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Open letter to Third World Quarterly on the publication of 'The case for colonialism'

A letter of complaint to the editors of Third World Quarterly at Taylor & Francis on the publication of 'The case for colonialism' by Bruce Gilley.

Third World Quarterly. Image: Image used under Fair Use: Istanbul Policy Centre. All rights reserved.Two weeks ago, Third World Quarterly, a respected, anti-colonial academic journal that is the home of both the Third World Prize and the Edward Said Prize, published a pro-colonial and not particularly academic article by controversial political scientist, Bruce Gilley (published here; free copy available here). In addition to the kinds of questions and criticisms the article itself encouraged, and that the author perhaps was hoping to provoke, one has to ask questions about the editorial process followed by the journal, and the dubious ethics of publishing such an article in a journal such as this. How did this happen? How could this particular article get published in this particular journal?

Arguing the case for colonialism, and continuing the author’s crusade against what he sees as a left-wing bias in academia, the article has so far prompted: a wave of incredulity and outrage on social media; a couple of petitions (here and here, both of which managed to garner several thousand signatures) calling for the article to be retracted and for the editors to apologise for its publication; a handful of online articles; a problematic response from the editor; and, subsequently, the resignation of a large bulk of its editorial board.

Prior to their resignation, the letter of complaint below (instigated by Claire Gallien, Sara Marino, Patricia Prieto-Blanco and myself, and signed by over 40 international academics) was sent to the journal and to its commercial academic publisher, Taylor & Francis, as well as a copy, listing the various codes of conduct breached, to COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics, of which the journal is a member.

There was some debate amongst colleagues about whether to sign this letter or either of the petitions, and as to whether a response should focus on the content of the article or on the editorial process of the journal. Responding to pro-colonialism with calls for retraction risks, in the first instance, producing exactly the kind of reaction that the author may say proves his point, as well as opening oneself up to criticism from the free speech fetishists. At the same time, making the effort to engage with the content of the article risks responding on the author’s own terms, and performatively accepting that there is indeed a debate to be had on the merits of colonialism (even while arguing that there isn’t). In addition to the problem of the article and its author, however, there are also issues with the journal. And if the publication of the article has “generated debate”, as the editor acknowledges, it is more the journal’s publication of it than the content of the article itself that has done so.

In the editor’s published response to general criticisms, Shahid Qadir insists that the article passed a peer-review test before its publication, that the journal is “not averse” to publishing “provocative” material, and that anti-colonial responses to the article are now sought for publication to “continue the balanced debate”. But while no-one has suggested that the journal endorses the views of the author, it is not clear why the editor believes that such a debate is legitimate or “justified”. Further, on writing on behalf of “the journal’s editorial team”, it is not clear who the rest of the team is, seeing as many on the editorial board have said that they did not see this article prior to publication, would not have condoned its publication, and have now distanced themselves from the decision to publish and, following the editor’s misleading statement, submitted their resignations from the board. Furthermore, rumours that the article did not actually pass a peer-review test appear to be true; in their resignation letter, the board state that, despite the editor refusing to share the reports with the rest of the board, they have now identified the peer-reviewers, all of whom apparently recommended reject.

Another rumour circulated online is that the decision to ignore peer-review, to bypass the board, and to publish such an academically weak and offensive paper, which also contradicts the raison d’être of the journal as an anti-colonial venue, was influenced by the desire to increase clicks and improve the impact factor of the journal, a strategy which certainly seems to be doing wonders. If this is true (and the wider issue of academic publishing’s ‘capture’ by metrics certainly seems to suggest that it’s likely to be so), this incident would be more than an error of editorial judgment on the part of the editor, and would raise all sorts of issues of publishing ethics. Indeed, the publication of this article, following what appears to be a sabotaged editorial process and skewed editorial decision-making, potentially contravenes a large number of items in COPE’s codes of conduct.

Further, the deliberate attempt to manipulate journal citation metrics to improve the impact factor of the journal – in this case, by allegedly going after the most clicks possible, not only regardless of, but contrary to the academic judgment of the peer-review process – also appears to be the kind of behaviour discouraged by those companies that calculate impact factors. Consequently, it would be no surprise if Thomson Reuters (the company responsible for calculating the most widely used of such metrics) were to remove this article, or even ban the journal, from their citation reports, thus annulling the journal’s impact factor entirely. The integrity of academic publishing depends upon some such response to this fiasco.

In the meantime, and so that the board can return to the journal and the work of publishing valuable academic articles that pass peer-review and fall within its remit, Gilley’s article (as well as Qadir’s unsatisfactory ‘response’) should be retracted, and the editor should stand down.

