PROF ELLWANGER: Sage Journals adds DEI to the peer-review process

Just as left-wing ideology has corrupted university admissions, hiring, and curricula, it is now infecting the peer review process.

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston - Downtown. His primary areas of expertise are rhetoric and critical theory. He writes political and cultural commentary for outlets like Human Events, Quillette, American Greatness, The American Conservative, New Discourses, Minding the Campus, and many more. 

The peer-review process has long been critical to ensuring the quality and reliability of academic scholarship. Professors write articles detailing their research findings and submit those manuscripts to journals that they hope will publish them. The editors of those journals send these submissions out to “peer-reviewers”: other professors with similar areas of expertise as the authors. Their job is to judge its suitability for publication. Professors’ jobs depend on their ability to publish their research – and the stamp of approval that “peer-reviewed” publications receive is supposed to verify the quality of the work.

But just as left-wing ideology has corrupted university admissions, hiring, and curricula, it is now infecting the peer review process. In the process, it is undermining the public’s faith in the reliability and objectivity of academic publications.

I began my professorship in 2009 and over the following ten years I became one of the most prolific scholars in my English department. I routinely placed my work in the top-tier journals of my field. But starting around 2020, many journal editors began offering so-called “desk rejections” of my research: when I submitted new work for publication consideration, the editors refused to send my manuscripts out for peer review. In the past, desk rejections were strictly reserved for work that was poorly written, poorly prepared, or clearly unrelated to the focus of the journal.

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I suspected that the desk rejections that I was suddenly receiving were a retaliation for my frequent opinion writing in the pages of various conservative publications. Eventually, an editor confirmed my suspicions and admitted in writing that her personal opposition to my perspectives was the reason she refused to send my work out for peer review. When I appealed this explicit bias to the journal’s publisher (Taylor and Francis) my complaint was ignored.

These experiences opened my eyes to the fact that the ideological capture of the university didn’t simply affect the content of classes – it affects which research is published and which receives the “peer-reviewed” stamp of approval. There are many subtle ways that the peer-review process has been compromised by left-wing activism. But 2020 began a more aggressive effort to ensure that the pages of the peer-reviewed journals aren’t compromised by inconvenient truths or unapproved perspectives that run counter to the post-George Floyd consensus on campus.

Four years later, the corruption is still getting worse. This week, I discovered that Sage (a company that publishes over 1,000 academic journals) is asking every professor with an account on their submission portal to submit their personal demographic information, including race, sex, and even the geographic region to which one traces one’s ancestry.

While professors can decline to provide this information, Sage is very clear about why they want it: in the interests of being a “fair and inclusive publisher,” Sage intends to use the demographic data to “inform efforts to better reflect the diversity of our community in our journals’ authorship, reviewer pools, and editorial decision-making roles.” In other words, Sage will actively try to a) publish more research written by “underrepresented” minorities, b) use racial and gender identity to decide which scholars will serve as peer reviewers, and c) prioritize minority applicants for the editorial positions that ultimately decide which work gets published (and which does not).

These efforts are part of Sage’s work related to the “Joint Commitment for Action on Inclusion and Diversity in Publishing,” orchestrated by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The project’s website boasts that 56 publishing organizations have committed to their shared goal of “set[ting] a new standard to ensure a more inclusive and diverse culture within scholarly publishing.” The implications here are huge. It’s not just Sage that will prioritize DEI in academic publishing: those 56 publishing organizations represent over 11,000 journals that feature work in almost every conceivable field or discipline.

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Interestingly, the steering committee of the “Joint Commitment for Action on Inclusion and Diversity in Publishing” seems to reflect the same lack of diversity that the group aims to remedy: all seven of the members appear to be Caucasians. This oversight showcases the hypocrisy that animates most DEI initiatives in higher education.

Inserting DEI into the peer-review process also has negative consequences for the public. Only so much academic research can be published in the journals each year. There is much high-quality research produced by “under-represented” minorities. But when outfits like Sage Journals decide to favor work written by minorities because it was produced by minorities, some of the best scholarship will not get published because its authors happen to come from unfavored demographics.   Once again, merit is sacrificed at the twin altars of inclusion and diversity.

Fortunately, there is a growing number of alternatives to the increasing corruption that defines the peer review process. New, quality research can be read or submitted at a website called Researchers One, and their growing roster of independent publications including The Peerless Reviewmy own journal for work in the humanities and social sciences. No longer should a handful of peer-reviewers get to decide by fiat which research will be available to the public – especially when the principles of DEI are used to determine who those decision-makers will be.

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.