Publishing in Philosophy





Contents

I. About This Page

A. What is this?

B. Who am I?

II. How Things Work: An Overview

A. Books

B. Articles

III. Advice for Publishing

A. Getting Accepted

1. Top reasons for rejection

2. The loophole

3. Writing replies

4. Style & format

5. Citations

6. Academic language

7. Be technical, rigorous, and confusing

8. Be longwinded

B. Where to Publish

1. Book publishers

2. Journals

C. Publishing Strategies

1. Have multiple papers

2. Getting ideas

3. Immediate resubmission

4. Books or articles?

5. The timeline

D. Writing Book Proposals

E. Becoming Famous

F. What to Expect

IV. Anecdotes from the Academic Publishing Life

V. What’s Wrong with This System?

A. Bad referees

1. Absurd delays

2. Rejection due to philosophical disagreement

3. Confusion

4. Careless reading

5. The incentive problem

6. Unpredictability

B. Incentives for bad work

1. Bad writing

2. Minor points

3. Sophistry

4. Metadiscourse

5. Weak claims

6. Salami publications

7. Repetition

C. Uselessness to Society

1. Unwanted writings

2. Narrow scholars

3. Why are we ignored?

D. Recommendations

1. Charge for submissions

2. Pay referees

3. Use a rating scale

4. One referee is enough

5. Change the standards

6. Refereeing by editors

7. Require long abstracts

VI. Other Sources





I. About This Page

A. What is this?

This is a page of my reflections on publishing in academic philosophy. Much of it probably applies to other academic disciplines too. It includes thoughts about such things as how one gets published, where one should publish, what one should expect, and what’s wrong with the current system. This might be helpful to new academic philosophers, and anyway, it might be interesting.

      Obvious caveat: the following remarks are my personal observations and opinions. Other philosophers will disagree with many of them.


B. Who am I?

As of this writing, I’ve been an academic philosopher for seventeen years (probably more by the time you read this). I’ve published 1 edited volume, 3 single-authored books (+1 forthcoming), 5 book reviews, and more than 50 research articles. The venues range from Philosophical Review down to . . . some journal you never heard of. I also referee about ten papers a year for a variety of journals. So I’ve experienced a pretty wide range of what goes on in the academic philosophy publishing world.

      Now, on to the parts you want to hear about.


II. How Things Work: An Overview

A. Books

If you have a book to publish, you want to prepare a book proposal. This is a summary description of the book, which may be written either before or after the book manuscript is completed. (More on this later.) You send the proposal & probably a sample chapter to publishers. In the case of books, you’re allowed to submit simultaneously to multiple publishers, and you should do so.

      One of three things then happens:

i)   Rejection: By far the most likely outcome. In my experience, sometimes the rejection comes quickly enough that you can infer that they didn’t read through the proposal. Sometimes the editor doesn’t even respond.

ii)   They ask for more material, like the complete manuscript. After you send it, they then sit on it for several months before getting back to you. They may well reject it after making you wait for 10 months, which will make you glad you simultaneously submitted to several other publishers.

iii)  They accept it. This might happen just on the strength of your proposal, if the publisher really likes you, e.g., because you’re famous, or you’ve published some successful books with them before. If they don’t know you, they’ll probably need the whole manuscript.

      Suppose you got rejected. Don’t worry; most things are rejected. Just keep submitting it until someone takes it. Many editors don’t know what they’re doing. Of course, it’s also possible that your manuscript is bad. But you probably still want to publish it, and you probably still can; just go down to some lower-tier publisher such as Lexington.

      Suppose you got accepted. They send you a contract. Note that you can negotiate any items you see in there. If you don’t like something in the contract, ask the acquisitions editor to change it. Maybe they won’t agree, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

      Don’t expect to make more than a pittance on your book. Royalties of 5-10% are normal for an academic book. Those are calculated on net receipts (the amount the publisher receives, not the retail price – so if the publisher sells it to a book store for $20, then the book store sells it for $35, then if you have 5% royalties, that means you get $1 (20*.05)).

      Your book will probably appear ridiculously overpriced, e.g., priced at $50 or $80. The reason is that your publisher doesn’t think many people would buy it, except libraries, and libraries will pay the $50. Your publisher is probably right.

      After your book is published, you can try to get journals to review it, either by asking the publisher to send a copy of your book to the journal (first make sure the journal does book reviews) or by sending them a copy yourself (but this is expensive). However, unless you’re famous, don’t expect more than a few reviews, and don’t be surprised if there are zero.

