The Synthese affair has lots of important implications, and several lessons could be drawn from its different ramifications. In this post, I'd like to focus on some of the editorial policies which might have contributed to this confusing and unfortunate situation. Mostly, I'll be asking a lot of questions, and comments/remarks are most welcome.
(For what it's worth, let me say from the outset that my own position on the issue is that the EiC have made a series of very unfortunate editorial mistakes, but I do not think that a call for boycott is the best way to deal with the issue and to work towards redressing the potentially very serious implications of these events.)
Aside from the crucial ID implications, which greatly magnify the impact of this conundrum, it seems clear that an important factor is what can be viewed as a clash of authority between the Editors-in Chief and the Guest Editors of the infamous special issue. Disregarding for a moment the possibility of threats coming from the ID crowd, at the very least there was disagreement between the EiC and the GE as to what counts as appropriate language or 'tone' in a philosophy article: the GE were apparently not under the impression that there had been any breach of appropriateness, whereas the EiC were not of the same opinion. What is strange, of course, is that in first instance the EiC had accepted the special issue as a whole, and its individual articles in particular, only to realize later that they weren't happy about at least one of the articles (Forrest's, according to the GE's account). Had they read the articles at all in first instance, i.e. before they were published online? And if they hadn't, should they have? Or was the responsibility for the quality of the articles entirely delegated to the GE? What kind of jurisdiction do EiC have over papers published in special issues?
Again, it seems that conflicts of authority are bound to arise within the 'special issue' model, which calls into question the very viability of the model, a common practice in Synthese and other journals. What is to be done in such cases of disagreement? On the one hand, the GE are presumably given full freedom to edit a special issue as they see fit; on the other hand, the responsibility for what is published in a journal is ultimately of the EiC. If there is disagreement, it is unclear how it could/should be resolved.
At the same time, it has become clear that there was no anonymous peer refereeing process for this special issue; the GE have done the refereeing themselves (that is, the very same people who had invited the authors to contribute in the first place). This has transpired in comments at Leiter's post on the 'non-response' from the Synthese editors. As Darrell Rowbottom has noticed (correctly, to my mind), it is not a matter of questioning the expertise of the GE on the topic so as to serve as referees for the papers. Rather, the issue is the lack of anonymity and the fact that it is in the GE's interest that there be enough papers for the special issue (not to mention the difficulty of possibly rejecting a paper after inviting the author to contribute!). So, the general question is: should papers appearing in special issues not go through the usual process of double-anonymous peer-refereeing? I tend to think that the answer is an obvious NO. As it turns out, I am now in the process of editing a special issue myself (different journal, not Synthese), and I'm being confronted with precisely these difficulties. And because I know I am invested in the pieces myself, I find it absolutely essential to hear what others have to say on the papers in order to form an impartial opinion.
In other words, one of the questions I would like to raise is whether it is a good idea to have 'special issues' in respectable, otherwise peer-refereed journals, which do not comply with their usual refereeing standards. Of course, there is no guarantee that the kind of conflict of authority which has arisen in this case would have been avoided, but I tend to think it would have been less likely to happen. To be clear, I am sure that many (most?) of special issues edited by GEs, in Synthese and elsewhere, most likely do go through anonymous refereeing, but I submit that this should be non-negotiable (as it should be in any decent journal; amazing that some journals such as the Journal of Philosophy still don't seem to comply). But again, it is a policy that the EiC should have enforced in the first place.