This past week has seen some unedifying academic-on-academic hostility on Twitter, with a storm of haughty criticism being whipped up in response to publication in the journal Alternatives of a paper by Dr David A. Hughes. Perhaps because I know first hand what it feels like to be publicly smeared for touching on inconvenient questions, I have felt impelled to speak out against this intimidatory conduct.
Hughes’ paper tackles a taboo subject, one which has been at the centre of a great deal of conspiracy theorizing, much of it preposterous. What he nevertheless aims to show is that there are also reasonable questions to be asked about the subject; and he wants to understand why these have been lumped together with the foolish ones in a blanket dismissal by other scholars in the field of International Relations (IR).
The paper having undergone peer review and been published, it is now encountering public condemnation from a number of academics via their Twitter accounts. We see the makings here of a campaign to have the paper retracted or the editorial team censured.
Such conduct from professional colleagues requires an exceptional justification. For them to seek to overturn the result of peer review is tantamount to a vote of no confidence in the professionalism of colleagues who were involved in it. Very good reasons ought to be provided for such serious censure.
Scientists and scholars rely on the system of peer review – whose functioning itself depends on the good will and good faith of colleagues – to ensure that publications in their fields of expertise reach certain standards of methodological rigour and substantive significance. They do not assume that publication following peer review is an unequivocal endorsement of everything the paper claims. Once any article is published, it is quite likely to be subject to criticism, if it is of any interest at all, since the advance of learning inherently involves debate.
So peer review is a valuable process, but it is not an infallible guide to the quality of a publication above a certain threshold, and it does not provide the last word on the worth of a publication. I doubt there is any academic who could not point to some paper or other that, in their view, does not meet the threshold and so ought not to have been published. It is another matter, however, for a case to be made for seeking retraction of a published paper. Such a case would normally be grounded in provable claims of academic fraud of some kind.
It is normal, then, for academics to live with the existence of publications they disagree with or disapprove of. This is not an unalloyed burden, either, since such publications also provide convenient opportunities for academics to exhibit their own superior learning through their critical responses.