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To whom it may concern (FAO the editors of Third World Quarterly and the relevant publisher at Taylor & Francis), 

We are writing to complain about the recent publication of the article ‘The case for colonialism’ by Bruce Gilley in the journal Third World Quarterly. While we do not believe that the article should have been published in any academic journal, our complaint is in terms of the venue of publication and the editorial process behind its publication, and thus a question of academic rigour, accountability and transparency, as well as an issue with the content of the article itself.

While we find the argument and many of the claims made in the article unconvincing and offensive, we are particularly surprised to see such content published in this particular journal, without any real engagement on the part of the author with the critique of colonialism he rejects, or on the part of the journal with some form of introductory framing. Although the journal’s aims and scope states that it is “not averse to publishing provocative and exploratory articles”, the article’s argument in favour of colonialism contradicts the origins of the journal “as an intellectual venue for anti-colonial thought, to build ideas against colonialism”, and its reputation as the “home of the Third World Prize, the Edward Said Prize; the home, in other words, of values against this essay” (as editorial board member, Vijay Prashad, has stated). Arguments against publishing this particular article in this particular journal are therefore not arguments for censorship or against academic freedom, as the author has tended to argue previously. Rather, there is both a problem of venue and scientific integrity, and such arguments should be submitted elsewhere, and submitted to a process of peer-review.

We are also concerned, however, to hear accusations that the article was either not peer-reviewed at all, or that it was originally rejected after a negative peer-review process, only to be published anyway by the editor without consulting the editorial board. It has also been suggested that the editor chose to do this, not to adhere to the commitment to publish provocative material, “especially if they have the merit of opening up emerging areas of research that have not been given sufficient attention”, but simply to garner more clicks and improve the impact factor and other metrics of the journal. Such behaviour, regardless of the merit of the article or author, should be the concern of the publisher, not the editors, and is thus contrary to the principles of academic rigour and editorial independence and responsibility.

It seems clear that the article shouldn’t have, and possibly didn’t, get through the process of peer-review, and therefore shouldn’t have been published, certainly not in this particular academic journal.

We are signatories to the change.org petitions calling for the article to be retracted immediately and for the editor/s involved to apologise for further brutalizing those who have suffered under colonialism. We also ask, for the sake of accountability and transparency, for the editor/s responsible for the publication of this article to justify their decision to publish, to explain the process followed in reaching that decision, and to stand down from their editorial position/s. We believe that such actions are necessary to recompense for the offence the article has and will cause, and to ensure that such historical revisionism for what is a crime against humanity not go unchecked. 

Signed,

Lina Alvarez, Université catholique de Louvain

Omar Anchassi, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Exeter

Laia Arnaus, Bergische Universität Wuppertal

Nadia Atia, Queen Mary University of London

Rahma Bavelaar, University of Amsterdam

Jumana Bayeh, Macquarie University, Sydney Australia

Christiaan De Beukelaer, University of Melbourne

Lisa Blackman, Goldsmiths, University of London

Véronique Bontemps, CNRS, Paris

Leyla Dakhli, CNRS, Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin

Simon Dawes, Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines

Sonia Dayan-Herzbrun, Université Paris Diderot-Paris 7

Des Freedman, Goldsmiths, University of London

Claire Gallien, Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3

Nadia Hakim-Fernández, researcher at the Future Making Space, Aarhus University

Ahreum Han, discipline of exercise and sport science, the University of Sydney

Virginie Iché, Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3

Umar Suleiman Jahun, School of Media, Film and Music, University of Sussex

Nicolas Jaoul, CNRS, Paris

Theodore Koulouris, University of Brighton

Lila Lamrani, Centre Jean Pépin

Souad Lamrani, Paris-Sorbonne University

Debora Lanzeni, Research Fellow, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

Sara Marino, Bournemouth University

Angelo Martins Jr, Goldsmiths, University of London

Tom Mills, Aston University

Nelly Mok, Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3

Aurélien Mondon, University of Bath

Aris Mousoutzanis, Principal Lecturer in Film and Screen Studies, University of Brighton

Souvik Mukherjee, Presidency University, Kolkata

Patricia Prieto-Blanco, Lecturer, School of Media, University of Brighton, UK

Nabila Ramdani, Journalist & Academic

Andreas Rauh Ortega, University of Leeds

Chris Roberts, University of Roehampton, London

Reuben Ross, Doctoral Candidate, Universidade Católica Portuguesa

Claire Savina, Research Associate University of Oxford

Maria Sakellari, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow, School of Media, University of Brighton

Andrea Schmidt, Willamette University

Elisa Serafinelli, University of Sheffield

Jon Solomon, Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3

Jacquie Tinkler, Charles Sturt University

Gavan Titley, National University of Ireland, Maynooth


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