Intellectual Prostitutes

John Swinton on the American press: One night, probably in 1880, John Swinton, then the preeminent New York journalist, was the guest of honor at a banquet given him by the leaders of his craft. Someone who knew neither the press nor Swinton offered a toast to the independent press. Swinton outraged his colleagues by replying:

“There is no such thing, at this date of the world’s history, in America, as an independent press. You know it and I know it.

There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with.

Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone.

The business of the journalists is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press?

We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”

Academics as Intellectual Prostitutes?

In a recent paper (2001) Swiss economist Bruno Frey takes issue with the academic journal publication system: “The system of journal editing existing in our field at the present time virtually forces academics to become prostitutes: they sell themselves for money (and a good living). Unlike prostitutes who sell their bodies for money (Edlund and Korn, 2002), academics sell their soul to conform to the will of others, the referees and editors, in order to gain one advantage, namely publication. Most persons refusing to prostitute themselves and to follow the demands of the system are not academics: they cannot enter, or have to leave, academia because they fail to publish. Their integrity survives, but the persons disappear as academics.” So is the IQSS a cathouse?

Frey is not the first to contribute to the long-standing debate about the peer-review process. Yet, his essay is interesting because he develops a rational choice theory of referees’ and editors based on the notion of property rights and also offers a reform proposal. His basic idea is that the interests of the journal and the referees are not aligned, because anonymous referees have no property rights to the journal they advise. Given standard rational choice assumptions, there is thus little reason to expect that referees will write helpful reviews. More to the opposite: “the absence of property rights must be expected to lead to shirking. […] Many referees will be tempted to judge papers according to whether their own contributions are sufficiently appreciated and their own publications quoted.” Often referees want to see substantial changes basically altering the paper. The author is asked to write things he or she would not otherwise have written.

This intellectual prostitution is neither beneficial to suppliers nor consumers, because it prevents the publication and development of fresh ideas. Many authors feel that the refereeing process robbed them of the chance of really contributing what they find important and innovative. Even worse, “the more perfectly the authors are able to anticipate the demands, the less they need to change. Due to the lower cost of meeting the demands for revision, born and learned intellectual prostitutes are more likely to engage in the publication game and to stay in academia.”

As a solution, Frey proposes that scholars should be treated more like artists, “in particular painters who, since the Renaissance, are expected to express their own beliefs and convictions – which led to an explosion of creativity in the arts. Frey envisions to overcome the veto power of (anonymous) referees.” In his revised system, the editor, who holds property rights and thus has a strong interest to further the reputation of his journal, would make an initial decision whether a paper is worth publishing or not. “The referees are only asked to give suggestions on how to improve the paper. The author is free to follow or to disregard this advice.”

I wonder whether there is statistical evidence to support these claims? I also would be keen to know whether a journal has ever run an experiment, randomly assigning submissions to one of several “review mechanisms”?

Jens Hainmueller


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