THE RESPONSIBILITY OF PROFESSORS: ACADEMIC FREEDOM, PEER REVIEW, AND THE SCHOLARLY CONSCIENCE TODAY

Murray Miles

(Paper read at the Symposium "Neglected Aspects of Academic Freedom" at the Ontario Philosophical Society, University Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, October 28, 1995.

Thirty years ago, in an essay entitled, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" (1966), Noam Chomsky wrote:

Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology, and class interest through which the events of current history are presented to us. (Chomsky, 1987, 60)

The essay from which this is taken is a stinging indictment of those American intellectuals who abused their privileged position to become ideologues and apologists for the ruthless imperialism of the Vietnam war. Today, amidst the campus race and gender wars, the irresponsibility of those who engage in ideological "distortion and misrepresentation" has relatively milder consequences. Of course, each camp sees the ideologues and apologists on the other side; from the start both have claimed to occupy the moral high ground, though lately the defenders of "inclusiveness" have begun to dispute the academic high ground as well. This isn't the place to examine these conflicting claims. I'll leave aside Chomsky's point about the role of intellectuals as the moral conscience of society, since I see no reason to think moral standards are higher on campus than off. Intellectual standards, however, may be another matter. My remarks will be confined to the phenomenon of the decline of the strictly academic conscience of the professoriate. I want to draw attention to a single aspect of this phenomenon -- what passes for scholarship in the absence of adequate peer review -- and to consider its implications for the future recognition of the right of university intellectuals to enjoy the special privileges and liberties traditionally accorded them as a group.


To illustrate the deteriorating scholarly conscience of the professoriate I take two examples, one of them highly publicized, the other quite unknown.


The first is that of the recently fired
University of Toronto professor, Herbert Richardson. He began publishing scholarly books out of his Toronto home. From modest beginnings he built up a publishing enterprise in Lewiston N.Y. with (according to the Publishers' Directory) annual sales of $1.4 million U.S. The September/October 1993 issue of the U.S.-based academic affairs journal Lingua Franca devoted a feature article to the Edwin Mellen Press (named after Richardson's grandfather), entitled "Vanity's Fare. The Peripatetic Professor and his Peculiarly Profitable Press." According to Lingua Franca, the Mellen press grossed "an astonishing $2.5 million in 1992, mostly by selling [its books] to universities" (p. 22). The Toronto Globe and Mail ("When Academe Draws the Line," October 1, 1993) sets the figure at $2 million. Not surprisingly, Richardson became his own publisher as well. This had nothing to do with his being sacked by St. Michael's College, which was worried about his peripateticism at times when he ought to have been attending to his professorial duties or undergoing medical treatment. Nevertheless, the committee which recommended his dismissal commented on Richardson's recent publication record:

Professor Richardson's curriculum vitae exaggerates his recent productivity because it does not consistently distinguish editorship from authorship. Second, quality is ultimately a more important measure of a scholar's standing than quantity. Although we are not in a position to assess the quality of Professor Richardson's publications, it is not possible to make the favourable qualitative inferences that a publication list of the length of Professor Richardson's would normally support. The usual instruments of "quality control" have been largely missing from most of his publications since the late 1970s: there are no articles in refereed journals, and nearly all the books that he lists were published by his own company, Edwin Mellen Press, without prior independent review. (Quoted from the University of Toronto Bulletin, September 19, 1994.)

What instruments of "quality control," if any, does Edwin Mellen Press employ, and how does it manage to publish scholarly books at an amazing profit when most academic presses struggle to break even? A Mellen pamphlet entitled "How To Publish a Scholarly Book" states that it "accepts no author subsidies, but also pays no royalties". So it is neither a traditional `vanity press' nor a typical academic press either. The same pamphlet lists Mellen's "single-minded dedication to the values of scholarship" among the reasons for the success of its publishing programme. Here, then, is a puzzle worthy of the efforts of an investigative reporter.


