A minor kerfuffle has recently developed around the retraction of “a straight-up creationist paper” published in Springer’s International Journal of Anthropology and Ethnology last year (Umer, 2018). There are many interesting and thought provoking aspects of this incident for those interested in Open Access, and beyond the narrower scope of Open Access journals, for those interested in the broader concept of true Open Scholarship. I am glad it was published and that I got to read it. I read it not for what I could learn about human evolution, but rather for what I could learn about the evolution of thought systems.

The core principle of Open Access, as I see it, is that participation in scholarship, both as reader and as contributor, should be open and barrier-free. From a purely scientific perspective, the advantages of this approach are that scholarship is available to more, and more rapidly, so that we can benefit from and build on it, and that a broader diversity of voices can participate in the literature. As an evolutionarily minded person, I naturally see greater supply of diversity as an advantage.

From an ethical perspective, there are also benefits. True Open Access, which I have argued involves the move to a publish and review system, and to the evaluation of contributions for their content rather than for the prestige of the venue in which they appear, produces more equitable outcomes by removing the gate-keeping function of the already privileged, who edit and review for high prestige scholarly outlets.

The bottom line is that more open scholarship will mean that more diverse voices and points of view will be represented in the literature. And yes, it will mean that people will contribute creationist critiques of human evolution. That is not a problem in itself. The question for us is how we handle it.

As an archaeologist, evolutionary theorist, and committed advocate of open scholarship, how should I react when a peer-reviewed academic journal publishes a creationist critique of human evolutionary theory? How should I react when that paper is retracted under pressure and against the wishes of the author after being published?

The Journal

The International Journal of Anthropology and Ethnology is part of SpringerOpen. It is run out of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and therefore represents a non-western perspective. The Institute itself is heavily into Ethnogenesis, ethno-nationalism, and ethno-linguistics. It presents a very different aspect than the average contemporary western anthropology department.

By definition, the journal isn’t predatory, since it charges no Author Processing Charges (APC). Publication costs are covered by CASS. The journal seeks to “promote academic exchanges between western and non-western circles [and] facilitate dialogues and interactions about the global or regional hot topics”. A fine goal in theory, which, judging from the reactions to this paper, seems to run into some problems in the application.

The journal “operates a double-blind peer-review system” in which submissions “will generally be reviewed by two or three experts who will be asked to evaluate whether the manuscript is scientifically sound and coherent”. Standard stuff.

By publishing a non-western theist critique of human evolutionary theory, the journal undoubtedly fulfills its mission of creating dialogue between western scientific and non-western perspectives. Western university-based science has successfully quarantined creationism, but it is foundational to many non-western perspectives, and to many western ones outside science.

By publishing this paper, the journal increases the diversity of views represented in the scholarly literature (to say the least).  Umer lists herself as a Faculty member in Design and Visual Arts at Lahore College for Women University in Pakistan. I haven’t seen too many papers on human evolution, lately, coming from that disciplinary perspective and region. Of course, I completely disagree with the contents of the paper, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Should the journal have published the paper in the first place? As a hard-core open scholarship advocate, I must reply that this is really none of my business. What editors decide to publish is entirely up to them.

Once published, should it have been retracted? My answer is a firm no. Once something is out there, the proper thing to do is to comment it and discuss it. Retraction should only come from the author, except in cases of outright fraud, which this clearly isn’t. I would not put pressure on a journal or editor to retract something. I would use its presence to engage the ideas it proposes.

There is some question over whether the paper was published “in error”. Some of the correspondence with Retraction Watch would suggest so, but there is also evidence to the contrary. For example, the editor says that the paper was retracted after “Further post-publication review”. My impression, after reading all the available material, is that the paper was published intentionally, after initial peer-review. I have no problem with that.

Personally, if Umer had asked me to publish her paper, I would have said that I wasn’t interested in doing so myself, but I would have strongly encouraged her to publish it herself. I would have offered to comment it before publication if she wished, and would definitely have reviewed it post publication. I am glad the journal chose to publish it, if only because it precipitated the current conversation.

