Sunday, May 22, 2011

How to Break the Synthese Stalemate: The Case for a Subscription Boycott

By now, it has become pretty obvious that, after the petition and the EiCs' response, the Synthese affair has reached a stalemate. On one side, the EiCs clearly have decided (or have been instructed) not to discuss the matter publicly (let alone retract the disclaimer or issue an apology). On the other, the boycott does not seem to have gained sufficient momentum yet. Brian Leiter recently posted a post asking for input from signatories to the petition on how to proceed and, with 16 comments so far, the response has been far from overwhelming. The poll Leiter ran also shows that only 20% of respondents are ready to boycott the journal (a much smaller poll run earlier on this blog showed that 32% of respondents were in favor of a boycott), while another 19% are "now less likely to submit to it or referee for it." The poll also shows that 71% now has a lower opinion of the journal.

If we are to believe that the poll reflects the opinion of the philosophical community (and it is far from clear to what extent it does), this is arguably the worst possible outcome for those of us who (used to) read, submit to, and referee for Synthese on a regular basis. On the one hand, the journal's reputation seems to have suffered a significant blow and, although it is still hard to assess the extent of the damage, it seems pretty clear that some damage has been done and that there is no clear way to undo it to everyone's satisfaction. On the other hand, before this affair, the journal was almost unanimously considered one of the best-run philosophy journals and it is very likely that, if the EiCs were to resign, the journal would significantly suffer from it and would likely be not as well-run as it used to be for the foreseeable future.*

Having said that, at this point, nothing short of an official public retraction-cum-apology and a full disclosure of the events that led up to this situation would be able to salvage Synthese's reputation and, if a boycott is what it's going to take, then so be it! However, if (and I'm saying 'if') the buck ultimately stops with Springer, then a subscription boycott would be more effective, easier to implement, and fairer (both to the EiCs and to grad student and untenured faculty) than the submission/refereeing boycott that has been suggested so far.

The good people at Springer might want to keep in mind that most university libraries would be very happy to cancel their subscriptions to Synthese at the request of the faculty members who are most likely to use those subscriptions and that, once those subscriptions are cancelled, it would pretty hard to get the libraries to resubscribe, especially given the exorbitant cost of the annual subscription to Synthese (which, I believe, is about 3,000EUR or 4,200USD these days). So, as much as it would pain me to give up electronic access to Synthese, I'm afraid I would have to do so unless (Springer lets) the EiCs issue a statement to be published in print and on the journal website in which the EiCs:
  1. retract the disclaimer, 
  2. issue a public apology, and 
  3. fully disclose everything that went on (legal threats included). 
If (and, again, I'm saying 'if') Springer somehow pressured the EiCs into acting as they (uncharacteristically) did and is now gagging them for fear of the economic repercussions of legal action, then this may be a good time for the people at Springer to double-check their math and reconsider their decision, as a subscription boycott might end up costing Springer hundreds of thousands of dollars every year (if not more), which, in the long run, would, presumably, add up to more than any legal costs Springer would likely incur. And that is only if the we decide not to persuade our librarians to unsubscribe from a few other Springer journals.

As far as I am concerned, the ball is now on Springer's court. If you are interested in joining me, please feel free to say so in the comments. (I'd give Springer and the EiCs a month before contacting your library). In the meantime, I'm going to look for the e-mail address of the Reference Librarian for philosophy (in these times of financial austerity she will be delighted to be able to count on $4,200 more a year in her budget!)

* Incidentally, I think that some people (who don't regularly read and submit to Synthese) fail to understand this quandary. They also fail to understand that an academic journal is, in a way, a public good for the academic community that relies on it and that, if the reputation of a journal like Synthese were to be permanently tarnished by this affair, this would not be something in which to rejoice and no one of its regular users (the academic community that relies on it) would be any better off for it. (Of course, one could say 'Who cares? The hell with them!' but the regular users are exactly those whose weight one would like to have behind a boycott campaign. You cannot effectively boycott McDonalds if you have never been a customer of it.) Finally, they also fail to understand that antagonizing the regular users who are sitting on the fence by, more or less explicitly, insinuating that the undecided don't join the protest because of self-interest, cronyism, or bad faith is not only unfair but also counterproductive and divisive.


