Show Hide image

Do academics need pseudonyms to protect their freedom?

Professors clash over plans for a new publication, the Journal of Controversial Ideas, which will allow authors to write under cover.

In 2012, the bioethicist Francesca Minerva published a paper she co-authored entitled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” The research concluded that new-borns have the same “moral status” as foetuses, and ethically speaking can therefore be killed in all cases where abortion is permissible.

The media picked up the argument for “killing inconvenient babies”, as the Guardian put it, and the American Mormon commentator Glenn Beck, wildly popular on the right at the time, condemned it on his website.

Soon, the authors faced a backlash from the public – mainly conservatives and religious critics but also pro-choicers who balked at equating infanticide with abortion.

Minerva, a postdoc at Ghent University in Belgium, received death threats and insults. It was the first time she’d had such a response to her work.

“If you get death threats and people are suggesting you should be fired, or, in my case, killed, it’s unpleasant,” she tells me over the phone. “I was scared for the first few days, yes. Then nobody killed me, so I figured I’d probably make it.”

Minerva says she welcomes criticism of her work, as it’s part of academia, but she would have preferred to reassess her argument “in a less scary way, without panicking”.

In her experience as an academic, this research was “one of the first papers that got this kind of attention” – abusive attention from the public that she believes is now “very common”, thanks to social media making academic work so easily accessible and shareable.

She first approached two friends – Jeff McMahan, professor of moral philosophy at Oxford and Peter Singer, Australian moral philosopher – over a year ago about publishing a journal where academic authors could write under pseudonyms.

They agreed. Singer’s similar defence of abortion rights and infanticide had led to disability rights activists protesting against him over decades, and McMahan was recently confronted by pro-BDS activists during a talk at a Beirut university (he has lectured at Israeli universities and has an advisory role at one).

Eight months ago, they decided to go ahead. Hoping to publish the first Journal of Controversial Ideas in the new year, they have so far appointed an editorial board of 40 academics (and counting) and are in the process of negotiating with a publisher to create an open access, online journal.

***

Those behind the journal claim academia is being stifled, both by overwhelming responses from the public and from within universities. They give examples.

Assistant philosophy professor Rebecca Tuvel’s piece “In Defence of Transracialism” (the idea that people can identify as a different race) last year led to its journal Hypatia apologising for publishing it, resignations from the publication, and an open letter calling for the article’s retraction signed by over 800 academics.

Also last year, a case for colonialism and its return in the Third World Quarterly journal caused such a controversy that a petition for its retraction started by three academics collected over 7,000 signatures, nearly half the journal’s editorial board resigned, and Bruce Gilley, the author of the piece himself, asked for it to be withdrawn, saying he’d received death threats.

The piece was retracted, due to “serious and credible threats of personal violence” to the journal’s editor, according to the publisher.

Last December, over 50 Oxford academics signed an open letter criticising and refusing to engage with their fellow professor Nigel Biggar’s “Ethics and Empire” project that suggested people should take “pride” in aspects of their imperialist past.

Other examples the journal’s founders provide include the so-called no-platforming (protesting against speakers, or calling for them to be uninvited) of figures mainly deemed transphobic, racist or fascist coming to speak at universities.

The most extreme case they point to was a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, Allison Stanger, who went to hospital with concussion after an altercation with students protesting her debate with Charles Murray, a political scientist accused of espousing eugenicist and white nationalist arguments.

McMahan also highlights a case of an academic being shut down by the right – when a scholar in Israeli-Arab relations Steven Salaita had his job offer from the University of Illinois revoked in 2013 after he posted anti-Israel tweets.

In fact, McMahan describes condemnation of academia “from the right wing” as “more disturbing”, because “they tend to involve threats of violence”. From anecdotal evidence, his sense is that right-wing attacks come from outside the university environment, and left-wing attacks from within. Although he finds the latter becoming “more common”, he calls them “less threatening, because – apart from this incident at Middlebury College – these efforts are non-violent”.

***

The Journal of Controversial Ideas project was announced on a BBC Radio 4 programme this week called “University Unchallenged” – which explored the now well-worn argument of whether universities have enough diversity of political opinion among academics.

