Saturday, May 20, 2017

On The Conceptual Penis

Another day, another hoax paper published! For those who don't know, these hoax papers pop up every now and again, wherein academics deliberately write nonsense, submit it to an ostensibly serious journal, and find that lo and behold they can get it published, despite the checks that are meant to ensure only rigorous scholarship makes it through to the published literature. This is a worry, because in theory being part of the scholarly literature is meant to be a guarantee of quality and a sign that the scholarship can be relied upon.

It's always pretty hard to know what to conclude from these hoax papers -- I think it is over-determined that one should not, ever, take the fact that an individual paper has passed peer review to mean its conclusions are secure. Where one wants to be guided by academic work, one should form one's opinion on a matter based on a review of the literature, not just one or two papers therein. Too many journals reviewing too many papers by too many authors in too many fields -- all run by fallible humans. Even with the best of intentions (which is far from guaranteed) there is no way the peer review process could filter out all bad work, and by dint of the sheer size of the enterprise there is going to be plenty of rubbish out there even if a low proportion of the bad papers make it through. What's more, the replication crisis shows us that things can actually go pretty systematically wrong, and there's some theoretical reason to be a bit pessimistic about the quality of the average paper. So, one read of hoax publications is that they just dramatically illustrate this point. Whatever guarantee of quality the scholarly literature and its processes of review and double checking provide, it does not do all that much at the level of individual papers -- look to the collective beliefs or consensus arising out of such literatures, if there is reliable results to be found anywhere it will be therein.

The authors of this particular hoax, however, want a different conclusion to be drawn. They think their paper shows that a ``problem lies within the very concept of any journal being a “rigorous academic journal in gender studies.”'' Their reasoning is that their article sailed through peer review because it ``portrayed a moralizing attitude that comported with the editors’ moral convictions'',  namely ``an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil''. Basically the paper kind of strings sentences together which loosely suggest that maleness is tied to a certain kind of abstract idea of the penis and this abstract idea of the penis is responsible for a great many social ills, inclusive of climate change. It really is largely nonsense, but an overall effect is conveyed and which is indeed suggestive of the almost religious belief they note. They think that it was because this effect was conveyed that they were not subject to serious peer review.

Predictably enough (pious left wing academical that I am!) I am not convinced by their account of what happened here. I'll set aside the fact that some of what the paper suggests would probably be considered morally offensive by the sort of people they have in mind -- it's reading tea-leaves to try and work out what the paper is really suggestive of, since it is, by design, genuinely nonsensical.  Rather, my objections to their account are as follows. First, boringly, I just don't think journal hoaxes provide the kind of evidence that could support their conclusion. A paper published in a journal is just poor evidence for conclusions concerning the practices of an entire field. Second, this paper was actually first rejected by NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies! Why should the one accept count for more evidence of typical field practices than the one reject? Especially when you consider that, third, a relevant difference between the journal that accepted (Cogent Social Sciences) and the one that rejected was that the journal that accepted is a pay-to-publish journal. To my mind, we already have some reason to be highly suspicious of pay-to-publish journals. If one searches around one will find plenty of controversies about these journals, just going to link to a story about my favourite such controversy here. So, given where my priors are at, once I found out this detail it immediately suggested an explanation of what went wrong here! Personally, I am sufficiently suspicious of this business model that I think we as an academic community should institute some communal norms against publishing in pay-to-publish journals, and demand that any article that is published in such a journal is suitably marked as such and refuse to credit work so marked -- in fact, given the wider social role of academic work, I wouldn't even be opposed to legislation banning the business model.

Now, the authors do spend some time discussing the third of these worries. They acknowledge that indeed pay-to-publish journals might be a source of the problem. But they respond that, (A), NORMA's editor actually recommended transferring their paper to CSS in such a way that helped it get through the review process there, suggesting that even serious academic journals are in cahoots with these mobsters. (B), CSS did seem to actually implement peer review, (C), the journal is published by the apparently respectable Taylor and Francis group. These considerations move them to think that the problem is not mainly a general one with pay-to-publish journals, but rather the field. Again, I am not convinced. Regarding (B) -- editors have a lot of power in who they pick as reviewers, so they can just pick hacks to ensure things sail through, and in any case we don't know how the reviewers were themselves incentivised. Regarding (C), let's just say I am not too impressed with academic publishing groups more generally.