  1. So, you are going to deprive your colleagues and (undergraduate or graduate) students, many of whom plausibly do not share your views about what is the right thing to do concerning Synthese, of the capacity to access Synthese through their university!

    This strikes me as quite inconsiderate.

    Why don't you and others just walk the walk instead of talking the talk, and stop submitting to Synthese?

  2. Here in the UK there is already considerable pressure from libraries to cancel expensive subscriptions such as Synthese's. Indeed, Leeds has already cancelled its subscription to the general Springer package, which means that we now have to justify separate subscriptions to the specific journals we want (thus exposing the high cost of Synthese). And a consortium of the libraries of the major research institutions are threatening action against the major publishers unless they bring subscription costs (now amounting to 80% of library budgets in some cases) down to manageable levels (although here they are focussing on Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell).
    I'm not sure whether this (UK) context adds further punch to Gabriele's proposal or simply muddies things. Certainly the response of the EiC remains hugely disappointing and further underscores their (and perhaps the publisher's) lack of appreciation of the consequences of their actions (not least for the fight against ID in the US educational system). If the journal's reputation is seen as damaged by these actions then economic forces such as the above may lead to libraries unsubscribing anyway but I'm inclined to think, sadly, that most colleagues will see this episode as a dark blip rather than a permanent stain and will resist such pressures.

  3. Edouard,

    First, if you are suggesting that I'm proposing the subscription boycott because I want to continue submitting to (and refereeing for) Synthese, you are wrong--I have no intention of doing so until this affair is resolved. Not only, but your insinuation is baseless (which is ironic considering your standards of evidence for the EiCs (more on that below)) and demeaning. I very much hope you'll take that back!

    Second, I thought I explained why I think the subscription boycott is preferable, so if you have any questions about that please let me know.

    Third, I find your defense of the EiCs' conduct hard to fathom. You simply seem to think that they are innocent until proven guilty and that they cannot be proven guilty because your standards of proof are exceedingly high. To me you sound sounds pretty much like one of DSK's running to his defense (please don't tell us you think they are right as well!!!). Most people who have followed this seem to agree that the evidence of editorial misconduct is by now overwhelming.

    Finally, my library will still hold all the hard copies of the back issues of Synthese, so the loss would be marginal for at least a few years, and I'd be happy to table my proposal at a departmental meeting and at a meeting of the philosophy students' association before going through with it. I'm sure both will agree, as this will free up quite a chunk of change for more useful philosophy books (like many university libraries, our library has been quite strapped for cash in the aftermath of the financial crisis). In fact, I would even venture to argue that it would be inconsiderate to expect one's library to subscribe to a $4,200/year journal instead of using that money more wisely.

  4. Steven,

    I'm inclined to think, sadly, that most colleagues will see this episode as a dark blip rather than a permanent stain and will resist such pressures.

    I agree but I think that that's no reason for inaction. Often people act only when they see other people acting.

  5. Gabriele

    1. I did not suggest any such thing, and I have no idea how you could think I was suggesting such a thing. This is puzzling.

    2. I agree that the EICs made some mistakes, but like dozens of other philosophers in the USA and in Europe, including some who have signed Leiter's petition, I think that the reaction to their mistakes is out of proportion.

    3. I find it objectionable that you intend to harm your colleagues and students. You knowingly propose to take an action that at least spme of them, perhaps a majority, may not approve and that will harm them. Shouldn't this consideration give you pause?

    4. Yes, I do think that people "are innocent until proven guilty". Not you?


    PS: What does DSK have to do with all that? More puzzling.

  6. Edouard,

    If you "agree that the EICs made some mistakes," then why aren't you joining Gabriele in demanding that the EICs acknowledge their mistakes and apologize for them?

    This is not meant to be a rhetorical question. I'm curious to read your explanation for this.