      After your book is published, the scholarly reaction will probably be minimal. You can put a line on your CV, but probably no one will talk about it. That’s assuming it’s an average academic book (and if you think that it’s well above average, you’re probably just biased).


B. Articles

Unlike the case with books, simultaneous article submissions are not allowed. So you have to wait for your paper to be rejected before sending it to the next journal.

      Here is basically what you should expect: you send the paper to a journal. You get a quick email acknowledging receipt. Then you hear nothing for three months. Maybe six months. Maybe more. Then you get a rejection. The leading journals reject 90-95% of all submissions (and again, if you think you’re special, you’re probably just biased).

      It might have a referee report attached, in which case you’ll probably disagree with the report. Or there might be no comments at all. (Why? I don’t know, maybe the referee didn’t send any comments, or the editor didn’t want to forward them. I’ve never been a journal editor, so I can only guess.) Or there might be two referee reports, in which case there is about a 50% chance that the two referees will mostly disagree with each other.

      If your paper is not rejected, most likely it will get a “revise and resubmit”. You should probably do the revisions that they ask for, unless they are very extensive and onerous, because it’s the best chance of getting published. Also prepare a list of revisions and responses to comments (including explanations, for any recommended revisions that you chose not to make, of why you did not make them). Sometimes, the requested revisions are incompatible (referee A says “expand section 2”; referee B says “cut section 2”). After you do the revisions, they might still reject it.

      Do not take six months to do the revisions; do them immediately. If you’re going to take half a year, then just send it to another journal instead.

      If you’ve been waiting for over 3 months and haven’t heard anything from the journal, it’s perfectly in order to write to the editor and check on the status of your manuscript. A referee might have forgotten to read it, and they might send that person a reminder. Sometimes, you go through multiple rounds of this. Be polite.


III. Advice for Publishing

A. Getting Accepted

1. Top reasons for rejection

Your paper is probably going to be rejected because the referee didn’t like it. Here are the top reasons for rejection:

a.   It’s wrong. Or: the referee disagrees with your philosophical position. Most referees have trouble distinguishing between writing a referee report and writing a philosophical reply. In other words, they have trouble distinguishing the question “Does this make a worthwhile contribution to the discussion?” from “Do you think this is correct?” Their reports thus tend to focus on giving objections to the argument of the paper. If there are many objections, the editor will probably decide that it is a “negative report” and therefore reject the paper.

b.   It’s obviously right. The ref thinks what you’ve said is too obvious to need an academic paper to say it. Sometimes, a referee thinks something is obvious even though a large portion of the profession would reject it.

c.   It’s already been said. Some other philosopher defended this position, with something like this argument, so now you’re not allowed to do it.

d.   It’s not tied to the literature. You didn’t talk about the other people who’ve written about this, or there aren’t any such other people.

e.   It’s uninteresting. Occasionally, someone might think the point you’re making is too small, or merely semantic, or for some other reason not sufficiently interesting. But this seems rare; this is the only one of the top reasons that I think is underused. If you write a paper that mostly recounts other people’s views, you should get this type of rejection.

So, to get published, you more or less need an idea that the referee thinks is likely correct, yet not obviously correct, interesting, and tied to the literature, yet hasn’t been said before. That rules out practically everything. So it’s almost impossible to get published.

 

2. The loophole

Here is the loophole: you can take a point that is so narrow and so tied to the specific course of the recent literature that it hasn’t been made before. The standards for “interestingness” in academia allow very small, hyperspecialized points to count as sufficiently interesting. So that’s how most published papers get published.

 

3. Writing replies

Perhaps the easiest way to find a publishable idea is to take some recent publication and write a reply to it. Choose a reasonably interesting article/book from a good journal/press, but one that doesn’t already have a million replies. But note that if you write a reply targeting one specific article, and the journal in which the target article appears rejects your reply, then it will generally be impossible to publish your reply anywhere else. You may therefore wish to target books rather than articles.

      This will not make you well-known; it will just help to get you lines on your CV and get you tenure. However good your reply may be, it’s still just a commentary on someone else’s ideas.

