Academic paper rejected following Twitter storm.

The New Bioethics has rejected a paper on non-academic criteria, and violated its own ethical guidelines by assessing papers differently depending on the author’s race and sex. 

Dr. Perry Hendricks is an American academic philosopher, with a PhD from Purdue University. In 2023, he submitted a paper to The New Bioethics, a leading journal in the field, entitled “Abortion Restrictions are Good for Black Women”.  

The paper refers to a claim made by a number of academics and commentators that since in the USA disproportionately more black women have abortions, abortion restrictions are particularly bad for black women. Hendricks argues that this simply assumes the crucial point. If abortion is morally wrong, then it is good for people to be prevented from having abortions, and so – by the logic of the original argument – abortion restrictions are particularly good for black women. Thus, Hendricks claims, the question of whether abortion is morally wrong precedes the question of whether it is good or bad for some particular group of people. The paper is available here.  

The paper went through The New Bioethics peer review process, and Hendricks was informed that the paper had been accepted. He posted news of the acceptance online, and was subject to a storm of vitriol, accusations of being a racist, and demands that The New Bioethics rescind the acceptance. 

The New Bioethics then posted on X (formerly Twitter) “This article has not been published and is on hold pending further review”. 

Hendricks has now received an email from Matthew James, the editor in chief of The New Bioethics, stating that the article was initially accepted “due to a technical fault in the publisher’s systems”. The editor proceeds to rescind the acceptance on the grounds that 

in cases such as this one, where white authors write about racial inequalities, or when male authors write about women’s rights, this needs to be done with a considerable degree of circumspection, humility and sensitivity. This manuscript falls short in that regard. 

This looks like caving in to a Twitter mob. Humility can be an intellectual virtue – not overstating one’s case, properly considering opposing views etc. – but the humility called for here is the identity-politics kind, which consists in publicly confessing one’s class guilt or “privilege”. This sort of humility is not an academic virtue. Consider the analogous case where a journal rejects work because it lacks some other virtue, for instance, because it is insufficiently courageous or witty. 

Further, it has been argued that these The New Bioethics acceptance criteria are racist and sexist. The New Bioethics demands that white men display a greater degree of sensitivity than other people when writing about abortion and black women. But if insensitivity is a fault in a piece of writing, then presumably it is a fault whatever the skin colour of the person who wrote it. To deem the work inferior because of the colour of the author’s skin is racist – or so the argument goes. Whatever the merits of this argument, to hold people to different academic standards because of their race is an appalling violation of academic freedom.  

The New Bioethics’ practice of requiring higher degrees of “humility, circumspection, and sensitivity” from white men in certain cases violates the journal’s ethical guidelines. These state: 

Journal editors should give unbiased consideration to each manuscript submitted for publication. They should judge each on its merits, without regard to race, religion, nationality, sex, seniority, or institutional affiliation of the author(s). 

CAF will write to Taylor and Francis, the publishing company which owns The New Bioethics and which sets these guidelines.