In the course of one’s professional life, you might step on a landmine and have no idea that you have, until it explodes a long time after you’ve traversed the minefield. Such an event happened to me personally about 15 years ago when I was serving as associate editor at Psychological Bulletin and accepted for publication a manuscript reporting a meta-analysis on the long-term effects of child sexual abuse (Rind, Tromovitch, & Bauserman, 1998). Although it appeared in print for several months with little controversy, a firestorm of criticism ultimately arose, with the flames fanned by controversial radio personalities (e.g., Laura Schlesinger), Christian conservative political groups (e.g., Family Research Council), members of Congress, and pro-pedophilia activist groups (e.g., North American Man/Boy Love Association), among others. The paper was ultimately condemned, with no dissenting votes, by both houses of the U.S. Congress and presented a major political and public relations challenge to the American Psychological Association (APA). Many of the details are well known and, indeed, I (Sher & Eisenberg, 2002) and many others (see special issue of the American Psychologist, 2002, especially Lilienfeld, 2002) have commented on the now infamous “Rind et al. affair” in great detail. These and other published commentaries highlight numerous issues concerning the nature of peer review, the relationship between science and values, and the politicization of science.
During the review process itself, which spanned multiple review cycles, I did not perceive any ethical challenge. Although clearly an oversimplified view of my editorial role, I tended to see my job as “calling balls and strikes.” I made such calls based on the best available information available to me, primarily the informed opinions of the reviewers and my own independent reading and evaluation of the manuscript. This is not to say that I was then or am now100% reliable in my decision making; no umpire or editor is, and it’s often unclear if a given pitch is inside or outside the strike zone. In addition to our own nonsystematic error that leads to variation in decision making, we all have systematic biases of which we may only be aware to a limited extent. Additionally, it is clear that thresholds for publication vary not only across but also within journals as a function of the relative balance between the number and length of submissions and allotted journal pages as well as the relative balance of content published in the journal. Moreover, editorial decisions concerning review articles of the type Psychological Bulletin published may be particularly vulnerable to various biases because there is less variability in method (especially a well conducted meta-analysis), and a key issue concerns the potential impact to the broader discipline, a judgment that is inherently speculative to varying degrees.