 

4. Style & format

As a long time referee for academic journals, the first thing I want to say is: proofread your damn paper. If there are three errors on the first page, it’s going to look unprofessional, like maybe this is some student paper from a not-very-good school. If you don’t know how footnotes or bibliographic entries are formatted, find out now. Anyone who wants to be an academic should know that. If you don’t see three things wrong with “Smith (2007); p.15”, get a style manual.

      Most journals give some guidelines for formatting of submissions (“double space throughout”, “use single quotes for direct quotations”, blah blah). However, I don’t think an editor would actually reject a paper for failing to meet these guidelines. If it gets accepted, you’ll just have to reformat it at that time. Since different journals have different formatting requirements, and since almost all submissions are rejected, it isn’t really reasonable for you to format the paper specially for submission to a particular journal. (But again, there should not be actual errors in it!)

 

5. Citations

Naturally, you need to read the recent literature on your topic. Cite as many things as you can. Part of the purpose here is to prove that you are part of this social group, and that you are familiar with the conversation as it has been going up till now.

      Here is the other purpose: The editor is going to send your paper to someone who has written on the topic. That person will probably expect to see his own work cited. If it isn’t, he might feel a negative emotion, which could bias him against your paper. Since you don’t know who the referee is going to be, just cite as many people as you can, even if the citations are not actually helpful.

      The editor also might look at your bibliography for ideas of who could referee your paper. So don’t be nasty to any of the people you reference.

 

6. Academic language

Papers are most likely to get published if they are written in the style of other academic papers. That style is not what I would call good writing, and it is not, for instance, like the style of this page. Don’t write stuff like what you’re reading now.

      Academic writing tends to be boring – empty of emotion, and filled with jargon, multiple qualifications, unnecessarily long and complex sentences, technical sounding phrases, “meta” discussions about the state of the discussion, and digressions into small side points. The good news is, if you’re an academic, you probably already know how to do this. (A clear, engaging style takes more work, but luckily, you won’t have to learn that.) You’ll need to study the literature on your topic to identify the specific jargon people are using in that area, the other people they’re referring to, and their current preoccupations.

      Academic writing is a specific kind of bad writing. (Not just any badness will do – e.g., don’t misspell words, contradict yourself, or compose incoherent sentences.) Steven Pinker discusses it in his essay, “Why Academics Stink at Writing”. Here is a typical academic sentence, taken from the methods section of an experimental psychology paper: “Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word.” Pinker was able to figure out what this meant: Participants read sentences, each followed by the word true or false.

      Why do we engage in this kind of bad writing? I’m not sure, but I have some hypotheses (see the Pinker essay for more). First hypothesis: we think this kind of bad writing sounds “smart”. Even sophisticated intellectuals can be fooled into thinking that a simple idea is something sophisticated when it is presented in sufficiently convoluted, jargony prose. On the other side, we can be fooled into thinking that a well-crafted and profound argument is superficial and silly if it is presented in plain language. Since we want to convince readers that we are “smart”, we surround our ideas with a thicket of obfuscatory prose. However, a colleague has pointed me to this psychological study, which suggests that using overly complex language actually makes one appear dumber: “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly”. Footnote

      Second, when referees read a paper, they judge it by whether it seems typical of the other things they’ve seen published in the journals. That judgment is going to be influenced not just by the ideas expressed, but by whether the prose reads like the sort of prose found in those journals. Since most academics are terrible writers, you need to be bad in the same way in order to fit in. (This doesn’t explain how the bad writing got started, but it helps sustain the practice.)

      Third, there are some serious intellectual reasons for some aspects of the academic writing style. For instance, precision often requires adding qualifications or using unfamiliar words. Making progress on well-discussed issues often requires going into fine detail. And a detached style can help parties to a debate remain objective, reducing the biases caused by personal emotions. I think that explains some of why academic prose is hard to read. But it doesn’t explain, e.g., such sentences as “Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word.” That really is not more precise or informative than “Participants read sentences, each followed by the word true or false.”

      I think a fourth factor is involved: most academics are timid people. Academic prose is enervated because language that is direct, forceful, or passionate makes us uncomfortable. Academic language might put people to sleep, but at least it won’t make anyone uncomfortable.

      To maximize your chances of getting accepted, then, you’ll want to avoid upsetting anyone or making anyone uncomfortable. A good rule is: imagine that the philosopher whom you are most directly arguing against is your referee. This is a good rule because there’s a fair chance that that person will in fact be the referee. (Editors seem to think it’s fine to have person X referee a paper about X.) So be as fair and generous as possible to your philosophical opponents. You might even want to praise them.