While Singer and McMahan generally have established left-wing political views, scholars who make arguments more sympathetic to the right have been quick to rally round the idea: Eric Kaufmann – the Birkbeck politics professor whose book Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities argues for a degree of ethic selection in immigration and defends white “ethnic self-interest”, and Matthew Goodwin – a University of Kent politics professor who specialises in national populism, arguing that cultural change is behind it.

Goodwin will participate in a debate in London at the beginning of December called “Immigration and Diversity Politics: A Challenge to Liberal Democracy?” This wasn’t its original title. Before 230 academics signed an open letter warning against normalising far-right ideas as open debate, it was called “Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?”

“We increasingly seem to be heading into an environment where people feel that they cannot ask particular research questions, or they cannot explore particular topics, or challenge particular social norms without feeling as though they are being attacked by colleagues,” says Goodwin, when asked about his support for the journal.

“The fact this journal has been established is a symbol of that debate.”

The latter point is true. No matter the stated quest of its authors for reason, evidence and impartiality, the Journal of Controversial Ideas – with its cry for academic freedom and the cover of pseudonymity – is a lightning rod for an intensifying row among academics over whether “viewpoint diversity” (as it’s inelegantly dubbed in the US) is genuinely under threat.

***

Swathes of university insiders – not least all the hundreds who have signed the open letters listed above – believe the accusations of “silencing debate” have been overblown by aggrieved right-wingers.

“My suspicion is that [the journal] buys into an argument about an assault on free speech on university campuses and within academic scholarship, which I believe is largely manufactured,” says a senior lecturer in criminology and criminal justice at the University of East London, Aaron Winter.

“I think it’s quite interesting that there’s an idea of ‘controversial’ research itself, and I wonder what the content of that is,” he says. “Let’s say some of this research is not actively racist or culturally chauvinistic – it seeks controversy.”

He says some of the more high-profile academics who have been criticised recently for legitimising radical right-wing views are “courting controversy, at the same time as claiming there’s no platform for them”.

This is the view of many on his side of the argument, who believe that the voices truly silenced in academia are those of minorities and marginalised communities. After all, in 2016-17 just 25 black women were recorded as working as professors, out of about 19,000 professors in total. And more than 14,000 white men, compared with 90 black men, were recorded as professors in that academic year, according to Advance HE.

Those aforementioned “silenced” pieces about transracialism and colonialism were written by a cis white woman and a white man, respectively. In a field with so little space for minorities, its dominant figures appear to be fighting for their already established right to attack them too.

Those who have witnessed this inequality know that academics from different backgrounds are the ones who’d benefit the most from pseudonymity to get published or accepted.

“When you look at who is gatekeeping the main journals at the moment, they are the people with very similar profiles to the people who are actually praising this new journal,” says Aurelien Mondon, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Bath.

“They tend to be white men, professors, people who come from usually an elitist background, so this is not a journal that is created to give a voice to people who don't have a voice yet… These people have access to platforms that people with intersectional identities would not have access to.”

Mondon says the academics behind the journal have a “massive platform already” – and argues that right-wing, populist arguments about the “left behind” and “white working-class” concerns about immigration are “all over the media”, and in books released by mainstream publishers.

He believes the journal will simply allow already established authors to write “more and more outrageous things without any form of scrutiny… If you say something outrageous, then you should be known.”

Ironically, he sees the option to write under a pseudonym as a move to “avoid debate”: “If there is a thought police on campus, it is very conservative.”

From his perspective, academia is on a “slippery slope” of shutting down points-of-view – but not right-wing ones. Rather, the view that racism and far-right politics should not be protected under the guise of “debate”.

“They’re positing themselves as brave fighters for free speech,” he adds. “They’re just a bunch of cowards fighting for their privilege to be upheld.”

Yet McMahan insists the journal is not politically-motivated, saying the editorial board – which is yet to be completed and released – represents a broad range of political opinion, as well as diverse academic fields.

“We will find highly-qualified peer reviewers for the articles,” he says. “The reputation of the journal and the intended function won’t be served unless we ensure that the papers are of the highest possible quality – this is why it’s not another website where people can just publish things anonymously.”

Baiting left-wing outrage while crying oppression doesn’t appear to be the intent of the particular scholars behind this journal, but their offer of pseudonymity may well attract figures on the right who employ this tactic.

It all comes down to who academics feel is really being silenced. Will this be the journal for them?

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.