The Paper

The paper itself is problematic from a number of perspective, obviously, but it also isn’t quite as egregiously bad as some of its critics suggest. It has a reasonable but badly outdated brief survey of human evolution, certainly no worse than one can find in the token evolution chapter of the average twenty-five year old cultural anthropology intro textbook.

Umer doesn’t succumb, much, to the temptation of presenting a strawperson scenario of human evolution. She mostly presents a fair but outdated account of what she critiques, except, notably, for the “problem” of the chronological overlap of ancestral forms.

She asks questions that have been asked before, but that aren’t very clearly related to her critique: Was the Neolithic revolution a fundamental change, or was the Upper-Paleolithic transition more significant in the emergence of modernity? Are various fossil forms, including Neandertal directly ancestral to us? Why does social change and the emergence of inequality seem to accelerate after 10kya?

The paper departs significantly from current paleoanthropological orthodoxy by adopting an explicitly theist (as opposed to materialist) framework in which to seek answers to those fairly run-of-the-mill questions. It uses the outdated concept of missing link (without ever naming it), and echoes Cuvier (without ever naming him) in arguing that transitional forms are missing in the fossil record and that therefore, successive fossil forms must be the result of independent creation events. It leans harder on human exceptionalism than most of the human evolutionary literature, but not much more so than anthropology in general.

Umer uses radically out-of-context quotes from Futuyma and Gould to suggest that prominent evolutionary scientists agree that transitional forms are missing and that independent creation must therefore be the only reasonable explanation for the fossil record.

She uses the last gasps of the big brain first literature of the late 60s and early 70s, before Lucy burst onto the scene and finally vindicated Dart, to argue that no australopithecines are ancestral to modern humans and that we must therefore have been created some time between 50 and 100kya. Interestingly, she does seem to agree that these early modern humans first appeared in Africa, “fully developed and in a perfect state”, and spread from there.

Umer quite properly casts the key difference between her own perspective and the dominant anthropological account of human evolution in terms of theism vs materialism. She properly identifies that Darwin’s project was to give an evolutionary account of the origin of the human moral faculty that did not have to involve special divine intervention. She directs her critique squarely at that specific point. She concludes: “Hence, man was born a man with the best of qualities and a consciousness to understand the ‘Divine’ which has helped him no only to conquer but also to rule the world”. Darwin might have quibbled with the “born with”, and proposed instead “evolved to have”. He might have been more sympathetic to the rest of the sentence.

The paper is certainly coherent. It’s perspective is conditioned by assumptions that I don’t share. It fails to engage with the latest evidence and argument available in support of the evolutionary account of human origins, especially the fossil and DNA finds of the past 20 years. It relies on a literature (Harun Yahya, aka Adnan Oktar, notably) of which I am very strongly critical, but which is deeply embedded in certain non-western and non-scientific western scholarly traditions. For example, part of her attack mirrors Paley’s arguments about the perfection of the eye and other organs, which is not exactly a novel approach, and shows the deep roots of her critique.

I can say all these things, but I can’t say that the paper itself is nonsense. It is internally consistent. What sense it internally makes, though, I strongly challenge by rejecting the assumptions that make it make sense.

Some critics have been offended by a certain lack of adherence in the paper to strict academic English usage and spelling. If we want to welcome new voices from new places into our literature, as we should, perhaps we can offer to help in editing papers instead of making fun of their authors. It might even be helpful if papers were hosted on platforms on which we can easily suggest corrections. But perhaps, as someone laboriously writing mostly in my second language, I am just especially sensitive on this point.

The lesson

Radically expanding access to participation in the scholarly enterprise is going to radically expand the range of voices and perspectives represented. Questions that we are used to ignoring will be asked of Western scholars, in venues that we normally call home, and which are suddenly full of people whose concerns we don’t share, and who’s assumptions we reject. Answers that we are used to giving unexamined will be challenged. Some of what we have grown accustomed to thinking of as knowledge, will be called ideology and assumption. Professing our disagreement will no longer be sufficient. We will have to explain ourselves better.

The publication of stuff we deeply disagree with in “our” scholarly journals is not a bug of the Open Scholarship transition. It is a feature that we need to embrace. Some of this will be annoying. I believe all of it will be salutary. At the very least, we will be enriched by our reaction.

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