April 21, 2024

Bioethicists launch ‘Journal of Controversial Ideas’

Peter Singer is one of the founders

One of the more innovative recent initiatives in academic publishing is the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Not a single issue has appeared, but already it has created a lively debate in op-ed columns. Its most contentious feature is anonymous or pseudonymous contributions.

It’s probably no accident that the three academics behind it are bioethicists. Peter Singer has been a lightning rod for controversy for decades with his views on animal rights, abortion, and euthanasia. Francesca Minerva, currently at Ghent University, in Belgium, is the author of one of the most controversial bioethics articles ever published, “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?”, in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2013. And Jeff McMahan, an American teaching at Oxford, is an expert on just war theory and animal ethics. Singer and Minerva have received death threats from people infuriated by their proposals.

Details of the new journal are still being negotiated. The founders envisage an annual, open-access publication which publishes rigorous papers from any discipline, sifted through “an unusually meticulous review process”. They have already recruited a 40-strong editorial board in a range of disciplines.

Our aim in establishing the journal is only to enable academics – particularly younger, untenured, or otherwise vulnerable academics – to have the option of publishing under a pseudonym when they might otherwise be deterred from publishing by fear of death threats (which two of us have received in response to our writings), threats to their families, or threats to their careers. Pseudonymity is optional, not required. Our intention is to publish only articles that give carefully developed reasons, arguments and evidence in support of conclusions that some may find offensive or pernicious. We will not publish work that is polemical, intentionally inflammatory or ad hominem. These aims and constraints have consistently guided our own writing.

The new journal has had a mixed reception from other academics. Pseudonymous authorship could encourage moral recklessness, said two critics shortly after the announcement last November. Wring in Quillette, two other critics said that every journal should be open to controversial ideas; a dedicated journal would only encourage a culture of “safe spaces”. “A fantastic idea”, said science writer Alex Berezow.

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