There is as I write this a vigorous discussion on social media and, I would assume over email, regarding a piece, titled “The case for colonialism” and authored by Brian Gilley, that was recently published in the academic journal Third World Quarterly. A petition is circulating to request the journal retract the piece and issue an apology for publishing it. The petition is linked here (a second version targeted for Canada-based scholars is here), and includes a link to the article that will bypass the journal’s website and thereby prevent the view count and other metrics used to assess an article’s impact (more on that below) from climbing ever higher.
I have not yet signed the petition, as I am contemplating the meaning of asking for retraction of the piece in this format. A similar controversy over an article published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia in spring 2017 (“In Defense of Transracialism,” by Rebecca Tuvel) has resulted in serious divisions in academic philosophy, charges of online mobbing and material harm to transracial and transsexual persons, questions about the journal’s publishing and peer review practices and the author’s abilities, apologies and counter-apologies from the journal’s editorial board, and even a Wikipedia page devoted to the episode and its ongoing fallout. I cannot do justice to the debate here, as it is ongoing and I am out of my depth in relation to that field of study, but I point to it because it presages in form but not content the emerging debate over Gilley’s article in TWQ. And I am familiar with some of the subfields and themes on which “The case for colonialism” touches – development studies, development geography, the developmental state, the history of colonialism and the West’s ongoing postcolonial engagement with the Third World/Global South, so I feel confident in assessing its content.
In short, “The case for colonialism,” is, to me, unpublishable in the journal on the grounds of its shoddy argumentation and poor use of empirical detail, in which the details and methodology employed cannot possibly answer the question posed. That question – is it time to resurrect western colonialism as a mode of governance for developing countries? – does not generate or contribute to a useful or enriching debate emerging from the scholarly literature in the fields at hand, and that simply put is the purpose of an academic journal – to contribute to, expand, and enrich existing debates. As a sample (and I won’t spend more time or words than this on critiquing the argument of the piece itself), the author proposes a ridiculous thesis about the failure of anti-colonial thought and practice:
“The failure of anti-colonial critique to come to terms with the objective benefits and subjective legitimacy of colonialism points to a third and deeper failure: it was never intended to be ‘true’ in the sense of being a scientific claim justified through shared standards of inquiry that was liable to falsification. The origins of anti-colonial thought were political and ideological. The purpose was not historical accuracy but contemporaneous advocacy.”
This suggests a limited engagement with the political, practical substance and goals of anti-colonial movements and arguments, as if they can and should, and even could, be divorced from their contemporaneous political advocacy, content, and context. The goal of anti-colonial movements and ideas was not to provide a falsifiable thesis for scientific testing. It was to liberate people and places subjected to colonial rule from western powers from that form of rule, and the many forms of violence and humiliation that went with it. This is a fundamentally political project, as it must be. Further, it shows a profound misunderstanding of colonialism, presenting it as a scientific endeavor built on objective values and clearly identified benefits, and not emerging from or advancing its own particular political and ideological goals and modes of thought. And this is not isolated in the article – it is the primary argument, throughout. It is so narrow as to make assessment of colonialism into a game of cost/benefit analysis, but one in which costs and benefits in their specificity are rendered socially meaningless. Consider Belgium’s colonial control of Congo, in which the relentless zeal for extracting rubber from the colony was accompanied by vicious punishments for not meeting arbitrary quotas set by colonial officials, in particular the removal of hands to prove they had carried out death penalties against those who failed to hit their rubber quotas. Estimates of Congolese dead under brutal Belgian colonial control in the late 19th and early 20th centuries run upward of 10 million. What of the cost of millions of Congolese lives and hands against the benefit of universal values and a ‘liberal’ form of rule from Belgium that was never meant to be liberal or universal anyway – Gilley’s argument is absurd in its lack of nuance and engagement with historical specificity. Then again it’s also broad in a way that is simply unable to capture the reality of colonialism, which was never uniform across time and space, and his claim to want to approach it through a kind of ‘normal science’ positivist methodology in which one falsifies hypothetical statements is wildly inappropriate to the task of ‘reclaiming’ colonialism as a project. We should question such a project in the first place, as it posits specifically western colonialism as the model to polish off and reclaim, at a time when western governments cry austerity and face their own internal rifts and populist, nativist movements. (See also threads of critique from other researchers I know and trust here, here, and here.) Such a debate about the need or desire to reclaim and re-establish some kind of western colonial hegemony or presence in the world falls apart against the limits of his methodology to answer the question posed, the lack of empirical evidence adequate to support the claims made, and the political realities of both colonialism as a historical process and project and western influence and legitimacy domestically and in the postcolonial Global South.