I turned first to a document entitled
Chancellor's Report 1992-1993 Mellen University and Mellen University Press, from which I'll quote a couple of passages:

Unlike most university presses, the Mellen publication program is not based on committee peer reviewing. Mellen believes that an extensive editorial experience and an entrepreneurial scholarly expertise are the prerequisites for effective evaluation of manuscripts and publication proposals. Editors must be more than good scholars; they must understand both the sociology of scholarship and the business requirements of the communications industry. They must have long experience in editorial development. They must also adhere to the standards of professional editorial ethics. (p. 13)

Mellen's acquisitions process relies on the judgement of known individual scholar/editors who have established a record of reputable achievement and not on anonymous reviewers who lack professional editorial training. As a result, Mellen's books advance the frontiers of scholarly research and provoke scholarly debate. (p. 14)

These statements only increased my bafflement, so I sent Mellen Press a manuscript in June of this year. In July I received the "How to Publish" brochure, from which I've quoted, and a letter from the Acquisitions Director requesting an up-to-date curriculum vitae and "one-half page of copy, single-spaced, on the contribution of your book to scholarship." My manuscript was to be discussed "at our Editorial Board Meeting which has been tentatively scheduled for Monday, September 11, 1995." I neither provided the requested c.v. nor my personal assessment of the scholarly merit of my work. Nevertheless, on August 29, 1995 I received a letter informing me that my manuscript had been "accepted for publication."
 

The information I received along with the acceptance notice shed further light on quality control but chiefly on the profitability question. It's the author's responsibility to provide "error free, camera-ready copy." Thus a considerable expense is borne by the author. A lady in Lewiston N.Y. describing herself as a "desk-top publisher" wrote to me at the suggestion of the Mellen Press and quoted a basic rate of $1.65 U.S. per page for word-processing and $10.00 for a laser print-out of a large manuscript. Moreover, Mellen authors "must pay an International Depository Library and Registration fee of $395.00 [U.S.] for registration and providing hardcover copies of the book to the International depository libraries." According to the letter from Herbert Richardson which accompanied the Chancellor's Report of 1992-1993, Mellen Press operates "two state-of-the-art Ryobi perfector presses, two AM presses, a Smythe sewer for library binding, and various casers, stampers, cutters, collators, and cameras. Our shop employs about 15 full-time staff, and manufactures over 500 titles yearly... Mellen never lets a title go out of print. Therefore, we reprint titles every 2-5 years." So the printing and binding facilities are all `in-house.' In terms of titles, 500 yearly is very high. The Globe and Mail speaks of "an eclectic catalogue of 800 titles," and in another part of the same article quotes Richardson as speculating that his "problems really began a few years ago when Mellen surpassed the U of T Press in the number of titles it had published." Low, on the other hand, is the average first printing: just 200 copies. "When these are gone, we then reprint, and so on," according to the brochure. Possibly, the initial printing takes place when there are roughly 200 orders to fill, while re-printings are undertaken to meet subsequent demand. If so, there are no warehousing costs, and no money is tied up in inventory. Mellen books, moreover, are not cheap: $79.95, $89.95, and $109.95 (U.S.) for books of up to 200, 300, and 500 pages, respectively. After acceptance manuscripts are reviewed in Mellen's own in-house journal, Scholarly Research and Review, by two scholars whose names are provided by the authors. These reviews are then "used for promotion and advertising by our Marketing Director." The "Author Checklist" enclosed in my acceptance notice states: "We do not publish books for tenure committees, prize committees, or conference schedules. Allow yourself the proper amount of time -- from 6 to 24 months -- if your needs fall in the above areas." Obviously, some authors grow impatient waiting so long without word, for the "Specifications and Guidelines" for authors end with an admonition introduced by "FINALLY" (the only word set entirely in large upper case letters): "Please do not phone the production staff asking for printing dates, as our staff is small and working diligently to produce books. You will receive your author copies promptly upon publication as a signal that the process is completed."


This is as far as my information goes. Whatever else he may be, Hebert Richardson is obviously a very astute businessman. Nevertheless, the reference to tenure (i.e. tenure and promotion) committees is chilling, to say the least. Five hundred titles a year indicates a fairly high participation rate.


