To Retract or Not to Retract

24 October 2017

Suppose you edit a respected journal. And suppose that journal focuses on politically fraught issues: development, tensions between countries, legacies of colonial atrocities, racial injustice, poverty . . .

You try to publish cutting edge, well researched, and morally decent scholarship. But despite your best efforts, some weaker papers slip through the cracks.

Most of those weak papers are bad in banal ways. The numbers aren’t up to date. The argument has gaps. The writing is clunky. Etc. Worth trying to improve upon—but not worth losing sleep over.

But now suppose a paper somehow makes it to publication that is not just poor scholarship but also morally abhorrent. This paper slips under your radar—maybe you had a busy week and didn’t properly consider the referee reports—and finds a place in the journal you edit.

But you may be in luck. In these days of internet, the paper is online for pre-print before appearing in ink. It only exists electronically at present. And you’re tempted to make it disappear, because already there’s been major backlash.

So you ask yourself:

Should I retract the paper?

To retract would be a breach of standard publishing practice: once a piece is out, it’s supposed to be out (save for minor corrections). So publishing norms favor leaving the paper in place. On the other hand, the piece says things that are morally despicable, and publication, though it doesn’t say a view is correct, does suggest a professional level of scholarship. So not to retract would seem to leave the terrible piece with a nebulous endorsement.

This scenario, as you probably guessed, is not merely hypothetical.

Third World Quarterly, a leader in development studies that boasts Noam Chomsky on its editorial board, recently published a piece entitled “The Case for Colonialism,” by Bruce Gilley, a Princeton PhD who is now Associate Professor of Political Science at Portland State University.

You may be thinking, “Wait, someone’s making a ‘case’ for . . . that colonialism?” Yes, he defends that colonialism: the one where Western countries for over four centuries violently subjugated millions of humans all over the globe, extracted their resources, forced them into labor, deprived them of self-governance, destroyed natural habitats on which they depended, and pervasively committed atrocities like massacre and enslavement.

Yes, Gilley defends that. Except his paper astonishingly manages to leave out the bad parts. How is that possible? Gilley basically does two things. First, much of the paper isn’t an argument for colonialism so much as a dismissal of anti-colonialism, which he seems to think is just too much politically correct intellectual fashion. So the paper is short in length and short on specifics about what actually happened during colonialism. As Nathan Robinson points out in his excellent response, Gilley’s paper contains basically no information about colonialism before 1800, which is a three-hundred-year omission. Second, Gilley points to some things like colonial hospitals or medicines and then basically says, “See, that was good!” To which the response should be that a handful of hospitals doesn’t outweigh centuries of brutality. He also seems to think that colonial governments were good because they provided services, which is much like thinking that slavery was good because it provided employment.

You’d probably like to look for yourself to see if it’s really as bad as I say.

The problem, however, is that you can’t look for yourself. Or you can’t by going to the website of Third World Quarterly where it initially appeared (clever internet searches will turn it up). And that’s because the piece has been “withdrawn.”

In fact, it was withdrawn due to a death threat to the journal’s editors on account of this very piece. The existence of the death threat is highly disturbing and has been the subject of much discussion. But the people who made the death threat did it with certain thoughts in mind; they must have been thinking that retraction was the right thing to call for. So instead of focusing on the threat itself, I want to get back to our initial question of whether it’s right to retract such a bad piece just due to its badness.

The general style of thought here, which is shared many people who are not so extreme, is that there must be some threshold of badness, below which retraction is the right thing. See petitions such as this one.

But I want to flip that perspective.

I think that no matter how bad an article is it should not be retracted.

The reason for this is that published pieces are not just items meant to convey information. They are evidence about how some set of individuals was thinking at a certain point in history. Academic journals, with their meticulous preservation standards, are crucial guardians of the evidence, and I think that is one of the very functions of publication. If I want to know what philosophers were thinking about in 1905, I can look at what’s contained in Mind from that year. If I am considering a view about what anthropologists were thinking about, I can look in American Anthropologist. Any given article is evidence for how someone or some group was thinking, even if what they were thinking was wretched. Ironically, one way we know colonialism was bad is by looking at “scholarly” publications that discuss it.

Suppose some investigator 100 years hence wants to know whether and how colonialism had support among academics in 2017. The erasure of Gilley’s article is a disservice to that future scholar.

So all in all, I am against retraction. This contrasts with my position on monuments, whose social function is quite different from that of journal articles. Importantly, this opposition to retraction is invariant across the whole range of the moral spectrum, from praiseworthy to despicable. We should of course vigorously rebut bad ideas. But we shouldn’t attempt to destroy the evidence that those bad ideas exist.  


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 -- 12:21 PM

When fear of violence becomes

When fear of violence becomes a form of censorship, we have lost some of our freedom. There's some white nationalist yahoo who has been stirring up a lot of sludge lately, a guy named Spencer, I think? Schools don't want to allow him to speak because of potential violence generated by his agenda. I don't buy his groove, but, denial of free speech is not the answer. Those who think so ought to stay home when gives a speech. Seems to me.