Roland Barthes announced the death of the author in 1967, arguing that once a text is produced, it is an independent entity that can be interpreted and understood by the public without the author’s intentions, idiosyncrasies, and personal history stand away.
The Journal of Controversial Ideas is Barthes’ idea manifested – it proposes to allow academics to publish articles on controversial topics under a pseudonym. The hope is that this will allow researchers to write freely about controversial topics without the risk of social disapproval or threats. Thus, the magazine removes the author’s motivations, conflicts of interest, and worldview from presenting a potentially controversial idea. This proposal heralds the death of the academic author – and unlike Barthes, we think this is a bad thing.
A history of concealment
First, we must distinguish between anonymous and pseudonymous authorship: an article is anonymous when it does not mention a name, and it is pseudonymous when it mentions a name that is not the author’s first name. Both practices have a long history in scientific research.
The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society— the world’s longest-running scientific journal — was initially published without the names of researchers conducting the experiments. It was only after the development of the legal institution for authorship in the 17th century that named authors became the norm.
The Victorian Bestseller, Remains of the Natural History of Creation, which put forward an early version of the theory of evolution, was initially published anonymously. Readers had to wait 40 years and 12 editions to discover that it was written by Robert Chambers. malthus’ An essay on the population principle, who develops his theory of population growth was also published anonymously for the first time.
More recently, there have been some notable examples of pseudonymous authorship. Beginning in 1939, a rotating group of mathematicians has used the collective pseudonym “Nicolas Bourbaki” to publish the ongoing Elements of Mathematics series, which has 11 volumes published over 70 years. The Polymath Project, which crowdsources solutions to math problems, has also published some of its articles under pseudonyms under “DHJ Polymath” — the initials standing for the density Hales-Jewett theorem, the first problem the project worked on.
Other examples include the philosopher David Lewis, who published a response to one of his own articles under the nom de plume Bruce LeCatt. In fact, this year, three academics in the US had seven papers, written under pseudonyms or borrowed identities, that were accepted in various humanities journals as part of an elaborate hoax.
In many cases, the identities of these writers were an open secret at the time of publication – for example, everyone knows who is behind the Polymath project. Even if the intention is to hide, the identity of the writer is usually revealed.
How best to assign authorship is currently an open question. Issues such as ghost authorship, hyper-authorship, and hyper-productive researchers all challenge traditional notions of authorship — and countless revision proposals are in the air. The Journal of Controversial Ideas should be understood as part of a conversation about which authoring practices are best suited to the goals of academic research.
Why bother having authors?
To consider the viability of pseudonymous authorship, we need to think about the utility of having authors.
An important reason for a researcher to put his/her name on a paper is to claim credit for the paper. While the details are vague, the editors of the proposed magazine appear to have planned a system that would allow writers to claim ownership of papers for the purpose of recruiting and promoting. Likewise, writers may also choose to hide their papers for the purpose of recruitment and promotion, if they do not claim ownership would be beneficial to their career.
For the reader of a paper, adding authors to papers is important to help them decide how seriously to take the results. This is where the difference between anonymous and pseudonymous authorship becomes important: if an author uses the same pseudonym for a period of time, the academic community can get a sense of how good their work is (think of the Bourbaki pseudonym, which has been in use long enough to track record), but if a publication is anonymous, the public must rely solely on the credibility of the publishing journal and its editors.
But the most important function of having authors is to facilitate responsible publishing. If the 1998 Lancet paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism had not named Andrew Wakefield as its lead author, it would not have been possible to hold him accountable for producing fraudulent work or contributing to a dangerous antidote. -vaccination story. Author responsibility has both an intellectual and a moral twist: we want to hold people accountable for both sloppy research and the moral consequences of their publications.
Academic Quality Control
Holding authors accountable functions as part of academic quality control. When researchers know that producing bad work has social and career consequences, it encourages more careful and diligent work. Likewise, holding authors morally accountable motivates a healthy degree of caution on topics that can do real harm.
We worry that pseudonymous authorship is likely to lead to a problematic asymmetry between praise and blame. If The Journal of Controversial Ideas can reliably keep the identities of researchers secret – and we have our doubts, given the history of pseudonymous authorship – researchers will be able to publish papers, claim them if they get a positive response. , and reject them if they don’t.
Perhaps the journal’s interest in building a good academic reputation will lead its editors to institute review procedures to ensure only high-quality work is published, but their interest in controversy suggests that the journal could be much more lax when it comes to moral responsibility. We worry that The Journal of Controversial Ideas will respond to moral criticism by pointing out that its mission is to publish controversial and dangerous ideas.
Defenders of The Journal of Controversial Ideas see it as a forum for true academic freedom. While academic freedom is important, it is not an unlimited right. Freedom without responsibility is recklessness. It is a lack of respect for the danger or consequences of one’s ideas. True academic freedom does not mean that writers get to choose when to avoid controversy. The pseudonymous authorship proposal allows authors to manipulate the academy’s credit and debt systems in the name of academic freedom.
When it works well, academic research is a conversation. Researchers make claims and counterclaims, exchange reasons, and collaborate to open up new areas of research. A conversation needs speakers: we need to keep track of who is speaking, what they have said before and who they are talking to. Pseudonymous authorship is an opt-out of conversation, and the academic community will be worse off if its members no longer want to engage in intellectual conversations.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It has been lightly machined to conform to Ars Technica style guidelines. Read the original article.