My second illustration is quite unpublicised, although I know it intimately, since it concerns a colleague in my own department. He is convenor of a community-based organization called "The Brock Philosophical Society." Since 1991 three volumes of papers from Brock Philosophical Society colloquia have appeared in print as a journal entitled
Joyful Wisdom: A Post-Modern Ethics of Joy, published by "Joyful Wisdom Publishing," later re-named "Thought House Publishing Group." To the best of my knowledge, this is a desk-top publishing venture founded in 1991 by a then student in the department who is now pursuing Ph.D. studies at the University of Waterloo. Its publishing program is apparently determined largely or entirely by my colleague. So far, two of the three volumes of conference proceedings published and co-edited by this graduate student have been made required texts in the high-enrolment first-year course (as many as 250 students in some years) taught by my colleague. They are sold through the Brock Bookstore at $20.00 a copy. It is almost unheard of to use the proceedings of colloquia as required texts in a first-year Philosophy course. Even if the financial returns are only re-invested in further publications, the students are financing their instructor's publications and thus subsidizing the means of his career advancement. Recently the colleague in question was promoted to the rank of full professor, one of two faculty members in the entire university and the only one in the Humanities to achieve that distinction this year. According to his official c.v., he has never published an article in a refereed philosophy journal, nor authored or co-authored a published monograph, although there are editorships and co-editorships aplenty under the section of the c.v. entitled "Books," and his own contributions to the same volumes figure under the rubric "Chapters in Books." Members of the department who voted on the promotion have themselves published, or are scheduled to publish, in the same venue. This is also true of at least one of the external referees, who must be consulted in the case of promotions to full professor.


These examples are hardly typical. Nevertheless they may be symptomatic of the state of the scholarly conscience and of peer assessment today. In conclusion, let me say something about possible implications of this for those rights and privileges traditionally enjoyed by the professoriate.
 

At the heart of the academic freedom debate are two things. The first is the right to select the subjects of one's research, to conduct it without deference to either popular doctrine or current institutional or public policy, and to communicate the results in lecture halls, scholarly publications, and public fora free from any form of governmental, institutional or societal control, i.e. censorship. (Censorship, of course, takes many forms, from outright suppression to fairly subtle types of harassment and intimidation.) The second thing is the right to have one's teaching and research evaluated on their pedagogical and scholarly merits by qualified and objective assessors. The alternative is assessment by extra-academic criteria or by individuals who are not competent or who have some personal or political axe to grind.


Obviously, both these rights are today in danger `from without.' But is that danger enhanced `from within,' i.e. by the professoriate itself, specifically, by the growing trend toward circumventing peer review altogether or confounding it by creative c.v. writing and increasing cronyism? I can see two reasons for thinking it is.
 

The first is fairly straightforward: if we don't put our own house in order it's apt be torn down under the pretext of doing the job for us. Putting our house in order means having and using effectively those penalties appropriate to sub-standard academic performance, and conversely those rewards by which academic excellence is duly recognized. Among the penalties are public criticism by one's peers (which may be scathing), loss of professional reputation, and, in serious cases, denial of reappointment or tenure. Even dismissal of tenured faculty may be warranted by strictly academic measures of competence. None of these self-regulating mechanisms can function properly except on the basis of adequate peer review. And if the professoriate cannot regulate itself by these internal mechanisms, then there is serious danger that other, wholly inappropriate standards, rewards, and penalties may be imposed from without. Who doesn't see the potential damage done the profession by the highly publicized case of Herbert Richardson? The public outcry to 'clamp down' on professors who abuse their professional autonomy is entirely justified and even salutary. For the public are the parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts of students who have right to expect a high level of academic quality in the institutions of post-secondary learning which they attend. The professoriate's interest in responsible academic freedom coincides with public's interest in quality education. This public outcry can, however, serve as a pretext for administrators and bureaucrats within academe and government who want to abridge the liberties of the professoriate for their own ends.


The second reason is that if academic freedom is to be defensible, it must be sharply distinguished from the freedom to be remiss in the performance of one's duties without being held accountable. Professors who circumvent and so exempt themselves from the judgement of qualified, fully informed, and impartial academic peers undermine the possibility of genuine accountability. As far as I'm concerned, the final line of defence of academic freedom lies here, in the scholarly conscience of the individual professor. If it's lost here, the fight can't be won anywhere else, for it's not only a fight
against improper interference but also for accountability to the highest academic standards and to none other than academic standards. Only the self-imposed accountability of the professoriate can legitimize the privileges it enjoys, the chief among which are the freedoms of which Chomsky spoke so eloquently.

 
REFERENCES

Chomsky, Noam (1987), The Chomsky Reader. Edited by James Peck. Pantheon Books: New York.

 Murray Miles, Department of Philosophy, Brock University is also a SAFS member.

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