Academic Neocolonialism Redux

Stefano Ponte,*Lisa Ann Richey,** and Maha Rafi Atal***

*Professor of International Political Economy

** Professor of Globalization

***Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Centre for Business and Development Studies, Copenhagen Business School

German colonialism in East Africa: Battle of Ngomango 1917, Carl Narriens

Next Wednesday, Bruce Gilley of Portland State University will be giving a lecture to the AfD parliamentary group in Berlin on ‘The balance of German colonialism. Why the Germans do not have to apologize for the colonial period and certainly do not have to pay for it!’. Gilley became an overnight celebrity in right-wing circles after the publication in of his 2017 article ‘The Case for Colonialism,’ , which infamously argued that many ‘poor’ countries would be better off today if colonial systems of government were reinstated. That same year, Gilley resigned from the leading professional association of American political scientists in protest of the prominence given to feminist and postcolonial research at its annual conference. Gilley couched his critique in the language of academic standards, arguing that the longstanding norm of ideas earning their place on merit had been subverted by “identity politics.”

In fact, as we argued earlier this year, it is Gilley himself who has subverted these norms, as his 2017 article was published without passing peer-review, after an editorial process skewed to pursue “clickbait” at the expense of scholarly rigor. Gilley’s 2017 article appeared in Third World Quarterly, a journal historically committed to anti-colonial politics, and two of us were among the half of the journal’s board members who resigned over its publication. With the far-right AfD explicitly citing the 2017 article as the inspiration for Gilley’s lecture, it is worth reviewing how a low-quality publication became a keystone in far right politics, and considering the lessons for editors and publishers today. To that end, we excerpt in part our analysis of the case, co-authored by resigned board members, Stefano Ponte, Lisa Ann Richey, Ilan Kapoor and David Simon:

“While the controversy around the article, which was ultimately retracted, has been well covered elsewhere, what is less well known is that the Editor-in-Chief was the sole owner of this journal (and now owns it jointly with his daughter). Although the academic publisher, Taylor & Francis, publishes TWQ, the editor derives a healthy profit from it.

This unique financial arrangement influenced the decision to publish. Prior to publication, no board member had ever seen the Gilley article, and when the article appeared, we as board members began contacting the editor, wondering whether the publication was a hoax, a mistake, or an exercise in irony. In the ensuing board debate over how to respond to the controversy, we discovered that the article had initially been rejected by two guest editors of a then-forthcoming special issue on imperialism, with the editor deciding nonetheless to send it out for peer review as a standalone paper instead. When one of the peer reviewers rejected the paper, while the other called for “major revisions,” the editor nevertheless decided unilaterally to publish the paper. In short, the article did not pass the peer-review process, but was published anyway for its ability to spark political debate, rather than for its scholarly merit. As a result, criticisms which ought to have been addressed during peer-review, including flaws in its cost-benefit analysis and a lack of citations to existing literature were instead raised only in the public controversy following its publication.

It was only during this controversy that we and other board members became aware of the unique financial status of the journal as a single-owner, for-profit enterprise. This revelation threw into relief past unsuccessful efforts to encourage the editor to make the journal more accountable and transparent by involving the board in editorial and policy decisions. Moreover, throughout the controversy over the article, the editor remained unresponsive to our queries as board members and to the wider public outcry for a response. Even after the article was retracted, citing reported threats of violence to the editor and author (which – like threats to the leaders of online petitions against the article – we unequivocally condemn), the editor did not share information on the threats and any associated police investigation with the board.

All of this suggests that, as the sole owner of a profit-seeking journal, the editor (as much as the corporate publisher) had every incentive to publish a controversial article, even one that flouts scholarly standards or the journal’s own mandate. Indeed, during the backstage negotiations, the editor admitted that his intention in publishing the piece was to provoke debate. Clickbait and controversy, after all, translate into readership.

Two years on, despite assurances from the publisher to appoint new leadership, the editor continues to own and operate the journal as before, even as this financial arrangement is concealed from readers, authors and peer reviewers.”

Gilley’s forthcoming address to the far-right AfD party underscores the significance of such clickbait. The 2017 article received over 16,000 views in the few months it was available online, making it the 4th most popular since the journal began recording such metrics. Even after it was retracted, the controversy it generated increased Gilley’s notoriety, making him an attractive speaker for groups like AfD. Indeed, the party’s announcement of his lecture specifically references the 2017 article as an inspiration for his talk. Journal editors must therefore consider not only how commercially driven altimetric scores, key to publishers’ profitability, can skew or displace the requirements of peer review, but also how courting controversy can be a deliberate tool of far-right mobilization.

This danger is often concealed by claims of defending “free speech” and “academic freedom.” Indeed, as we noted in our earlier account, a publisher’s mailing list was used to distribute an email titled “Third World Quarterly Solidarity Letter” which opened with the author stating that he was “writing to you as members of the editorial teams of the leading journals in Politics, Political Theory and International Relations to ask you sign a letter of solidarity with the journal Third World Quarterly and its editor-in-chief.” Some academics signed this letter in support of TWQ “in defense of the vital principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom.” In a wider environment of debates over social justice and “free speech,” and with the reality of the subverted peer review concealed from public view, editor and publisher were able to present their position as one of defending academic freedom and their critics as policing speech, when in fact the opposite was true.

As a result, a journal with a storied history of academic rigor and anti-colonial politics has enabled an academic to position himself as a spokesperson for far-right politics on an international stage. Such inversions of academic process and norms not only pose a threat to academic legitimacy, but have real-world political consequences, which editors and publishers have yet to apprehend.

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