The Code of Publishing Ethics

A series of useful comments at Daily Nous:

David Wallace:

Most of the discussion above seems to concern the academic and moral rights and wrongs of Professor Tuvel’s article. But the “open letter” is not simply a criticism of that article: it is a demand that Hypatia retract the article (and take various other actions going forward).

Hypatia is published by Wiley and so falls under Wiley’s policy on retraction, which reads, in relevant part: “On occasion, it is necessary to retract articles. This may be due to major scientific error which would invalidate the conclusions of the article, or in cases of ethical issues, such as duplicate publication, plagiarism, inappropriate authorship, etc.” Wiley also subscribes to the Code of Publishing Ethics (COPE), which give further guidance on dealing with direct and social-media reports of problems with papers, including a requirement to contact the author and get a response from them, and an instruction to separate complaints that “contain specific and detailed evidence” from those which do not.

At least on the basis of what’s in the public domain, there seems to be no case at all for retraction:

1) The “open letter” can’t plausibly be taken as providing the “specific and detailed evidence” noted in the COPE guidelines: the four numbered complaints (discussed by Justin, above) are in total only 164 words and follow an explicit disclaimer by the letter’s author that “it is not the aim of this letter to provide an exhaustive list of problems that this article exhibits”. The very fact that the letter is open and signed by hundreds of people supports the idea that it’s intended to communicate to Hypatia *that many people think there are problems with the article* not *what the specific problems are and that they are serious enough to warrant retraction*. (Number of signatories can communicate strength of community feeling; it can’t plausibly add weight to an academic argument.)

2) If (1) is set aside and the open letter is interpreted as a list of problems meriting retraction, it seems pretty clear that it falls wildly short of Wiley’s retraction policy. There is no suggestion that there are any ethical problems with Professor Tuvel *in the sense meant by Wiley’s policy* : she does not fabricate data nor plagiarise; she conducts no formal research with subjects and so cannot have failed to get research permission; she has not published the article elsewhere. (Her alleged failure to “seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions” would fall ridiculously short of counting as an ethical failing in this sense, even if the open letter provided specifics.)

So retraction would have to rely on “major scientific error which would invalidate the conclusions of the article”. In scientific contexts, that normally means straightforward errors with mathematical or technical tools, of the kind that everyone in the field – including the author(s) themselves – would recognise as invalidating the conclusions of the article. (It’s telling that COPE doesn’t even give guidelines of how to handle disputes with an author on “error” issues of this kind, presumably because scientists themselves would want to retract a paper if it had a straightforward error of this kind).

I’m not sure that *anything* could count as “major scientific error” in a philosophy article (except when that paper borrows the formal methods of other disciplines, but there is no mathematics or scientific technique in Prof. Tuvel’s article). In any case, as can be seen from this thread itself the errors in Professor Tuvel’s article, if any, are a matter of academic dispute between members of the community and so fall far short of this standard.

3) The open letter itself urges retraction not primarily on the grounds of academic failings but on wider moral grounds. (“More importantly, these failures of scholarship do harm to the communities who might expect better from Hypatia.”) But there is absolutely nothing in Wiley’s retraction policy (or COPE’s guidelines on such policies) permitting retraction on those kinds of grounds.

In addition to this, Hypatia’s own response is odd, to say the least:

4) I don’t know for certain whether Hypatia followed the COPE guidelines and contacted Professor Tuvel, and received a response from her, before their public comment. But I think it’s most unlikely: the “open letter” appears to have been in circulation for only 48 hours or so, and Professor Tuvel’s own comments don’t give any indication that she has been in correspondence with the journal since then.

5) The comment is on Hypatia’s public Facebook page, and so appears to be official in some regard; and it begins “We, the members of Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors”. But it ends by noting that it’s signed by “a majority of the associate editors”, which strongly suggests that it’s a collective statement by that group and not an offical statement of the journal. So I don’t know what status it has. (In particular, it’s unclear whether it’s speaking for the editor of the journal.) If it *is* an unofficial statement, it seems in tension with COPE guidelines requiring confidentiality during investigations of research misconduct and the like. If it’s an official statement, it seems to have pre-empted a proper investigation, again in tension with COPE guidelines.