Regarding (A)... ok here I agree with the authors of the hoax paper. In so far as journals in gender studies (and for all I know this happens in other fields too) are collaborating with the pay-to-publish journals in this way, they are undermining their own field's scholarly standards. I didn't know this sort of collaboration existed, so for me this is the main thing I have learned from the incident, and I shall be looking out for this in future; maybe it occurs in philosophy too? The overall lesson I draw from this latest hoax is that as a community we should stop collaborating with these sharks, their invocation of the profit motive undermines the scholarly values we strive to maintain and represent, and it is only by our continued participation in the system that they are able to so destroy us.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Dreams of My Ancestors

Short personal blog post -- just a quick reflection on a difference (as it seems to me!) between aspects of the African American experience when compared with people from the African diaspora in Europe. Not sure how widely this will be of interest to people!

It's graduation time, and amidst the celebrations I saw a very talented young African American comrade of mine post a picture of herself in her graduation gown with  a quote from a Maya Angelou poem on her cap -- ``I am the dream and the hope of the slave.'' It was a touching image, and thought, and while I've seen debate about the sentiment, on the whole it's easy to see how one can think as much and take extra pride in one's achievements qua African American.

Such thoughts are, I think, just entirely cut off to descendants of the African diaspora in Europe. Or, at least, so it seems to me when reflecting on my own ancestry in Ghana. While I am somewhat embarrassingly unsure about this, my sense of my Ghanaian ancestry is: my ethnic group were subjects of Asanteman, while not themselves being Asante. My sense also is that their relative status was such that they probably largely participated in the political system as I described previously, and the British colonisation would thus have represented a loss of political freedoms, wealth, and opportunities for advancement for them. Finally, a relevant bit of historical background -- the British and Asanteman fought an alternately hot and cold war through the 19th century for control over `the Gold coast', with the British eventually emerging victorious in 1901. See here for some details: though a note of protest on that wikipedia article, which begins by saying that ``[t]he wars were mainly due to Ashanti attempts to establish strong control over the coastal areas of what is now Ghana'' -- as if it is just natural that the British should have a stake in who control the Ghanaian coastline, and the Ashanti are the only aggressors!

In any case, the point of all this is just -- presumably, it was a reasonable hope and dream for my ancestors that they simply wouldn't have anything to do with the British. Or, if they did (Asanteman was a trading empire after all), it would have been on very different terms from what in fact transpired. They were initially successful in those wars, after all, so had some reason for hope; and what they presumably dreamed of for their descendants would not involve participating as subjects in British society at all. In fact they may have very specifically wished for such participation not to occur, given the long running hostilities and the fact of colonisation going on around them making it very clear this was the consequence of defeat. As it stands, I am who I am, the reason my grandparents could meet each other in the capital of the Imperial metropolis, my achievements being such as they are, are all only made possible by the fact that Asanteman was conquered and absorbed into the British Empire. I am because what they hoped for is not.

Of course, there is an analogue thought in the case of African Americans. Most obviously -- presumably many simply hoped not to be in the Americas at all, and certainly not as slaves, and later on dreamed either of repatriation back to the Mother Africa, or as that dream faded of an independent black nation state. People with such hopes and dreams would also, I guess, not be so happy at the thought that their descendants would be awarded degrees by the white man's institutions or participation in his cultural life, etc. Quite so, I don't mean to deny those traditions their due place and significance in the African American tradition. I just mean to say -- one tradition of thought really did see integration into a transformed nation as a viable and desirable life option, and as one succeeds in American society and contributes to that transformation one can see oneself as in some very small way fulfilling the hopes of those who held onto such dreams. This may not have been the only tradition, but it was one of them, and qua African American descended from slaves, one can take some degree of pride in how one's achievements at least fulfill this strand of thought among the ancestors. Whereas I think it highly implausible that there was any analogue tradition for my ancestors: no significant number who hoped that being colonised by the British, losing one's ability to participate in the democratic parts of Asanteman's life and being subject to military rule by distant oppressors, losing one's traditional rights and economic status... etc.... would constitute an improvement on what was the status quo. Integration into a transformed nation, whatever else is true of it, beats chattel slavery, whereas `integration' into the British empire was just a straightforward loss.

Any such pride or happiness in my own achievements is cut off to me, and the African diaspora in Europe more generally. My participation in the institutional and cultural life of Europe represents only the frustration of my ancestor's hopes and the failure of their struggles.