  7. Edouard,

    1. I'm no expert on conversational implicatures and I'm not a native English speaker but that seems to me the implicature of the rhetorical question "Why don't you and others just walk the walk instead of talking the talk, and stop submitting to Synthese?" Isn't it?

    2. You seem to be very fastidious about evidence for other people's claims, but what is the evidence for your claim that "dozens of other philosophers in the USA and in Europe, including some who have signed Leiter's petition, [...] think that the reaction to their mistakes is out of proportion." Who are those 'some'? And why did they sign the petition if they thought it was a disproportionate reaction?

    3. Again what's the empirical evidence you have for thinking that spending $4,200 a year on the annual subscription of Synthese is the best allocation of the limited resources of our library and the one that best serves the interests of my university's students and faculty? I don't know about Pittsburgh, but at my university, the library's resources have been limited in the last few years and many books philosophy faculty and students have requested to acquire have not been purchased. Do you really think that the future issues of Synthese are worth as much to them? And what's your evidence for that?

    4. If you reread my reply more attentively, you'll realize that my issue with your position is not with the "innocent until proven guilty" principle, which I fully endorse, but with coupling that principle with a standard of evidence so stringent that it can never be met (hence the DSK analogy, you didn't seem to get) (a standard by the way, which you seem to apply only to other people's claims). As far as I can see, the evidence of misconduct is beyond any reasonable doubt (the facts that constitute it are accepted by all parties) although I agree that the evidence as to the exact motives is much less clear. As far as I can see, coupling the innocence presumption with any standard more stringent than reasonable doubt seems, well, unreasonable. In any case, the evidence has been discussed over and over again and I have no intention to let this thread being hijacked by this discussion. If you are really interested in finding out the facts, I'm sure you know where to look.

  8. Anonymous

    I don't think that the editors, who have otherwise done a good job, deserve being humiliated for their mistakes, and I think that enough harm has been done to them and the journals.


    I have already spent 15 minutes on this topic, so you'll excuse me if I don't re-read your post more attentively (spending more than 15 minutes a day on this topic is plain silly).

    Let me just repeat that you may want to ask your colleagues and students' opinions before doing something that they may view as a harm (viz. losing the capacity to access Synthese). They may all agree with you, in which case my concern does not apply, but perhaps some won't.

  9. Edouard,

    As far as I can see, it's ludicrous to suggest that apologizing for one's mistakes constitutes a humiliation. In fact, owning up to one's mistakes would seem to be the right thing to do and an important step towards one's rehabilitation. As I said, I suspect you'd see things differently if you were one of the authors of the special issue.

    Anyway, I wouldn't want you to waste any more of your time.

  10. Gabriele Contessa, I comment on point 3:

    1. Journals and articles are much more expensive than books. The bar for a student/staff member is much higher for buying articles than for buying a (paperback version) book. Especially if considering the relatively short length of articles.

    2. If your college wants to be the best, it shouldn't miss any developments in the field. Not being able to access the latest publication entails harm to the research and reputation of your institution.

    3. Even if you think a subscription boycott is precisely the right thing to do, other staff and student may disagree profoundly with that. This will create tensions. At least, I'd be very angry if a journal subscription would be ended for such a poor reason, but fortunately I'm not at your institution.

    4. It's just plainly incomprehensible to stop a subscription for editorial-behavioural reasons if the quality continues to be cutting-edge. In a free society we want to read Mein Kampf and the Bible even if we hate these books and their authors just to take notice of the views expressed in those works. We don't want any restrictions on the volume of literature we can access. Certainly not for moral reasons: that's reason for suspicion.