6) The letter mentions retraction only after its extensive mea culpa and its declaration that publishing the article was a mistake, saying “Several further types of responses have been suggested to us, including issuing a retraction … we continue to consider those responses and all of their potential ramifications thoughtfully.” I’m rather struck by the lack of any indication that the Board of Associate Editors know that their journal has an official policy and process for retraction. (One might argue, in their defense, that they’re not sufficiently close to the running of the journal to know things like that, but if so, they probably shouldn’t be writing as if they speak for the journal and take responsibility for its process.)

7) Most strikingly, the letter (insofar as it does speak for Hypatia) seems to tread a most uneasy middle way. A journal that has carried out a standard arms-length review process and on that basis published a paper has well-established responses available to subsequent criticism: it can defend its decision on grounds of academic freedom and due process, or it can carry out a proper investigation of whether there are academic or ethical grounds for retraction or correction, and then make that retraction or correction if indeed there are such grounds. The Associate Editors’ Board, in condemning publication (and themselves) ahead of any formal retraction investigation, seem to be on procedurally thin ice, and leave Professor Tuvel in a very awkward position: her paper remains published; there is a declaration, by some part of the journal team but possibly not the journal itself, that it should not have been published; in the absence of a formal process she doesn’t seem to have any appropriate scholarly recourse. In her position, I think I’d be talking to a lawyer.

That’s useful because it confirms the impression many of us have that the Associate Editors did a wildly unprofessional thing.

My friend Udo Schuklenk:

You said it, David. I found disturbing that among the signatories of the letter demanding a retraction were a number of current and former journal editors who should have known better than demanding a retraction in the absence of providing an actual justification for that demand, a justification that meets the standards of international ethical guidelines that are binding on the journal. The response from various people attached to the journal’s editorial management structure (ie an essentially anonymous letter of ‘the majority’ of Associate Editors) is truly something else. It seems oblivious to guidelines that are binding on the journal (COPE anyone?) To be fair, probably a lot of folks who are on journal editorial boards are not familiar with those sorts of guidelines, but still, they ought to be. An uncharitable interpretation of their letter would suggest that they do not believe procedural justice is owed to the author. There are formal processes in place to address concerns about published content, anonymous letters on behalf of ‘the majority’ of editorial board members are not quite part of those processes. Unless I have missed something, there has been silence from the actual Editor of the journal. I understand there will be Errata w/ re to the deadnaming and transgenderism issue.


I am one of the AEs and want to clarify a couple of things.
1. Hypatia has a complicated (feminist and procedure oriented) organizational structure where the Associate Editors select the Editors, which makes us share the responsibility with the Editors for what gets published in the journal. The AE statement is the official Hypatia statement. It was signed “A Majority of Hypatia’s board of Associate Editors” at first because time was of the essence and members were offline. This did not signify a disagreement on the board.
2. I can say that from my perspective, apart from the deadnaming (which should be relatively easy to fix) the central issue is not the topic or the conclusion, but rather to whom we consider ourselves accountable and how we theorize about other people. Hypatia is a philosophy journal, but it is not a standard one in that it is committed to the feminist community and to fighting against the ignoring and silencing of marginalized and minority voices. That practical commitment translates into a methodological one: when we theorize about other people and their experiences, we need to listen to and read what they themselves say and have said on the matter. Papers published in Hypatia should reflect that commitment.

What to do? I personally think the journal owed an apology and we need to change our review process and naming policies but a retraction is a different matter. And I absolutely condemn the attacks on the author of the article. This is not about her, the topic, or the conclusion. It is about our own journal standards.

That’s insulting. And from a philosopher! Of course it’s “about her” – it’s not possible to trash her in public without its being about her. Yes it damn well is about her, and that “absolute” condemnation is not worth spit.

But another, less personal thing. This:

That practical commitment translates into a methodological one: when we theorize about other people and their experiences, we need to listen to and read what they themselves say and have said on the matter.

Who is “they”? How does anyone know which members of a given “they” to listen to and read? How does anyone then know how representative the chosen members of “they” actually are? Do all trans people think the same thing? Do they all have the same experiences? Do all non-white people?

Good evening.

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