 

7. Be technical, rigorous, and confusing

Referees look for reasons to reject a paper, not reasons to accept. And because they are confused, their reasons for rejection are often of the form, “I think this paper is wrong because X.” To avoid rejection, you want to write something where it is hard for the referee to say it is wrong. If it features technical arguments, especially mathematical or formal logical manipulations, it should be impossible for the referee to claim you are wrong in those parts (assuming the technical arguments are in fact technically correct).

      In addition, if the referee has trouble following the argument, he’ll find it difficult to say you’re wrong. (He also won’t know that you’re right, but again, referees are looking for reasons to reject, not reasons to accept.) That’s another advantage of obfuscatory prose, as long as the referee doesn’t think that the reason he’s having trouble following is that your text doesn’t actually make sense.

      It might seem that my advice here is hypocritical; I never try to add obfuscatory prose myself. I have, however, relied on mathematical and formal logical arguments. The first paper I got into Phil Review featured a fair amount of formal logical manipulations. The paper I got into J Phil featured a bunch of probability theory, including proofs of two probabilistic theorems in the appendices. I think the technical nature of these papers helped make it possible to get them into top journals.

 

8. Be longwinded

If you make a point too quickly, referees will think it must be superficial. Thus, you need to add a bunch of discussion, even if it’s not actually helpful. If you discuss some misunderstandings of your point, and some bad reasons why someone might disagree with it, it’ll give the referee more confidence, even if those misunderstandings and bad reasons aren’t things he would have been tempted by. For this reason, it may help to discuss your idea with other philosophers.


B. Where to Publish

1. Book publishers

The following list is from Brian Leiter’s blog (2/5/2013). It’s the result of Leiter’s survey on what people think are the best presses for academic philosophy. In order from best to worst:


1       Oxford University Press

2       Cambridge University Press

3       Harvard University Press

4       Routledge (Taylor & Francis)

5       Princeton University Press

6       MIT Press

7       Wiley-Blackwell

8       University of Chicago Press

9       Hackett Publishing

10     Yale University Press

11     Cornell University Press

12     Columbia University Press

13     Palgrave Macmillan

14     Springer

15     Continuum

16     Rowman & Littlefield

17     Polity Press

18     Ashgate

19     Edinburgh University Press

20     McGill-Queen’s University Press

21     Broadview

22     Indiana Univ Press

?       Open Court (overlooked in initial survey, so we don’t know where it would have ranked)

?       Brill (same problem)


      How much does this matter? I think it makes no difference to how well your book will be produced; the books from all these presses are about equally professional. It probably makes some difference to your ability to get tenure, particularly if you are at a highly-ranked research school; a book from one of the top ten or so presses sounds much better than a book from one of the last ten, or a press not even on this list. (But if you’re not at a leading research school, you probably needn’t worry about it.) The top presses will also get more libraries to buy your book.

      What about getting people to read and talk about your book? My guess is that the press makes little difference to that, and that for the most part, academic books are just not going to be talked about to anything like the degree their authors want, no matter what press publishes them. There are a small number of exceptions, but you probably should ignore those exceptions and just assume that your book is going to be one of the thousands of largely ignored academic books. And if you think that you’re special, you should probably assume that you’re one of the thousands of academics who thinks they’re special but who will never be recognized as such by the profession.

 

2. Journals

Another ranking from Brian Leiter’s blog (7/6/2013). This is based on Leiter’s survey of what people considered the best philosophy journals. In order from best to worst:

 

1       Philosophical Review

2       Journal of Philosophy

3       Nous

4       Mind

5       Philosophy & Phenomenological Research

6       Ethics

7       Philosophical Studies

8       Australasian Journal of Philosophy

9       Philosopher’s Imprint

10     Analysis

11     Philosophical Quarterly

12     Philosophy & Public Affairs

13     Philosophy of Science

14     British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

15     Synthese

16     Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society

17     Erkenntnis

18     American Philosophical Quarterly

19     Canadian Journal of Philosophy

20     Journal of the History of Philosophy

21     Journal of Philosophical Logic

22     Mind & Language

23     Pacific Philosophical Quarterly

24     European Journal of Philosophy

25     British Journal for the History of Philosophy


      I suspect that this ranking has at most a modest correlation with the actual quality of articles published in these journals. I think the review process is largely random, and the journals with “high standards” are mostly just those that randomly reject a larger number of submissions.