  11. I should clarify two points:

    a) What Random anon (and other people commenting on this affair on other threads) seem to fail to understand is that the perceived reputation of a journal is linked to the quality of its content in many and subtle ways. As a rough generalization, one could say that the quality of the contents and perceived reputation of a journal are correlated to the number of quality submissions and inversely correlated to its acceptance rate. The lower the perceived reputation, the lower the number of (quality) submissions, the higher the acceptance rate, the lower the quality of its contents. Now, on the Leiter poll, almost 40% of respondents declared that they are less likely or not likely at all to submit to Synthese until this matter is resolved and 23% would not submit anyway. Even assuming that this does not reflect the feelings of the philosophical community at large, there will be at least a perception that the number of quality submission to Synthese will have decreased and its acceptance rate will have increased to compensate. So, the journal will be perceived as less selective and prestigious. This may be just a perception initially but a perception that will have very real effects, as people will be less likely to submit their best work to Synthese and, as a result, the number of quality submissions will actually decrease and with it the reputation of the journal. This is clearly a vicious cycle, which is likely going to lead to the quality of the contents of Synthese to decrease. And this is why the EiCs and Springer should act as quickly as possible to stop this process before any irreversible damage to the journal's reputation is done. (Unfortunately, reputation is hard to build but easy to squander). Of course, this picture is simplistic in many respects but I don't thin is too far of the mark.

    b) What Random anon and Edouard seem to have misunderstood is that I'm not calling for an immediate subscription boycott. As I said, once you get your library to unsubscribe from a journal, it's very hard to get them to resubscribe. So, I'm not taking that step light-heartedly or immediately. For the moment, I'm threatening to take that irreversible step. If enough people were ready to declare that they are ready to take a similar step, say, three months from now unless the situation has been rectified, I'm sure the EiCs and Springer will do the math and reconsider their position. Anyway, if they don't, I doubt that Synthese would be a journal worth subscribing to (for $4,200 a year) for the reasons I outlined in (a). So, I guess, the question is

    'Would you be ready to start the subscription boycott if the issue has not been addressed by September 1, 2011?'

    Please feel free to consult with your colleagues, students, librarians, staff, visitors, etc. before answering.

  12. You should consider that once a Uni library drops a journal, you will in all likelihood never get it back, because of budget issues. Saying that "Its ok now, the old editors who messed up are gone" may very well not cut it.

  13. Gabriele,

    I'm with you on the subscription boycott. But I will also continue to boycott the journal both as an author and as a reviewer. At the moment, seems likely that the blame can be spread around, from Springer to the editors, so I don't see a sufficiently reason to focus the effort only on Springer.

  14. Great, Massimo! As I said, I have no intention to submit to or referee for Synthese (let alone guest-edit another issue! ;-) ) until this affair is resolved (my reasons for this by and large overlap with the ones stated by David Wallace here), but I don't want a submission/refereeing boycott to hurt grad students and untenured faculty. Moreover, if the buck does stop with Springer, I think the subscription boycott would be much more effective.

  15. Keep in mind that Synthese is not a quarterly journal: they publish 18 issues per year, rather than the usual 4. Also, most major publishers (Elsevier, Springer, Cambridge, etc.) offer different bundling options for journals, which further reduces the per-issue cost. So, to make a reasonable assessment of the cost of the journal to your library, you should determine the actual per issue cost to that library; to make a reasonable assessment of the proportional harm to your colleagues and students from taking action against the journal, you should be aware of the publishing capacity of your target.

    Now, if you will excuse me, I have a paper to finish and send to Synthese.

  16. sounds like a great idea, gregory! but make sure you watch your tone and try not to offend anyone's sensibilities!!! ;-)

  17. Don't worry! I hear that from now on Beckwith and his friends will be vetting all submissions *before* they get published.

  18. Hurry up, Greg! Opportunities like this don't come around very often!

  19. And who is going to referee your paper? Beckwith?

  20. sorry, i know i was the first one to write one, but no more comments about gregory's paper please.

    gregory, i usually don't like to remove comments (and i don't think I have ever removed a signed comment) but if you took offense to Dr Who's comment please let me know (here or by e-mail) and i'll be happy to remove it. (I don't think any of the other comments contained anything that could be construed as 'ad hominem' but the meaning of 'ad hominem' seems to be expanding lately).

