Should academics be allowed to publish anonymously?

Editors of Journal of Controversial Ideas hope to puncture ‘cancel culture’, but other scholars warn researchers ‘can’t stop being an accountable moral agent’

July 15, 2021
A man walks with a cardboard box on his head as a metaphor for In journal of taboo topics, anonymity is most daring
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Among the topics in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Controversial Ideas: can the use of force be justified against humans who hurt animals? Could a violent criminal be sentenced to be put into a coma? Can white people ever legitimately use blackface?

But for all these provocative subjects, the biggest controversy appears to be over a simple question of academic practice colliding with the culture wars pervading higher education: whether scholars should be publicly accountable for what they write or allowed to remain anonymous to protect them from recrimination.

“People say that authors need to be accountable for their ideas. What they mean is that people should expose themselves to the kind of vitriol that you find all over the internet and social media. I don’t think people should be subjected to that,” said Jeff McMahan, White’s professor of moral philosophy at the University of Oxford and one of the journal’s three co-editors.

The journal’s purpose is to provide a place for ideas that are, its editors say, finding it increasingly difficult to get an airing at a time when pressure from both left and right is forcing articles to be retracted, lectures to be cancelled and faculty to contend with demands for their dismissal. And the editors are happy to allow contributors to use pseudonyms if they wish.

It is the anonymity that has provoked the most debate.

“It says something about the current state of academia that people care more about who writes something than the content,” said another of the journal’s editors, Francesca Minerva, a research fellow at the University of Milan.

But Patrick Stokes, associate professor of philosophy at Deakin University and a critic of allowing pseudonyms, said academics “can’t pretend we’re not responsible for what we do and for how it impacts others”.

There are certainly risks for writers with particularly unpopular views, especially if they are academics at the start of their careers, Dr Stokes said.

Letting academics publish anonymously, however, “furthers this idea that research somehow takes place in its own moral universe, instead of being a thing actual flesh-and-blood people do that has consequences for other actual people. You don’t get to stop being an accountable moral agent just because you’re a researcher.”

Yet scholars have long used pseudonyms, Dr Minerva responded. “It’s not something we made up.” And requiring that authors use their real names “just makes it easier to cancel that person”.

Dr Minerva and the third co-editor, Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp professor of bioethics at Princeton University, have experience of this: she for a paper that suggested that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in circumstances similar to those in which abortion was allowed, and he for his writing about voluntary euthanasia, animal ethics and other topics.

Both report having received death threats. A scheduled talk by Professor Singer in New Zealand last year was cancelled over his previous suggestion that parents should be able to end the lives of babies with disabilities that would, he said, diminish their quality of life.

At least one of the authors in the journal’s first issue, Bouke De Vries, a postdoctoral fellow in Umeå University’s department of historical, philosophical and religious studies, said his article arguing that blackface could be justified in some cases had been previously rejected by “a well-known journal in moral and political philosophy”. He said the editor told him the reason was the “very real risk of causing unnecessary offence”.

“I suspect that’s not an isolated case,” Dr Minerva said. “I suspect that happens a lot.”

The Journal of Controversial Ideas is peer-reviewed and open access. Of the 91 original submissions, 68 were rejected, 10 were accepted and the rest were still being considered, its editors said.

The next issue is likely to be published in four or five months, according to Professor McMahan.

“The ideas and arguments stand on their own. It doesn’t matter who produced them,” he said. “But that’s contrary to the way a lot of people think now. They think ideas are to be evaluated by the identity of their sources. The obsession with identity, meaning membership in certain groups, is totally irrelevant.”

Academics’ race, ethnic and national origin, political views and even long-ago tweets become targets for people who disagree with the scholars’ work, he and Dr Minerva said.

“I don’t understand why that’s relevant,” Dr Minerva said. “How can somebody be accountable if holding them accountable means wanting them to get fired? That seems a strange view of accountability.”

She said she hoped that other academic journals would resume publishing articles considered to be controversial.

“We really hope that our journal won’t be necessary for a long time,” Dr Minerva said, “and that this wave of cancel culture will die out.”


Print headline: In journal of taboo topics, anonymity is most daring

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Reader's comments (2)

In Computer Science (my discipline) there is a saying "You are not your code". We also say "Critique code instead of people -- be kind to the coder, not to the code". Substitute "ideas" for "code" - disagreeing with an idea or a point of view is NEVER an excuse for abusing the person who expressed it. Those who ask for 'accountability' through being able to identify authors of articles are not interested in debate. They are interested in making personal attacks on people with whom they disagree. Shouting them down rather than proving their ideas to be incorrect.
Many universities are state funded and are therefore expected to contribute to the enhancement of the welfare of their societies. As such their work should always be made public given the required accountability to governments and the public. Such an issue among others however are likely to continue to arise because surprisingly today's academics and administrators are not revisiting their raisin d'etre, the purpose of the university and the purpose of education. If these are objectively revisited we would realize that the central purpose is a practical one which is problem solving, helping societies to resolve social, economic, religious, engineering, climate change, family life, organizational etc. Once problem solving is pursued, everything else will fall in line.


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