Peer review and Native Studies

December 24, 2009

Writing about the circumstances surrounding climategate has prompted me to think about the peer review process and research involving aboriginal peoples. While climategate constituted just one instance of peer review politicization, and is unlikely to be representative of the huge amount of research that is currently being undertaken with respect to global warming, the same cannot be said of the peer review process for scholarship undertaken on aboriginal peoples.  Even more disturbing is that the corruption of the process takes place at the level of the selection of reviewers, and so evidence is suppressed much earlier in the process.  This circumstance is legitimized by an acceptance of “indigenous knowledge and methods” in scholarship pertaining to aboriginal people, which results in highly dubious claims being published in respected peer reviewed journals.

In political science, the politicization of the review process has meant research that comes to conclusions that are supportive of parallelist arguments for land claims and self-government is eagerly embraced, while scholarship challenging these political demands is rejected.  As a result, there are numerous claims about the existence of pre-contact aboriginal “nationalism”, “governance”, “law”, and even “constitutionalism”, which are being incorporated into the foundations of the discipline and introductory textbooks. In the case of the Canadian Journal of Political Science, for example, an article published is supposed to be “excellent in all its aspects”, yet this journal published an article by Kiera Ladner - “Up the Creek: Fishing for a New Constitutional Order” (December 2005) – that made many claims supported only by political statements from the Union of Nova Scotia Indians and the wishful thinking of James Youngblood Henderson and his associates.   The paper is so poorly proofread, in fact, that it misspells the name of John Borrows numerous times, and does not contain a reference for “Henderson et al., 2000″, even though this work was used to provide a full page quotation in support of the alleged “connections…between the Mi’kmaw worldview and their constitutional order”.

Compare the publication of Ladner’s piece, which makes highly improbable claims that a pre-contact “Mi’kmaw constitutional order” was “similar to the British Constitutution” and “comprises and defines distinct, political, economic, educational, property and legal systems” (without any evidence except a reference to another, very problematic peer reviewed article of Ladner’s - ”Governing Within an Ecological Context: Creating an AlterNative Understanding of Blackfoot Governance”, Studies in Political Economy, 2003), to my article on corruption in aboriginal communities that was rejected (the article, “Inherent Right of Unethical Governance – Widdowson – peer reviewed copy”, is available on the Aboriginal Policy page of this blog). This article was rejected because

“the author offers the argument that traditional governance systems based on kinship networks and norms of generalized reciprocity deny the rule of law and are inherently unethical and an inappropriate basis for governance in modernity. The author argues that corruption is inherent in aboriginal governance, without providing a compelling account of its actual scope. The author provides evidence from a variety of reasonable sources that corruption exists in aboriginal communities, however this evidence is largely anecdotal.  As a reader I am not provided with an analysis that allows me to make my own evaluation of the severity and extent of corruption on a national level.  The author makes no attempt to show that x% of reserve communities, for instance, have evidence of corrupt political practices, or have an endemic history of political nepotism. For if such an analysis showed, for instance, that 60% of aboriginal governments were corrupt and 40% were not, then I would be able to accept a conclusion that corruption is a big problem, but certainly not inherently so. If the numbers showed a corruption rate of 100%, then I could go about evaluating the empirical analysis and then, if the data was sound, have to deal with the consequences of such a remarkable finding. Surely making a sound empirical case is difficult, given the difficulty in getting this kind of data.  However, this type of methodical empirical analysis is necessary for me as the reader to jump from the observation that corruption exists to the conclusion that aboriginal governance is inherently unsound”. 

Publishing this piece would have been impossible  under these conditions – as the reviewer seems to recognize – because of the difficulties in acquiring the data that would be necessary to meet this standard or rigour, even though it is generally recognized that corruption is much higher in aboriginal governments than in municipal, provincial or federal governments in Canada.