      Be that as it may, the ranking really reflects the prestige of the journals, and this profession is incredibly prestige-driven. Your paper is much, much more likely to be read if it appears in one of the top 4 journals than otherwise. (But either way, most philosophy papers will be read only by a small number of specialists. I suspect that many are read by no one.)

      However, the top journals are also more likely to reject your paper, thus wasting your time. I would guess that a top journal is half as likely (or less) to accept your paper as a mid-ranked journal. They just reject practically everything. (For this purpose, count Ethics and Philosophy and Public Affairs among the top journals.) So you’ll have to weigh that in deciding where to submit. If you’re under time pressure (e.g., for going on the job market, or going up for tenure), I would bypass the top journals.


Of course the ones listed above are not the only journals or book publishers; they’re just the ones listed by Leiter. I don’t have a complete list. If you’re considering a journal/publisher not on the lists, it’s probably one of lesser prestige than the ones on the list. (Leiter would tend to think of all the high-prestige ones.)


C. Publishing Strategies

1. Have multiple papers

The profession rewards quantity. You need a certain quantity to get tenure, and to impress other people. Of course, you want high quality too, but I’m not going to tell you how to do good philosophy; that’s too big of a topic. I’ll just comment on quantity.

      The first (obvious) thing: write multiple papers. Do not, e.g., focus on just one paper for six months, and do not wait until you get your first paper published to start working on the second. Rather, have multiple papers under submission at once. When one is sent off, forget about it (for now) and start work on the next one.

 

2. Getting ideas

How are you going to get ideas for multiple papers? Well, I can’t tell you how to have interesting ideas. But one thing you could try is to read some prominent recent papers, and see if you disagree with them. If so, you can write replies.

 

3. Immediate resubmission

Okay, now this obvious point is important: When you get back your rejection, do not dawdle around for three months, reworking the paper, or thinking about reworking it, or wondering whether it’s worth publishing. Just send it out again.

      What about revising in light of referee comments? Well, if you actually agree with some of the comments, you should probably revise in light of them, if you are really going to do so within a few months. If not, just send the paper out again immediately. Same day. “But won’t the paper be rejected by the next referee for the same reasons?” No, probably not. Referee objections are mostly idiosyncratic – the next referee will probably make complaints completely unrelated to those of the previous referee.

      At least, that’s been my experience; maybe yours will differ. If more than one person makes the same complaint about your paper, then you should address it.

 

4. Books or articles?

If you have a book-length idea, I suggest writing a book rather than a series of articles. For one thing, it is a lot more hassle to get 8 articles published than to get 1 book published. For another, people seem to pay more attention to books (read: at least a little bit of attention). My published articles have a greater total volume than my books, but my books have gotten much more attention. This might be because there are thousands and thousands of articles published every year, but not nearly as many books.

 

5. The timeline

If you want to have an article or book published by year x (for example, because you’re going up for tenure), you basically need it to be finished in year x-2 at the latest, preferably year x-3. Yes, it’s really going to take 2-3 years. Once it’s submitted, you should expect the journal to hold it for 3 months or more before rejecting it. Then you’ll send it out again, etc. On average, I get 3 or 4 rejections for every one acceptance, and journals take 3-6 months to review a paper. (But note that the rejection rates of top journals are 90-95%, so things might be even worse than the preceding comments suggest.) Once your paper is finally accepted, it’ll take 1-2 years for it to appear.

      There are large unpredictable variations here – a journal might take a year to review your paper before rejecting it, and a paper might go through six rejections before being accepted. So you could easily wind up taking four years to get a paper published. Thus, you really can’t start early enough on getting things published.


D. Writing Book Proposals

Maybe you shouldn’t listen to me, since I’ve received dozens of book rejections. But here is what I would include in a book proposal:

    An overview describing what the book says

    Expected length (in words)

    Expected completion date, and current progress

    Table of contents, with abstracts of chapters

    Why this book is important or valuable

    “The competition” – other books on the subject, and something about how your book is different from/better than them. This is dumb, but publishers ask for it.

    Audience – is this for professional philosophers, students, scholars in other disciplines, etc.?

    Biographical note – something about who you are, where you are, & other work you’ve done.

Total length: about 5 pages. I would send this to several editors, offering to send sample chapters or the whole manuscript if they are interested.


E. Becoming Famous

First of all, you’re not going to become famous. