The Importance of Acceptable Questions and Preapproved Answers for Today's Successful University Researcher

January 2023

It was merely seven years ago that I lost my predisposition to assume that peer-reviewed research regarding matters of so-called social justice, especially relating to race, gender or sexuality, must be credible. I was late to recognize the growing corruption in academe, not simply because I required an inordinate amount of evidence, but also because I needed to be personally stung. My experience made clear to me that authoritarian gatekeepers decide who gets funded and who gets published and that they are deeply committed to ensuring that certain orthodox narratives are amplified and protected from challenge. To prosper in today’s university, one must ask only acceptable questions and provide only preapproved answers.

My own area of expertise, policing, is particularly corrupt, with critical theory types left free to publish the most scurrilous hyperbole about evil police officers while simultaneously working to suppress empirical findings that contradict their approved story line.

That published research can no longer be trusted will not surprise those who have been following academe’s especially rapid shift towards illiberalism over the past decade. The greatest failing of alarmist Jordan Peterson when he emerged on the public scene over six years ago was his underestimation of just how corrupt universities were becoming. In fairness to Peterson, nobody could have predicted how in thrall universities would be to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, given that such precepts are antithetical to the mission of the university.

In this essay I draw attention to how these illiberal, blatantly political, forces are affecting university researchers’ ability to pursue questions and provide opinions, free from the constraints of dogma or prevailing attitudes. I do so not by focusing on the growing examples of censorship that receive media attention, but instead by relating my struggles in getting a heterodox, though not especially sensitive, review paper into print.

I first submitted my review paper to a policing journal back in 2014. Women constitute about 22% of police officers in Western democracies and have so for many years now; recruitment of women seems to have hit a ceiling. In the paper, I questioned the degree to which further targeted efforts to bring more women into police forces would succeed. I also explored the charge that police are quicker to shoot Black people than white people. The initial reviewers called for minor revisions. The editor assured me that the article would be published once I revised it.

Months later, after a second round of reviewing, I learned that my revised manuscript had been sent to two new reviewers. One wanted me to take the manuscript back in the direction of the initial submission. The second reviewer, however, chose not to critique my scholarship but simply to reject the submission outright on the basis that it was right-wing. Although I attempted to convince the editor that political attacks had no place in the review process, this invocation of being “right-wing” doomed my efforts.

Why had the reviewer found my paper irredeemably right-wing? I determined that I committed three acts of heresy. First, I had argued that although resistance from male officers remained a significant obstacle for the recruitment and retention of women in policing, this was no longer a complete explanation of the 22% ceiling. Rather, I suggested that well documented gender differences in interests play a role. Second, I argued that after controlling for other potentially explanatory variables, there was no good evidence that US police officers disproportionately shoot Black subjects. The available evidence, though hardly definitive, suggests that the police are not pervasively racist in interactions leading to shooting fatalities. My third act of heresy was to suggest that the critical theorists, so consistently over-the-top in accusing the police of racist behaviour, were too politically biased to draw evidence-based conclusions.

I then submitted my paper to the Canadian Review of Social Policy. My topic was perfect for this outlet’s mandate; moreover, standards at CRSP were low enough that my paper was unlikely to be rejected. Rather than struggling to place the paper in a top-flight journal, I decided CRSP would be a good enough home and that publication there would allow me to put this project behind me.

At the same time, I recognized that CRSP was advocacy-oriented and that most of the articles published in it were written from a critical social-justice perspective. They tended to address predictable matters and to come to preordained conclusions. And so I included a tactful note saying that my article may not be a good “fit” for the journal. I asked the reviewing editor to provide me with a desk rejection if it wasn’t, in order to save both CRSP and me from wasting effort and time.

I received no reply about fit and on October 11, 2016, the initial reviews came back. The editor prefaced the comments by saying that “Our decision is to ask you to revise and resubmit. Both of the reviewers are very positive about this manuscript and see it as making an important contribution to the field. Their commentary is below.” My initial inclination to be pleased was quickly checked when I noted that one reviewer had picked up on my relatively limited criticism of critical theory. This concern led to back-and-forths with the editor who eventually decided I should clarify my criticism of critical theory approaches in my resubmission. With trepidation, I took on this task.

The next set of reviews came back, and I was not surprised to find myself further from my goal than I had been at the previous step. It turned out that the initial reviewer and editor really did not want more evidence of critical theorists’ penchant for unsubstantiated claims. In another series of back-and-forths with the editor, I argued that I should not, and would not, sell my soul to get published. I agreed, however, to go back to my initial limited critique of critical theory. The editor, having taken the unusual step of consulting the editorial board, gave me the go-ahead to produce a second revision.

I was cautiously optimistic, but still sceptical, that my travails with this manuscript were over when I received an email from the editor on March 2, 2017, with the following message: “Dear Dr. Perrott: I am pleased to be writing to you to let you know that your article has been accepted and will appear in the next issue (issue 77). Many thanks for all of your work and I look forward to seeing it in print.” To my follow-up question about the likely timing of publication the editor responded, “we expect it to be July, 2017.”