  21. Why don't you preface my comment with a disclaimer instead?

  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

  23. Hi Catarina,

    The EiC I know the best, John Symons, seems to be a very reasonable and decent person and I have a very hard time believing he would have agreed to this course of action under normal circumstances. I suspect that the EiCs have acted as they have because of pressure from Springer due to the latter's being concerned about the costs of possible or threatened lawsuits. I also suspect they have been advised or forced not to discuss the matter in public in view of those possible lawsuits. Contrary to what everyone seems to assume, I don't think the EiCs have had much of a say in this affair. They are just between a rock and a hard place.

    This is why the EiCs are not the target of the subscription boycott I'm proposing. The target of the subscription boycott is Springer and the boycott aims at hitting Springer where it hurts the most (i.e. its wallet). If the people at Springer realize we are serious about this and how much it might cost them in the long run even if only a handful of university libraries unsubscribe from Synthese, they might also realize that it might cost them more than the rather remote possibility of a frivolous lawsuit. (So far I haven't seen anything in the incriminated articles that would be considered libelous even in the UK)

  24. Touché, Dr Who! Except that I didn't accept your comment for publication! In any case, wouldn't it be a better idea to stick a general disclaimer about all comments in the thread instead of singling yours out?

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. Catarina's comments on the EiCs worries about losing face confirm what I've long suspected - they are now acting only out of concern for their egos, and not Synthese or the profession (that she apparently thinks not wanting to "lose face" is an acceptable reason for refusing to rectify a wrong one has committed is puzzling).

    Hopefully a subscription boycott would make Springer realise just how much damage the EiCs have done, and fires them (since they clearly don't have the decency to resign themselves; incidentally, that's why I don't share Prof Contessa's suspicions that Springer directives are ultimately to blame for this mess - if they were, I have a hard time imagining how any self-respecting philosophers would have continued as an editors for a publisher that has done so much to humiliate them and their journal).

  27. Something I don’t understand is why people who disagree with the EiCs (in connection to whichever part of their story) don’t just simply, individually, stop submitting and refereeing. You made your case; I think people, in general, are able enough, by now, to have understood what your points are. So why a post on Synthese every second day on some blog or other? When is this going to end? Will it turn into imploring the EiCs to apologize? In other words, I agree with Edouard Machery above, when he says “Why don't you and others just walk the walk instead of talking the talk, and stop submitting to Synthese?”

    My suggestion is that you set up a new petition, this time not about asking the EiCs to apologize and disclose information, but about asking everyone who decided so to make it public that they are not going to submit or referee. After they make it public, they just implement it. Is this so hard to do?

    As about boycotting the subscriptions, this is much harder to implement than the individual boycott on refereeing and submitting. The main reason is that it is not possible (at any normal university) for any random person from some department to ask the librarian to stop a subscription and for the librarian to happily fulfill the request as a consequence. I guess the whole department has to be consulted, including students.

    Finally, whether the EiCs have to apologize from the guest editors can, again, be decided very easily. They (guest editors) can sue them (EiCs), or the journal, and get the apologies and other compensation based on defamation laws. They can argue that their reputation has suffered as a result of unfair attack via the disclaimer.

    These measures would also save people from wasting time on speculations about the psychological motivations behind the EiCs' reluctance (ego, pride, as has been suggested), or occult events that lead to the disclaimer (legal threats by someone), etc.

  28. Bizarre, you really seem to be in the business of misreading and distorting what I say these days...

    I don't engage in this sort of debate with people who hide behind aliases so that they can say whatever they want without having to worry about repercussions. If you feel prepared to come forward with your own name, then maybe we could have some sort of fruitful discussion.

  29. Catarina says of the EICs: "threats and pressure are simply not likely to make them adopt a different attitude". Not knowing the editors personally, I have no reason to doubt this claim. However, if this is correct, then I am puzzled as to why the EICs felt the need to issue the disclaimer in the first place. I suspect that either (i) Catarina's claim is false; or (ii) the claim that the EICs caved to pressure from the ID lobby is false.

  30. This comment has been removed by the author.

  31. István,

    So why a post on Synthese every second day on some blog or other? When is this going to end? Will it turn into imploring the EiCs to apologize?

