4. Should Social Psychologists Boycott APA Journals to Protest APA’s Torture Involvement?

It’s been a long time since I’ve wrote a blog post; I guess moving between countries will do that to your free time. With the recent torture-related scandal surrounding the APA, however, I figure it’s an apt time to rejoin the psychology blogosphere.

Background

I’ll admit to initially reacting to the news way too indifferently (at least for my own tastes). “Oh, the APA got itself wrapped up with the CIA/FBI/DoD and it somehow involves torture? That doesn’t sound good…” In truth, I’ve just been too busy adjusting to my new surroundings to care about anything other than paying my bills. But then I read this link, shared by Simine Vazire on Twitter, summarizing the findings of the Hoffman Report–what a complete and utter disaster!

I encourage you to read the link for yourself, if you’re not familiar with the finer points of the Hoffman Report. The most horrifying revelation, for me personally, was that APA executives lied about their intent to process ethics complaints for psychologists involved in “enhanced interrogations”, and intended to do so “until evidence of anything becomes public in 2055”. Ouch.

The Problem: “What now?”

Simine’s Twitter post also puts forth an important question that psychologists must grapple with: “What now?” This question has been burning a hole in my brain for the last 48 hours. The APA–the national organization that most prominently represents psychologists as professionals–colluded with the government to facilitate torture! “What now?”, indeed.

My worry is that social psychologists, like myself, will conclude something like the following about how to proceed: “Wow, that is 100% terrible. I really hope that somehow the APA is brought to justice for its actions.” In my opinion though, the APA-torture-travesty besmirches all psychologists to the point where social (and other) psychologists shouldn’t wait for the APA to somehow receive its just deserts. We should send a message to the APA that currying favor with the military and government is not our priority, and that we, its members, are thoroughly disgusted with the organization’s involvement with torture.

The Proposal

I have an idea for how we, as a sub-discipline, could send such a message. Up front, I will concede that it is a radical strategy–I’m not even sure how I feel about it yet. But again, the APA colluded with the government to facilitate torture, so a radical strategy may not be entirely unreasonable.

Social psychologists should stop publishing in/reviewing for APA journals. Why? Because of the following:

  1. Journal subscription fees make the APA money
  2. APA Journals can only maintain their high-impact if individual scientists submit their best science to those periodicals
  3. APA Journals can only process those submissions if they enjoy the free labor of reviewers
  4. Oh yeah, and because the APA colluded with the government to facilitate torture! What message do we, as professionals, send if we continue to labor (research/reviewing), so that such an organization can profit?* And even if the APA’s bottom line isn’t hit that hard by this kind of protest, at least we will have sent the public/the APA/each other the clear message that we do not condone torture.

The duration of the boycott could depend on any number of factors. As one of my colleagues suggested, perhaps the boycott could be linked to the duration of any legal action faced by the APA (however unlikely) for its involvement. Alternatively, the boycott could last until some alternative standards for appropriate reparative action have been met, such as contributing resources (financial/time/expertise/etc.,) to organizations striving to improve global human rights. The boycott, in other words, wouldn’t need to last forever, but instead would be tied to some meaningful metrics of justice served.

Challenges of the Proposal

I realize that this proposal asks a lot of every social psychologist. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for example, has been our flagship/gold-standard periodical for decades, and what psychologist hasn’t desired a review paper to be published in Psychological Bulletin, or a theory paper in Psychological Review. Each of these outlets (2014 Impact Factors: 5.03, 14.76, and 7.97, respectively), along with other APA journals, are tremendous in their impact. But now they are tremendously impactful journals for an organization that colluded with the government to facilitate torture.

What would a post-APA-Journal social psychology literature look like? Well, I would expect that SPSP-based periodicals like Personality and Social Psychology BulletinPersonality and Social Psychology Review**, and Social Psychological and Personality Science would become even more popular/high-impact, as social psychologists diverted more initial submissions to those outlets. Elsevier’s Journal of Experimental Social Psychology would be another possibility; yes, Elsevier’s giant profit margins are cause for concern, but at least it’s not collusion with the government to facilitate torture. And I’m sure other established psychology-based journals (e.g., Psychological Science), interdisciplinary journals (e.g., PLoS ONE), and other relatively new up-and-comers (e.g., Frontiers) will help to meet the demand.

To be clear, I fully recognize the unlikelihood of this proposal being adopted en masse; something like I am suggesting would only gain traction if a sufficiently large number of people–including some “big names”–agreed to participate. I am a nobody, suggesting a huge change to the hierarchy of periodicals for social psychologists. But I think we, as social psychologists, should at least consider the possibility of no longer contributing to the financial–and if nothing else, the scholarly–success of the APA, though I understand that this is a moral decision that each person needs to make for themselves.

Concluding Thoughts

The more I think about this issue, the more I am reminded of the Cartwright (1979) reading from my first graduate social psychology course, about the historical origins of our field. In particular, I am increasingly struck by the relevance of Cartwright’s commentary on World War II, to the current scandal faced by the APA:

There can be little doubt that the most important single influence on the development of social psychology up to the present came from outside the system itself. I am referring, of course, to the Second World War and the political upheaval in Europe that preceded it. If I were to required to name the one person who has had the greatest impact upon the field, it would have to be Adolph Hitler.

Following the atrocities wrought by Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany, our field responded with a surge of research attempting to understand the psychological factors–conformity, obedience, prejudice–that could allow people to partake in government-sponsored abuse of other humans. And now we are associated with, giving our science to, and improving the financial bottom line of an organization that:

  1. Elected a (past) president that objected to the APA abiding by the Geneva Conventions because he saw them as  “nebulous, toothless, contradictory, and obfuscatory”.
  2. Actively shaped torture policies in an effort to endear psychologists to military branches of the government.
  3. Blatantly lied about its intent to investigate allegations that members were participating in torture
  4. And offered, in my opinion, a pretty half-assed apology for all of the above (see here).

Again, it is a matter for each (social) psychologist to evaluate for her or himself, as to what would be a moral response to the APA moving forward. But as I continue to whip my 5-study dissertation into shape for publication this summer, at minimum I will be giving serious consideration as to whether skipping JPSP, and submitting right to PSPB, is what will make me feel best in the wake of this professional/moral debacle.

Footnotes

*This is by no means meant as an indictment on the editorial staff of APA Journals. Rather, I am condemning the business behind the journals.

**Semi-conflict of Interest disclosure: My old advisor is the current editor of PSPR. To be clear though, my thoughts in this blog post are my own, and should not be taken as an indicator of what she may think about the torture scandal.

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