Given what had transpired, I was unsure about taking the editor’s word at face value. I waited more than a year until the spring of 2018 (and well after the publication of Volume 77) before writing again about the status of my article. I received a reply on May 3, 2018, reading “my most sincerely (sic) apologies and Thanks for the message. I honestly do not know what happened and was not at all aware that the journal had not followed up with you. I have sent an urgent message to the journal editors.” Then, on May 17th, in response to yet another of my queries, she replied that “The journal editors responded to me immediately when you contacted me (and me them), apologizing and saying they would be in touch with you Immediately. I am shocked to learn that they have not. I am following up as I write this. My most sincere apologies.”

I had come to suspect the editor with whom I had worked to be the most credible and sincere of all of those contaminating this editorial process. I believed that she was being honest in expressing her surprise that the article had not yet been published. I, however, was not shocked at the failure to follow-through on the commitment to publish, having already concluded that there were “back room” decision makers determined to censor my heretical beliefs.

On May 18th, 2018, I finally did hear from two academics who reported to be the co-editors of CRSP (and who indicated that the person with whom I had been dealing was but a section editor). They wrote with a tale of woe about funding for the journal and even about funding problems for their graduate students. If the journal happened to be published long enough into the future, they opined, my article might make the issue after the forthcoming one on indigenous matters and could appear mid-way through 2019. They noted, however, that more revisions would be needed. Of course, there was no explanation as to why the article did not appear in the 2017 issue and nothing acknowledging the audacity of calling for further revisions to an article that had already been revised extensively and accepted for publication.

On January 18, 2019, having not yet convinced me to go away, the co-editors came back with an offer for me to resubmit after undertaking a long list of revisions. Their smorgasbord of criticisms and requests for revisions was the widest I had encountered to date and challenged every significant point I had made. The editors were, not surprisingly, especially piqued by my criticisms of critical theory, even in the softened version to which I had reverted.

A term that has become very popular with enlightened progressives, and which I hear like fingernails on a blackboard, is “gaslighting.” It was ironic, then, that all I could think about is how I was being gaslit in this process. I reminded myself of my lifetime commitment to not give in to bullies or to unfairness, but I also recalled my inclination to pursue this commitment even to where I would find myself tilting at windmills.

I figured the censors had me, secure in one of two outcomes. First, that I would give up and go away, having hit my absolute limit for exasperation and futility. Or, second, that I would respond to their editorial critiques and, in so doing, provide them a product containing their approved conclusions. Of course, on the second outcome, it would no longer be my paper. If I did not comply with what they wanted in every regard, they could simply send me away for another round of revisions. They obviously were completely unwilling to publish anything that even vaguely resembled my initial piece, if they would publish me at all. As it turned out, I reminded them of their commitment to publish the paper and my expectation that they would follow through on their commitment; I added a threat as to the stink I would generate if they did not. I also indicated that they were keeping me from responding to an invitation to submit the article for publication in an edited collection.

On February 15th, 2019, I received the following response from the CRSP co-editor team: “Dr. Perrott, we do think that if you have the opportunity to publish elsewhere that this is likely the best course of action. We recognize that the experience you have had with our review process and the kinds of feedback you have received on your paper have been challenging and have not engendered the kind of trust that befits editorial relationships. Given this situation, as well as the ongoing staffing/financial difficulties we are working to remedy, we are happy to release your paper in order to allow you the possibility of publishing elsewhere. We wish you only the best for your paper and future opportunities.”

As an epilogue to this story, two years later, and without any real hope for success, I submitted the chapter, revised thoroughly again, to another police journal. I was more than a little surprised that it was accepted. This time comments were laudatory, and the recommendation was to proceed to publication without any revisions.

One might say that everything turned out well in the end and that the review process is always characterised by unpredictability. Clearly, however, the problem here was not one of having a manuscript rejected, an outcome with which I have much experience. The problem is the decidedly unscholarly political processes to which I fell prey and the absolute convictions that seemingly allow journal editors to conclude that it is preferable to reverse an editorial commitment than to publish heresy. Moreover, what I could get published in 2022 that I could not in 2014 had more to do with luck, I believe, than to improvements over time in the manuscript. I have no doubt that the paper would have been rejected again had the paper landed in the hands of another reviewer or editor who happened to share the political consciousness and disrespect for scholarship of those described above.

As a full professor on the cusp of retirement, I had the luxury of allowing this paper to suck many more hours out of my life than was reasonable. A junior scholar, with tenure and promotion on her mind, could not afford to be tenacious in such circumstances. The obvious practical choice for any scholar on the way up is to ask only acceptable questions and to seek to give preapproved answers. Such conformity is not only important for achievements in the immediate circumstances, but also to signal that you are part of the woke ingroup lest you find yourself ostracized by the gatekeepers, many of whom report on surveys that they are ready to punish dissenters. The prospects for a credible store of research-based knowledge, fed by evidence and viewpoint diversity, grow bleaker by the day.