    I'm sorry if you find this has been dragging on for too long but other people don't seem to have as bad a case of reader fatigue as you do. At the time of writing this, this post has had almost 2,000 pageviews (about the same number of pageviews of my previous post on the topic). As far as I can see, readers of this blog are not losing interest on the affair. In fact, it looks like quite the opposite.

    And, btw, I don't think anybody will be 'begging' the EiCs to apologize. This is only to the detriment of their reputation and, unfortunately, of that of the journal they edit. (The only bit of begging I would do is on behalf of the journal itself that doesn't deserve to have its good name being dragged in the dirt (and notice that it is the actions of the EiCs that dragged it the dirt not the reaction, which, as far as I am concerned is aimed at making sure this won't cause irreversible damage.))

  32. 'I'm sorry if you find this has been dragging on for too long but other people don't seem to have as bad a case of reader fatigue as you do. '

    Isn't this a classic case of selection bias?

  33. Hi Catarina,

    [...] now the EiC's situation is really complicated; even if Springer changes their 'recommendation' to them, what could they possibly say to fix the problem without losing face completely?

    What about just saying 'sorry, we f**ked up'?

    As far as I can see, it is by not doing anything about this that they are losing the face. (Btw, it is not clear to me that the blame is to be equally distributed among the EiCs. For one thing, it seems to have been now established that only two of them contacted Forrest to ask her to modify her paper behind the back of the guest-editors (and, I believe, of the third editor)).

    Anyway, if stubborness or a mistaken sense of pride are playing a role, then this is much worse than I thought.

  34. Anonymous 4:06,

    This is why I think my theory is the simplest and most explanatorily powerful. The different attitudes are due to the fact that Springer is concerned about the financial implications legal threats but cant give a damn about a submission/refereeing boycott because they can't see it as having any financial repercussions for them.

  35. This comment has been removed by the author.

  36. Unfortunately, I have been forced to delete my comments on this post, as there seemed to be a lot of misunderstanding concerning the points I was trying to make. I truly apologize for it, but I just couldn't run the risk of having my statements distorted in such a way.

  37. bill w.,

    maybe you misunderstood the point I was making--if the interest in this affair was waning, you would expect a drop in pageviews but the contrary seems to be happening. As much as some people would like this to go away, it doesn't look like it's going to for the moment.

  38. Drawing conclusions from someone's statements that the person would not themselves draw (which, for example, is what I did when I wrote that Catarina's observations about some of the EiCs' supposed tendencies when dealing with public pressure supported my suspicions that their intransigence is motivated by vanity) can hardly be called "distortion." However, deleting one's comments and then claiming, as Catarina now does on Brian Leiter's blog, that they said something which they patently did not say could very well be so called.

    There she says: "I was remarking that the idea of the EiC having caved to pressure of the ID lobby seems highly unlikely to me, NOT that they EiCs are not coming forward with apologies because they are 'now acting only out of concern for their egos, and not Synthese or the profession'." It is true that that particular inference about their current motives was mine, not hers. But her initial comments here were clearly about the EiCs not being likely to bow to the pressure coming from the petition and boycott calls, and NOT about whether they had bowed to creationist pressure when they inserted their disgraceful disclaimer (this was not brought up until the comment by Anonymous 4:06).

    Maybe the sort of stubborn and petulant response to well-deserved criticism that we are now seeing from the EiCs is only general human nature, and not a character flaw specific to them, as Catarina mused in her later, now deleted, comment (I'm not quite so cynical myself). But even if that were the case, that people react poorly when vigorously confronted with their bad acts is not a good reason for us to confront bad acts with less vigour. It seems to me that we have reached the point where calls for more diplomacy (as opposed to, say, boycotts) are turning into a defence by tepid condemnation.

  39. Bizarre, as I said before, I won't engage in any discussion with you as long as you hide behind anonymity. (And for the record, it's nothing personal; this little interaction we've had has taught me to enforce this policy with anonymous comments in general.)