Returning to the points above regarding the publication process, the journal’s pages are a space or place for an ongoing conversation between scholars who are experts on the topics they’re researching and about which they are writing (see, there’s a link to the relatively narrow themes of this blog). For those reading this who don’t know this process, journal articles typically go through a process called double-blind peer review. An author or authors writes an article, based on existing work (connections to what other scholars are doing on the same or similar topics is necessary to demonstrate value in an ongoing debate) and one’s new contributions and insights based on, hopefully, rigorous collection of data, new forms of argumentation and analysis, or new theoretical and conceptual breakthroughs. The author(s) send that article to a journal, typically published one to four (or sometimes 6, 10, or 12 times) in a year, and the editor will determine whether it should be reviewed, and then sends it on to, usually, two or three reviewers. These reviewers are (or should be) also considered knowledgable in the field or fields on which the article touches or builds, and they read the piece and provide an assessment of its merits, considering its argument, its empirical data and accuracy, its adequacy in engaging with existing concepts and publications, and its stylistic content. (Did you know, by the way, that some academic writing is quite bad on this stylistic front? I know, it’s a shock.) The editor reads these assessments from the reviewers, makes a determination on whether the piece is publishable and to what extent revisions need to be made, including whether the paper should be sent out for review again (usually but not always to the same reviewers) once revisions are completed. In these cases, the author does not know who the reviewers are, and the reviewers do not know the name of the author, as identifying information is removed before it is sent to reviewers. This is meant to ensure that there is no bias, favorable or unfavorable, in the review process. Academic research should be, in this model, assessed on the merits of the research alone and not on the standing or name or affiliation of the author(s). It doesn’t always work that way of course, especially as increasingly small sub-niches and specializations form in academic research fields, and people remember previous versions of work they’re reviewing from seeing it presented at conferences or other venues. But in general, this is how it should work in the double blind peer review process, the goal being to prevent junk science and poor argumentation from getting through.
Many are arguing that in this case, the editorial process has failed, completely and spectacularly. The piece was published in the journal’s “Viewpoints” section, which is more editorial and where it does not need to necessarily go through the same form of peer review as a full research article, and at least one member of the journal’s editorial board has noted that this went through to publication without consultation with the editorial board. There are rumors online of the piece facing a flat rejection when submitted originally, though I cannot vouch for this. In any event, the piece is published, it is on the Third World Quarterly website (behind a paywall), and it is generating an enormous number of clicks. And this, I would surmise, is a big chunk of how a piece of such limited academic rigor and quality gets into the pages of a journal that gives out an annual prize named in honor of famed anti-colonial scholar Edward Said. There is also perhaps more than a little of the grandstanding, trolling, right-wing provocateur here, seeking attention by making what most in his field would consider an outlandish and even grotesque argument in favor of returning huge swaths of the Global South to arbitrary colonial rule. I do not know Gilley or his previous work, so I cannot guess at his motives, but can only judge what he has written here, which I find less than impressive. (Again, I am familiar with some of the research fields relevant here, but I do not, for example, know the specific colonial histories of Africa well enough to comment on his take on the Mau insurgency in Kenya. Others suggest he’s done a fairly poor job of engaging the literature). Perhaps this is a publication of convenience for both author and journal, though it is evident that TWQ does not need this, as a respected outlet for excellent work on and from the Global South. I have never published there or reviewed for them, but I have used many articles published there in my own work.
So what of the argument for seeing this piece as clickbait? “The case for colonialism” looks like an attempt to drive clickthroughs and enhance the journal’s impact factor (calculated based on number of citations to pieces in a journal over time), but one with material impacts on the field because it’s in an otherwise reputable journal. There are limits to the impact factor enhancement argument, as it’s not always clear that pieces published without peer review will get counted. Still, this is generating clicks for the journal and for the author. It might, however, make others question the journal’s standing and the editors’ judgment, and it may make it difficult to find people willing to review in the future (already a difficult process given the time constraints many face in the academy). The troubling thing is that this is clearly a successful strategy for driving traffic to the article and the journal’s website, and likely to Gilley’s other published works in other journals. As of about 9:00 pm on September 13, the article had 618 views and an Altmetric score of 1252, which is based on social media mentions and shares. On the article page it stated at the time:
“Altmetric has tracked 8,372,581 research outputs across all sources so far. Compared to these this one has done particularly well and is in the 99th percentile: it’s in the top 5% of all research outputs ever tracked by Altmetric.”
