Ideas can inflame, and the consequences for expressing them can be severe. That’s not exactly breaking news. In fact, it’s more or less the history of science and philosophy: exile, excommunication, execution.
And that’s just pre-Twitter. These days, a paper that’s deemed offensive can unleash an online mob and turn an academic’s career and life upside down. It can also cause a journal editor to tiptoe away from a potentially important paper or a scholar not to put fingers to keyboard in the first place.
That’s why a group of scholars is creating The Journal of Controversial Ideas. They’re not taking submissions yet. They’re still negotiating with publishers and figuring out exactly how the journal will work. They see it as an annual, peer-reviewed, open-access publication that will print worthy papers from any discipline, and stand behind them, regardless of the backlash.
One of the proposed journal’s editors, Peter Singer, is certainly no stranger to controversy. Singer’s views on disability and abortion have led to protests and calls for his ouster from Princeton, where he is a professor of bioethics.
“I favor the ability to put new ideas out there for discussion, and I see an atmosphere in which some people may be intimidated from doing that,” Singer says. “The idea is to establish a journal where it’s clear from the name and object that controversial ideas are welcome.”
One unusual feature of the journal will be giving authors the option to use a pseudonym (though the journal’s editors say they hope most will feel comfortable using their real names). The thought is that such a policy would allow an untenured academic to publish a controversial paper, and perhaps to claim it later when he or she is on firmer career footing. Or maybe just to put it out there, and never claim it at all.
“I don’t think you should write a paper thinking about the political implications of what you’re writing,” says Francesca Minerva, also one of the journal’s editors and a postdoc at Ghent University, in Belgium. “You should put out an argument with the best science available.”
Minerva was a co-author of a 2011 paper — “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” — that led to condemnation and threats. It was in part that experience that made her interested in conceiving and running the new journal. Recent cases, like controversies over a defense of colonialism and a paper on so-called transracialism, also made the need for such a project seem urgent.
The founders are interested in not so much controversy for its own sake but in providing an outlet for ideas that might not otherwise find one. The reason they want to publish one issue per year, Minerva says, is to focus on the quality of the submissions. They’ve put together an editorial board with 40 scholars in a number of fields who sympathize with their aims. They hope that the journal will send a signal that good ideas, even ones that inflame, deserve to be debated.
“What we’re interested in is giving people a voice,” says Minerva, “because if you don’t publish controversial things, then you might be missing something really important.”
Tom Bartlett is a senior writer who covers science and other things. Follow him on Twitter @tebartl.