A similar problem occurred in an article that Albert Howard and I tried to submit to the journal Arctic on “traditional knowledge” (the article – “Aboriginal traditional knowledge, science and public policy – Widdowson and Howard – peer reviewed copy” - is available on the Aboriginal Policy page of this blog).  Although the the article was favourably reviewed by two wildlife biologists working for the federal government and Robert McGhee, an archaeologist with the Canadian Museum of Civilization, it was rejected by three other reviewers who thought it was too “antagonistic” and did not contribute to constructive debate.  One reviewer even stated that the paper “…should offer a more balanced way forward rather than just a rant. The overall tone is too negative and sometimes, just outright offensive. The paper puts ‘science’ on a pedestal where it does not belong. The argument about relativism is perhaps ironic as there is not much in this paper in seeking common ground…”.   One of the most interesting aspects of this review is that the word “science” is put in ironic quotation marks, suggesting that its existence is somehow in doubt, even though the journal’s mandate is to “advance the study” of this region “through the natural and social sciences”.

 The obstacles to expressing critical viewpoints in scholarly venues appear to be increasing with the decision of the Canadian Political Science Association to divert a paper that I proposed presenting – “Aboriginal Peoples, Political Science and Research Ethics: Should Indigenous Politics be Studied Differently?” - to a “poster session” (where pictures and graphs are put on a 4′-6′ poster in the reception area, not in a formal panel).  The ideas in this proposal will be very difficult to present in this visual form, since they will require the elaboration of complex arguments with detailed examples provided as evidence.  This problem can be discerned by examining the proposal’s abstract: 

“In the development of research in Canada, there are increasing attempts to ensure that the study of human subjects is conducted ethically. As a result, bodies like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] recommend that research ethics boards should be put in place to review research applications requesting funding. Of particular significance is research pertaining to the study of groups that are perceived as vulnerable. There is heightened concern about the impact that research can have on aboriginal peoples, for example, because of the power imbalances instituted by colonization. It is argued that additional protection should be provided to the native population, and it is even assumed that the preservation of culture should be a goal of the studies conducted. Although it is important that individuals be protected from physical and psychological harm as much as possible, these developments in research ethics raise a number of questions about the constraints that will be placed upon academic freedom and a researcher’s capacity to investigate their area of study. In the efforts to balance the risk of harm with the potential benefits for society, it has become apparent that the importance of academic freedom is almost completely ignored in these ethics guidelines. This is particularly pertinent with respect to the study of aboriginal peoples; it needs to be recognized that the application of “research ethics” in the area of Native Studies often opposes researchers’ attempts to increase knowledge about the actual character of aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations”. 

How can this be represented on a poster?  As a result of this decision, I will be unable to present these ideas and “aboriginal epistemologies” will be promoted unopposed within political science.  This will be detrimental to to the academic credibility of the discipline of political science and its professional body in Canada.

Although it is not clear why diverting this topic to a poster session occurred, it probably has something to do with the fact that Kiera Ladner is the head of the section of the programme committee to which the proposal was submitted (the Women’s Caucus cabal is also heavily involved in promoting this session).  Ladner’s work, in fact, would have been discussed in my paper as an example of the problem of insisting that “aboriginal knowledge” must be respected (a requirement of current research ethics guidelines).  Ladner was also present at the infamous meeting of the Women’s Caucus in 2008 where anonymous allegations that my work was “racist” were made (I did not know Ladner was present until a few months ago because her name was not recorded in the minutes in the list of members “Present: (2008 Caucus Meeting)”. Evidently, at this meeting, Ladner was very distraught during the discussions about the paper that I had presented. It is reported that a large amount of hugging and comforting Ladner ensued,  as well as “talk of solidarity and outrage”. Although the discussion of the nature of my “overt and blatant racism” was not specified, it appeared that my critique of aboriginal epistemology - the idea that native people, because of their ancestry, have a “different way of knowing”, not accessible to others – was believed to be offensive by the postmodern clique now controlling the content of some CPSA panels.

When will it end?  One colleague has recommended that I try to present my ideas in other political science venues that are “less parochial”.  But, if I choose this course of action, doesn’t this mean that unsubstantiated and highly improbable arguments such as Ladner’s will continue to be accepted as legitimate within the discipline of political science?  What impact will this have on the discipline and our capacity to understand aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations and the development of politics and government more generally?  If the CPSA were really interested in open and vigorous debate, as it claims, it should organize a debate on “aboriginal epistemologies” in political science between Kiera Ladner and myself.