All in five days. As I write this now, around 2:30 pm on September 14, the article has 4976 views, and an Altmetric score of 1287, with approximately 1500 shares and mentions through Twitter. There is, unfortunately, no minimizing that. So overnight the article’s view count increased eightfold. By contrast, no article in the current issue of TWQ (vol 38, no 10) seems to have more than 500 views, and most are under 200. The four most-viewed articles on the TWQ site all-time have over 9000 views, with the most-viewed (“The UN at war” by John Karlsrud) at almost 14,000, but it was published over two years ago and is open access (no paywall, freely available for anyone to download), and as an actual research article, went through peer-review; according to the acknowledgments, it was also presented at both a small workshop and an academic conference before submission, where feedback would have been obtained on initial versions. Gilley’s piece, as noted, is a “viewpoint” article, meaning the peer review standard is less rigorous or (apparently) non-existent, and it is not open access. But it’s clearly going to surpass these other peer reviewed pieces as the journal’s most-viewed publication, I would guess probably within a month because surely within a couple of weeks the budding controversy will make its way into the popular press and thousands more will click on the article, unless of course it is retracted, whereupon I would guess it would take on new life in another venue and Gilley will become a darling of the elements of the media that love to harangue the academy as “too leftist” and hostile to “real” critical thought. There seems no other reason to have published this than to get clicks, to improve the journal’s visibility and perhaps its citation metrics.
But in that it also clearly demonstrates the absolutely nonsensical and fallacious reliance on metrics like these to determine the worth and quality of the work the metrics point to, something that many universities and granting agencies are increasingly using in assessing scholars’ productivity and value in the academic workplace. Just because you get clicks and citations does not mean the work is high quality. In fact in this case it means quite the opposite – the work is not good, and is being roundly and rightly criticized for its many glaring flaws in argumentation, evidence, and conceptualization. Being cited for being wrong is not the same as being cited because you have come up with a novel and convincing new interpretation of a dynamic longstanding question or a new and pressing issue. Many (including myself) argue that it is in fact likely to cause material damage to other, real and important debates in the social sciences, and to scholars from the Global South and others working in and from postcolonial identities, positions, and places. Will this publication make others take the journal’s claims about their impact factors and other metrics less seriously after this, and is it going to be detrimental to those who have published in the journal alongside Gilley’s piece? This piece may potentially puff up the journal’s stats in ways that do not reflect the real utility of the journal and the work in it (if they could at all be fully captured by those metrics derived from clicks and cites anyway), and it means the journal is perhaps likely to attract further low quality work in the future. Publishing this may also likely give pause to others who are asked to review for the journal in future, as noted above.
The claim that the piece and its publication does real harm to Black, indigenous, anti-colonial, and other non-white scholars, especially but not only those situated in institutions in the postcolonial Global South, is even more important than the concerns about the journal’s metrics and reputation, though there is a crucial link I want to draw out. Aside from forcing scholars to engage with an argument advanced for what seems like shock value and traffic generation (again though, I am only guessing at motives – I take Gilley at his word that he wants to seriously consider the benefits of re-establishing western colonialism in Africa, Latin America, and Asia), and thereby distracting from other debates, the piece reiterates long-debunked notions of ‘primitive’ peoples requiring colonialism for their own betterment and benefit, and poses a counterfactual that is neither factual nor able to be proven, namely, that these people and places would have been better off without anti-colonial movements and independence. The logical conclusion of this argument is to tell colleagues and peers in the Global South that they are not part of the same community of scholars, at least not in an equal way, that they do not know themselves and their societies, that the states and societies they inhabit have failed in ways that require a reversion to a bygone system of direct rule from abroad (keeping in mind that indirect forms of imperial and colonial control have persisted for much longer than formal colonialism), and that they are incapable of participating in their own self-governance and self-determination without accepting the limits imposed by the undemocratic rule of colonizing western powers. This is not an argument that a serious academic journal committed to and founded in the anti-colonial movements of the developing world, as Third World Quarterly was, should entertain in its pages. There are other outlets for such a piece, and it seems editorial standards and processes have failed in this case, damaging the journal’s stature and running counter to its purpose.
