The Fragility of Academic Norms: The Case of Springer v. the Darwinoids

The relevant news item is here:

Why, oh why, have the self-appointed epistemic vigilantes at the National Centre for Science Education (NCSE) decided to subvert the already fragile academic norm of peer review by declaring that one of the top three European publishers of scientific journals and books has mistakenly allowed intelligent design (ID) sympathisers to publish a book in their information science series? That two positive peer reports in the original book proposal was insufficient to discover the allegedly heinous nature of its content must mean, of course, that more peer reviewing is needed – not that perhaps the content is not as heinous as the scent of ID might have suggested.

No, this is not a lame joke: It is Public Darwinism in full throttle. The fact that no one at the NCSE seems to have read the book in question appears to be immaterial to the overriding fact that many, if not most, of the contributors are sympathetic to ID. To be sure, ID enthusiasts are endlessly berated about their (again alleged) failure to publish in mainstream peer reviewed publications. Springer Verlag does not come any more mainstream – yet that then generates its own problems.

Of course, Springer plans to have the final manuscript peer reviewed, which is only to be expected. Yet, there is now the further expectation that the manuscript will be rejected, given the discovery of its ID-friendly editors. Interestingly, a blurb for Biological Information: New Perspectives has been ‘automatically generated’ for Amazon, which says something about when peer review normally makes a difference to Springer — and they are not alone in presuming that a passed proposal means a publishable manuscript.

Whatever else the NCSE has succeeded in doing by delaying – if not completely derailing – publication of Biological Information, it has drawn attention to the ease with which the integrity of peer review can be compromised, if it produces unwanted outcomes. After all, its name notwithstanding, the NCSE’s institutional standing is no different from its arch-nemesis and mecca for ID, Seattle’s Discovery Institute: Both are special interest groups promoting a certain ideological spin on the development of science.

It will be interesting to see the final peer review report on Biological Information. Even after a favourable report, most manuscripts need a bit of work before final publication. But because the publisher is typically already committed to publication, authors/editors will be allowed discretion in which criticisms they take seriously upon revision. Hopefully the same standard is applied in this case. Among the areas of discretion allowed to authors/editors is the conceptual framework in which they organise the book’s contents. One can easily imagine intelligent design as a framing device here in the way that Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene hypothesis might frame a more Darwinist text. Both frameworks stray beyond the data, but in so doing provide a motivation and direction for the research recounted in each book’s pages.

In any case, we may hope that Spinger’s final peer report will be somehow made publicly available.

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6 Responses to The Fragility of Academic Norms: The Case of Springer v. the Darwinoids

  1. Steve Fuller says:

    The Darwinoids are predictably ratcheting up the heat surrounding this issue, though they are eerily silent about how the book proposal got through two peer reports in the first place, if content can be so easily divined from talk titles and chapter headings — which seems to be the main evidence on display here, aside from the usual hysteria and paranoia that one has come to expect from this crowd:

    To recall Voltaire: God, save science from its friends, its enemies it can take care of!

  2. As I understand it, the proposal for the book passed initial peer review, which is why Springer decided to publish the book. Is it really so unexpected that the contents of the book — not only a glorified table of contents that might make up a book proposal — might be deemed in need of further peer review? Especially after having garnered some negative attention? Perhaps this is historically unprecedented — though I highly doubt it. In any case, it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable.

    If Springer decides the book needs more review, that strikes me as a sign of integrity, rather than a sign of corruption. Better than having some corporate type come in and make the decision to publish on economic grounds. One could easily imagine someone arguing that publishing such a controversial book is too good an opportunity to pass up — regardless of its intellectual worth.

    I’ll give Steve this much: opponents of ID (here taken in the sense of ‘Intelligent Design’ — not in the sense of ‘interdisciplinarity’) do have themselves to thank, at least in part, for attempts by IDists to get ID publications through the peer review system. Opponents of ID have used peer review — and the lack of peer-reviewed publications of IDists — as one of the main arguments against ID. It strikes me as fair, then, for IDists to attempt to run the gauntlet of peer review.

    But that also means having to run the gauntlet — not getting off easy by employing vague titles of chapters in a book proposal.

  3. Steve Fuller says:

    Britt, I think we agree though you’re presenting it as a kind of disagreement. My point is also that Springer should carry on its normal peer review process. However, their peer review process may normally be of one standard, but groups like the NCSE want to apply some different, nominally ‘higher’ standard because of suspicions about the ID-based motives of the people in the book. To succumb to that position is potentially corrupt: Would it not be fairer to conclude that Springer should upgrade its peer reviewing process across the board? (Interestingly nobody is calling for that.) The fact that Springer was already advertising the book before the manuscript came in suggests that they prima facie trust the editors to come up with a publishable product because they passed the initial peer review. Under the circumstances, a publisher would want to ensure that such a work is published, even if that means revisions. That’s why it would be interesting to the report(s) on the final manuscript. But in any case, the NCSE’s noisy complaints should not count so much in how the case is disposed.

  4. I agree that it would be interesting to see the reviewer report(s) on the final manuscript. Of course, that might also count as an exception to Springer’s normal peer review process. It might nevertheless be fair to deviate from that process and release the report(s) in this case, assuming that the normal process does not require additional peer review beyond the review of the book proposal.

  5. sparc says:

    I totally agree with Dr. Fuller that it woukd be interesting to see the report(s) on the final manuscript. However, I would appreciate to see the initial reviews too. Knowing the history of e.g. Granville Sewell’s “papers” on the second law it would be really interesting how physicists would judge it. My guess is that it would be devastating even without any reference to evolution and ID. And the same would be true for Dembski, Behe, Johnson et al.
    Some googling will actually be sufficient for Springer to to learn how the, obviously old and often repeated, arguments of ID-creationists and YECs are judged by scientists.

  6. It will be interesting to see the final peer review report on Biological Information

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