong…I have the moral right to do what I please (within the law) with my own money; nonetheless it’s morally wrong of me to give none of it to charity.

But surely that definition of a moral right to act – that people ought not to prevent us from acting – can’t apply to falsification of history or other scholarship, because in fact people ought to and do prevent us from acting in that way. They do it via peer review. That is, surely, exactly the point of peer review: to prevent both mistakes and falsifications. Not every scholarly book gets peer reviewed, but a lot do, and if falsifications are detected, they are prevented – and they ought to be prevented. So if that is what a moral right is, then falsification of scholarship appears not to be a moral right. (And even without that, I take it to be a different kind of moral right from the moral right not to give money to charity. That seems to me to be almost definitional – almost inherent in the meaning of the words. ‘Falsification’ carries with it a meaning of wrongness; ‘charity’ carries with it the meaning that it is voluntary rather than coerced; so surely the wrongness of falsification is considerably less debatable than the wrongness of not giving money to charity.)

Even if the institution of peer review didn’t exist – suppose X knew that Y’s manuscript was full of falsifications, and told Y’s prospective publisher so, with documentation, and Y’s publisher dropped the book. Would it be wrong of X to prevent Y from publishing the book in that way? I say no; on the contrary. (Of course it might be unkind, in a sense disloyal, and so on, if the two are friends – but loyalty often conflicts with responsibility or public duty; that’s not news.) It shouldn’t be a police matter, but it should be a publisher matter. The police shouldn’t (and generally don’t) do the preventing, but someone should. In the same way – if any colleagues had known Jayson Blair was faking his reporting, they would have prevented him, by telling his editors. Did he have a moral right to fake his reporting, would it have been true at the time that the colleagues ought not to prevent him? Again, I say no. Newspapers don’t (to the best of my knowledge) have a moral right to tell lies, and neither (to the best of my knowledge) do reporters. So I don’t see how falisification can be that kind of moral right. In fact the more I think about it the less I can see it.

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