Friday, December 03, 2010

Critique and Scandal

There is an aspect of the Frank Fischer plagiarism case that intrigues and disturbs me. It has to do with the role that journal editors played in turning it into the Fischer-Petkovic affair—though I hasten to add that both Fischer and Petkovic had hands in that as well. As background, keep in mind that Fischer’s “sloppy” scholarship existed prior to Petkovic’s discovery of it; also, it turned out to be serious enough to warrant being brought to the attention of the public. (It will be interesting to see what actions Fischer’s university and publishers take after their investigations are completed. But, as I said after looking into it myself, ignorance of these errors is in any case not to be preferred to knowledge of them.) But instead of merely correcting the (many) errors that seem to characterize Fischer’s work, as critical scholarship should, the publication of Petkovic and Sokal’s report has caused a minor scandal.

It seems to me that the correspondence that Petkovic and Sokal published in their report (a longish PDF file) identifies the exact moment when a critical engagement turned into an academic affaire. The crucial decision was made by neither Fischer nor Petkovic but by the editors of Policy Studies Journal, Peter deLeon and Chris Weible. Petkovic sent them his paper on May 18, 2010, and received a mail from Frank Fischer on May 20, 2010, warning him that if he did not drop the issue then his journal’s publisher, Routledge/Taylor & Francis (which publishes Fischer’s journal Critical Policy Studies), would take legal action against him. As a quick aside, I want to note that if this is true it does not reflect well on Routledge, though the threat seems to have been empty. My issue here, in any case, is with the actions of deLeon and Weible at PSJ, who apparently sent both Petkovic's paper and the identifying information about the author to Fischer.

When I asked him about it by email, Peter deLeon explained that after they had decided to desk reject the paper (quite understandably, I would add) they contacted Fischer “to alert him of the emerging possible confrontation, in hopes that [Petkovic] and Dr. Fischer could reach an amiable resolution.” According to the published correspondence, however, they seem to have informed Petkovic that they would not publish his paper wholly eight days after alerting Fischer. Indeed, they appear never to have informed Petkovic themselves that they would pass (or had passed) his submitted manuscript along to Fischer. I'm not sure how common that is, but it seems very irregular for a journal to circulate a rejected manuscript without permission of the author.

Moreover, Fischer quotes deLeon and Weible’s description of his paper as a "jeremiad" in an email that he cc's to Petkovic on May 26, 2010, which also states PSJ’s intention not to publish. But this is still two days before any reply has been made to Petkovic even confirming his submission, let alone the rejection of his paper. Moreover, this very critical assessment of Petkovic’s paper is not mentioned in their rejection letter. "While your paper is interesting and potentially of value to the public policy community," they say instead, "it is beyond the scope of PSJ." PSJ seems to have been rather more direct with Fischer about why the paper wouldn't be published than with Petkovic.

Also, it should be noted that Petkovic had been quite open about his motives when he submitted the paper to PSJ, and had even asked for some "initial editorial thoughts", or advice about how to proceed with this sort of critique:

What I am submitting to you as an attachment to this letter is not an orthodox academic paper, although it contains a part which might be labeled more or less as such. It is simply a bad experience I had with the new public policy journal called Critical Policy Studies. I want to share that experience with the community of scholars devoted to policy analysis and public policy research. I have read in your short web mission statement that you “welcome initial exchanges if a potential contributor has an idea and would like some initial editorial thoughts.”

If you would be so kind, I would like some of initial thoughts on this experience of mine, or at least on my interpretation of that experience. I really want this story to get out in public. (Page 65 of Petkovic and Sokal's report)

Petkovic is a (presumably) young and (demonstrably) cantankerous PhD student and, it seems to me, obviously in need of a great deal of advice about how to develop (or, some would argue, abandon) his position. This "advice" was of course offered anyway—by Fischer—in the form of the thinly veiled legal threat I mentioned, which was perhaps the least constructive way to tackle the issue we can imagine, especially since Petkovic had not yet made his critique public. He was at this point still looking for a journal that would publish it.

I have written two similar papers, one of which was rejected a number of times by a number of journals before finally being published. I have found the rejections I got much more constructive than what Petkovic has experienced. At no point did the subject of the critique contact me directly, and I assume this is because he had not seen the manuscript until the decision was finally made to publish. When he did see it (to be given an opportunity to respond in the same issue), I was fully informed that that is how the editors had chosen to proceed. I would be quite troubled (and somewhat angry) if I discovered that the journals that had rejected my work had also "alerted" the author I was critiquing and, especially, if they had in any way passed around the unpublishable "jeremiad" I had composed.

I normally encourage the authors I work with to send papers to journals even against their better vanities. That is, they are sometimes worried that if their paper is not extremely brilliant, journal editors will begin to develop an opinion of them as mediocrities instead of offering them ways of improving their work and leaving it at that. It has never seriously occurred to me that another possible risk of submitting work for publication is that it will be passed around and mocked by peers without our consent or knowledge.

It is true that the anonymity of peer review is intended mainly to encourage the frankness of the reviewers. But I have always believed that part of the reason for concealing the identity of the author is to encourage submissions. We imagine that even if our manuscript is deemed highly defective in some way our public reputations will not be tarnished. It is only if the paper is deemed good enough to be published that we must also face the public criticism of peers. (Edward Johnson rightly says that authors want to be "protected from criticism", i.e., irrelevant criticism that needlessly interferes with the message.) To have our reputations depend on what happens to our papers after they are rejected, i.e., in private, not public, circulating essentially as rumours about our ideas, rather than our own public statements about them, and without any way of engaging with the "critique", is a troubling prospect.

In my view, a paper is either worth talking about or not. If not, then it should be rejected and forgotten. But if it is worth "alerting" anyone about then it is also worth at least some serious "initial editorial thought". It may even warrant some suggestions for revision, and even ultimately publication (depending on how those revisions go). If this simple procedural principle is not observed, you get the situation we in fact got: a now very disgruntled, very minor scholar seeks (and finds) the support of sufficiently major one to go up against a "clique" that unfortunately seems to be not wholly a figment of the minor scholar's imagination. It is important, after all, to keep in mind that if Petkovic’s critique had been treated with greater respect by the policy studies community (represented by its editors, including Frank Fischer) then he would probably not have sought out Alan Sokal for support. And if Fischer hadn't (unwisely, to my mind) chosen to threaten Petkovic directly, but simply kept the information about Petkovic's discovery to himself, Fischer would have gained a distinct advantage over Petkovic in future confrontations. Indeed, he would probably be in a position to affect Petkovic's career trajectory without his knowledge. Again, it is troubling that an academic journal would facilitate this possibility.

Peter deLeon assures me that it was the hope of the editors of PSJ that “Dr. Fischer and Mr. Petkovic could resolve their dispute in an amiable manner” and that they “regret that their ‘resolution’ has turned so sour.” I wonder if they also regret the act of alerting Fischer without Petkovic’s consent.* PSJ here had an opportunity to mediate a dispute within the policy studies community that now risks becoming a serious embarrassment for it. It did not seize that opportunity, to say the least.

*I gave the editors of PSJ the opportunity to comment on this post. They politely declined.

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