This also points to my final conclusion. What happens when a reputable component in the material development of anti-colonial thought and practice missteps in such a way? It’s not just a matter of retraction or re-examining internal processes for handling submissions and communicating among editorial board members. Something more broad is at stake I would think, linked to the intellectual heritage of anti- and post-colonial studies, and to the material reproduction of ideas and practices associated with questioning, pushing back, and reversing the worst aspects of colonialism and its legacy. Colonialism now as in the past, and, apparently if some like Gilley had their way, into the future is not and never was simply a crude material project of physical violence and exploitation, though it was certainly that as well. It was also a process of colonizing modes of thought, of self-expression and identity, and of closing off possibilities for engagement, exchange, and understanding in favor of domination, control, and exploitation. And this, frankly, is contrary to the spirit of academic research to which scholars seeking outlets for their work in reputable peer-reviewed journals, and teaching the next generation of students, scholars, and policymakers, should adhere. So maybe I will sign the petition…
Addendum (Sept 18, 2017 – 8:00 am)
This post has now been viewed many times and, given how I ended it with a suggestion that I would perhaps sign the petition circulating that requested Third World Quarterly to retract Gilley’s article “The case for colonialism,” I think it important to note that I did not in fact do so. I am not necessarily opposed to the ends for which the petition aims – I stand by my assessment of the article as unworthy of publication in TWQ as a peer-reviewed article, and its inclusion as a viewpoint or editorial piece does not seem like sound editorial practice. It has alienated readers and members of the editorial board, thrown into question the editors’ judgment, and threatened to undermine the journal’s standing and, perhaps, its ability to recruit reviewers, authors, and editors. There are reasons we expect academic journals to publish peer-reviewed work and not clickbait, and when those reasons are jettisoned in favor of publishing something with limited academic rigor or value, it can cause long lasting damage to the intellectual integrity of the discipline. There is great value in polemics and oppositional and even unorthodox stances when well done. “The case for colonialism” is not that.
Yet I hesitate to support editorial decisions in academic journals made by internet petition. Like publishing a clearly inflammatory and academically suspect piece in the hopes of generating more clicks, this is not a sound basis for editorial decisions. Granted, the petitions circulated are couched (in large part) in the language of academic rigor and the journal’s own publishing standards. Surely the journal editors know these standards, they understand rigor, they get the journal’s longstanding reputation as a forum for postcolonial scholarship and critical discussions of colonialism’s history and legacies. The other good work the journal has published demonstrates this, as does the debate internally about the role of the editorial board in publication decisions (I assume this is ongoing given the little bits of discussion online about some board members’ concerns about the piece). So there is little need for a petition to remind them of this, and in any case, the article was published as a viewpoint, not a research article. A technicality perhaps, but one that is important nonetheless and which no doubt would feed the sense that ‘intolerant leftists’ in academia demanded that Gilley withdraw his opinion without seeking to engage it on its own terms. As I stated in the original post, I think there is limited value in engaging with it as a defense of colonialism in a political sense; it fails so fully in its theoretical and conceptual formulation and empirical analysis that the political position advanced cannot stand up anyway.
Is this the goal, to troll the perceived and actual leftists in development and postcolonial studies with a piece so inflammatory that they rise up in their electronic anger to demand an immediate retraction, and thereby to prove some point about the ivory tower being hypocritical? Maybe, maybe not. Gilley has published other peer-reviewed pieces that touch on similar topics (see his Oct 2016 article in African Affairs on Chinua Achebe) so perhaps this is a piece that was meant to continue in the same vein but expand the argument and set the stage for a more robust debate. It does not do a very good job of that, and perhaps TWQ is and never was the proper outlet for such a piece. But if it is a troll, as many assert, then retraction isn’t even necessary – the reaction via petition is enough, and he could confidently assert that all these leftists hurled their vitriol at him to silence him, many without reading the article, and without engaging him on the substance of his argument, such as it is. And he is tenured, mid-career, with a budding reputation as an iconoclast. The article has now hit 10,203 views, an astounding number for a such a short period of time. Mission accomplished already, petition and retraction or not.
But again, I resist signing the petition because the TWQ editors must make the decision internally to examine their practices, to determine whether such a publishing strategy and decision is beneficial to the journal and the field. It could easily be the other way around – an angry mob could likewise draw harsh attention to an iconoclastic or unorthodox critical article that was sound but which made damning or even inconvenient arguments for more conservative journals or fields (conservative here meaning those operating in a kind of ‘normal science’ paradigm). This is not how research assessment or even viewpoints in journals should proceed, yet I think wasting time on responding to and refuting Gilley’s arguments is just that – a waste of time, dredging up arguments and positions that are largely settled in the field, and for which there is no need for a renewed debate by serious scholars in a good journal. I fully understand why anyone else would sign the petition, and I do not begrudge them their participation in the effort.
But I want to take another tack, and whether others join me or not, so be it. I will not do review for TWQ or seek to publish work there as long as the issue of this article’s assessment in the journal’s editorial practices remains unaddressed by the editors and publishers themselves. There needs to be an open discussion in the pages of TWQ about how and why the editors came to publish Gilley’s piece, and what readers, reviewers, and authors should expect from the journal if it’s seeking to change past norms and standards. As academics, we do a lot of work for each other as part of the normal routines of our jobs – peer review of written work, tenure files, grant applications, teaching performance. We assess ourselves and offer our labor in that way so that we can remain self-governing in our institutions and our disciplines. So in a situation like this, withdrawing that labor is a good way to enforce standards and remind ourselves of the obligations and responsibilities that inhere in our profession.