No publisher or publication date is set yet, but the announcement of the launching of a Journal of Controversial Ideas to offer a platform for pseudonymous publishing stirred up heated debates.
A philosophy professor at Oxford, Jeff MacMahan, first proposed this idea in a radio interview with BBC. He stressed that the selection and peer review process would abide by the same standards as any other academic journal.
As was to be expected, the idea of pseudonymized academic publishing caused heated debates across the web. However, as I followed arguments and counter-arguments across the spectrum, I wondered why no one had added a perspective that might move beyond the comparative comfort of academic publishing in democratic societies.
I want to reframe this controversy and add a non-eurocentric view to the proposal of a pseudonymized journal. But first, I go through those arguments, before I add my thoughts:
Pro: Too much conformity stifles controversial debates at universities
According to MacMahan, the journal “would enable people whose ideas might get them into trouble either with the left or with the right, or with their own administration at their own university and so on to publish under a pseudonym. […] In current conditions, something like this is needed. We don’t want to allow it to be the case that people who have important contributions to serious issues are deterred by fear from giving their reasons and arguments for their views.” (Cited from the radio program “Do universities have enough diversity of political opinion?” by Matthew Flinders, BBC Radio 4, 25:30 min)
The whole idea of the journal is thus based on the belief that political polarization and online mobs endanger the freedom of academic discourse.
Con: Controversy needs bravery
As was to be expected, the idea of publishing anonymously, or in this case pseudonymously, raised concerns that authors would no longer take responsibility for their arguments.
As Nesrine Malik, a columnist at The Guardian, put it:
No one enjoys the feedback that anyone with any public platform receives these days. You can engage with it or dismiss it, but you should not claim martyrdom and hide from it, especially if you are going out of your way to incite it.
The underlying problem is a clear imbalance of the rules of the game of academia and the web: A scientist guarantees with his or her name for the scientific integrity and accuracy of their work. Once their research is disseminated beyond the academic realm (a genuinely positive process), however, those criticizing their work can hide behind pseudonyms and the anonymity of the web.
With its emphasis on upholding scientific integrity through a clear attribution of works to authors, the debate resembles the discussion on open digital collaboration in which scientists
“seldom frame participation in such projects
Whether it be in collaborative online projects such as Wikipedia or in academic fields, external obstacles rather than intrinsic disinterest determine whether one chooses not to participate in a particular “controversial” debate.
To put it more bluntly, where does bravery end and risk start? In non-democratic societies publishing under your name might not be an option. So could anonymized academic publishing be an opportunity if we broaden our outlook beyond our somehow comfortable liberal institutions?
We, therefore, have to differentiate between those who might like to publish pseudonymously because they shy away from public debate and personalized criticism and those who have to fear persecution.
In short, those enjoying the privileges of academic freedom should stand by their work, yet we need to raise our awareness that for those colleagues working under conditions, where “controversial” equals “potentially dangerous”, a pseudonymized journal published within a democratic country might offer a platform to publish valuable work that might otherwise remain within the drawers of their desks.
“Do universities have enough diversity of political opinion?” by Matthew Flinders. BBC Radio 4.