The publishing process in academic psychology journals isn’t typically known for its drama or intrigue. It’s true that there can be frustrations and challenges for aspiring authors. These include obtaining timely feedback from peer reviewers; adequately addressing often-disparate concerns and revision recommendations; and waiting the many months that frequently elapse between submitting a manuscript and its hoped-for publication. Nevertheless, there’s little doubt that articles published in reputable scientific journals play an essential role in advancing our understanding of human behavior.
Sometimes, however, a manuscript can become ensnared by behind-the-scenes maneuvering and decision-making that have little to do with the merits of the article itself. In such cases, non-scholarly considerations supersede the well-established guideposts of impartial peer review and unbiased evaluation of a submission’s worthiness for publication. That was apparently the unfortunate fate of “A Military/Intelligence Operational Perspective on the American Psychological Association’s Weaponization of Psychology Post-9/11.” This article’s circuitous journey bears recounting here as a cautionary tale for the profession and for the APA.
Written by my colleague Jean Maria Arrigo and five co-authors, four of whom are retired military-intelligence officers, “A Military/Intelligence Operational Perspective” thoughtfully examines two deeply problematic aspects of the APA’s connection to the so-called war on terror. The first is the damage suffered by psychological science when psychological knowledge is used as a weapon of coercion, manipulation, and humiliation. The second is the adverse consequences that arise when the US security sector employs covert influence tactics against professional civil society organizations.
The troubling history of the APA’s post-9/11 collaboration with the US Department of Defense and the CIA has been extensively detailed elsewhere. The briefest of summaries would highlight the APA’s years-long support for psychologists’ involvement in detainee detention and interrogation operations despite credible reports of abuse; the 2015 independent review (familiarly known as the Hoffman Report) that concluded APA leaders repeatedly took steps to preserve this involvement despite growing outrage within the profession and among human rights advocates; and the independent review’s aftermath, which saw key ethics reforms instituted at the APA but also ongoing defamation lawsuits from individuals who’ve claimed they were maligned in the Hoffman Report.
The Arrigo et al article was submitted in September 2018 (almost five years ago) to the APA journal History of Psychology — in response to an invitation from the journal editor — for inclusion in a special section on “The Hoffman Report in Historical Context.” The special section was scheduled to appear in the summer of 2020. As is standard practice, the editor sent the paper to two anonymous reviewers. Both were laudatory in their assessments while also providing valuable feedback for how to enhance the manuscript’s clarity. One reviewer wrote, “This is very important for the science of psychology”; the other emphasized, “This paper presents an important, even vital, perspective.” The authors revised the paper according to the guidance they received and resubmitted it in March 2019. The journal editor approved its publication, but it apparently took over a year, until May 2020, for the APA’s legal office to sign off on it as well.
In August 2020, everything was seemingly set — all approvals had been obtained, all contracts had been signed, and the journal issue was ready for publication. But the APA’s Chief Publishing Officer — a member of the Association’s Executive Office — suddenly intervened, sending a perfunctory yet highly consequential email to Arrigo. Without providing any explanation, the three-sentence message stated simply that the APA was declining to publish all of the articles that would have comprised the special section in History of Psychology, and that the authors were free to publish them elsewhere in a non-APA journal. The journal editor has described being totally blindsided by this decision as well — and the prospect of finding some alternative outlet for these four articles was daunting, to say the least.
It’s important to note here that there are widely accepted principles of publication ethics for academic journals. Of particular relevance, the Guidelines from the independent Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) includes this statement:
The relationship of Editors of the journals of Learned Societies to those Societies is often complex. However, notwithstanding the economic and political realities of their journals, directors of Learned Societies should respect that their editors should make decisions on which articles to publish based on quality and suitability for readers rather than for immediate financial or political gain. Directors and employees should not be able to overrule these decisions. The relationship of Editors of the journals of Learned Societies to those Societies should be based firmly on the principle of editorial independence.
The International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM) has also endorsed similar principles. And the APA is a member of both COPE and STM.
But in responding to a follow-up inquiry from Arrigo, the APA’s General Counsel told her that the APA’s editorial policies are set by its own Publications and Communications Board — whose members include the CEO and Treasurer — and not by the codes of conduct from COPE or STM. However, in my own perusal of the APA’s website, this board’s functions don’t appear to include overruling the publication judgments of journal editors.
The General Counsel further insisted that, in light of active litigation, anything related to the Hoffman Report must be subjected to additional review at the highest levels of the Association. That supplementary review reportedly concluded that all of these manuscripts — already accepted for the special section of the journal — failed to provide the context and documentation necessary to meet the needs of the scientific community or the general public. This remarkable finding stood in diametric opposition to the journal editor’s scholarly view and the lengthy prior review by the APA’s legal office.
Fortunately, several years later, and thanks to the dedicated efforts of the now former editor of History of Psychology, the four suppressed articles — including Arrigo et al’s “A Military/Intelligence Operational Perspective on the American Psychological Association’s Weaponization of Psychology Post-9/11” — have found a new home. They were recently published by the international journal History of the Human Sciences. “Beyond Torture: Knowledge and Power at the Nexus of Social Science and National Security” focuses on the history of APA-military entanglements that have evaded careful oversight. “The Hoffman Report in Historical Context: A Study in Denial” examines the APA’s strategy of deliberate ignorance in regard to the misuse of psychology. And “Beyond Following Rules: Teaching Research Ethics in the Age of the Hoffman Report” explores how psychological ethics can be made less vulnerable to manipulation. Interested readers can judge for themselves whether these illuminating analyses were actually undeserving of publication by the APA.
Meanwhile, it seems likely that APA executives viewed this publishing controversy as a minor inconvenience and moved on years ago. If that’s so, it’s regrettable because the issues raised are serious and relevant to the APA’s future. They are best summarized by Jean Maria Arrigo herself:
Clearly, both scientific method and historical inquiry flounder if publishers hold the right to reject articles that have passed peer and legal review. My five co-authors and I were meticulous in our citation of sources and had two legal experts review our manuscript to ensure it did not include unsubstantiated claims or defamatory/libelous language. Direct discourse by scientists and historians, not publisher’s fiat, is the method of resolving scientific and historical disagreements in academic journals. The anomalous suppression of analysis in an APA history of science journal creates a dangerous precedent for censorship of scholarly works viewed unfavorably by APA authorities.
As a final note, there’s more than a little irony in the APA’s decision to quash Arrigo’s article. After all, it examines the damage and danger of letting military-intelligence interests covertly interfere in the proper functioning of psychological science. Consider too that, after the Hoffman Report was released in 2015, the APA’s governing body gave Arrigo an award in recognition of her integrity and commitment to ethics and human rights (she also received an award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science). The APA award’s inscription specifically highlighted her “steadfast reliance on logical, fact-based advocacy” and it described her as “the finest possible role model for us in the profession of Psychology.” But even while expressing appreciation for the APA honor, at that time Arrigo commented that she was “very wary that this is a public relations event meant to shut me up.” Indeed.
Addendum: Arrigo has shared various materials and correspondence with me, and has given me permission to quote from them here. I was also fortunate to have had the opportunity to assist with some of the organizing and editing of her manuscript.