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The Editor's Role

Eugene Volokh raises the question of whether a journal should refuse to publish an article by someone who has made racist statements in the past. I agree with Volokh in saying that the article should be accepted or rejected based on the merits of the article, not on the merits of the author. To reject it seems to rely on the premodern conception of contagion, in which a person who had committed an infraction pollutes everything he or she touches, and who must be exiled from the community. In the comments, however, "Splunge" comes close to a modernist justification of, if not rejecting the article outright, at least taking the author's past behavior into account. In essence, he argues that we should judge the article on its own merits, but that the merits of the author are an important clue to the merits of the article:

Eugene's attitude ("(e) is correct") is in many ways laudable, but it overlooks the value in an empirical assessment of the author's "track record" in determining the value of an idea. It's not unreasonable to assess the reputation of an author in judging an idea, because the plain fact is that good and workable ideas do not rain down randomly on everyone. Character matters. Some people are much better than others at sifting out the gold from the trash that bubbles up from the imagination, much better at that unconscious and half-conscious reasoning process that lets one detect what Philip Morrison calls "the ring of truth." Some other people are much more likely to be taken in by plausible-sounding but ultimately foolish notions, and still others lack integrity and will deliberately try to foist delusion on you.

Because of this fact, and because none of us is perfectly equipped to have the same insight as the author into his ideas, it's long been a successful human strategy to factor the reputation of the author into the judgment of an idea. (That is why any completely blind review or judging process is, I think, ultimately doomed to failure. While such a mechanism can undoubtably filter gold from dirt, it's simply not good enough to sift real gold from fool's gold, and it is the latter task which is the really important task of the editor.)

The main problem with Splunge's proposal, in my eyes, is that it misconstrues the role of the editor. Separating fool's gold from real gold is too high a responsibility to place on a single editor. This only becomes more true if we accept that the editor is fallible enough that it behooves him to look at the author's reputation in judging the quality of the article. I simply wouldn't trust one person with that much responsibility. The binary nature of editorial decisions -- either the article gets published, or it goes back to the dark file drawer -- raises the stakes even more.

The job of separating fool's gold from real gold should be done by the wider scholarly community. This community can hold an open-ended debate about the merits of the article, drawing in considerations of the author's reputation as needed. The editor's job is not to pre-judge the results of such an extended discussion, but rather to keep the wheels of discourse from getting gummed up with obvious dirt.


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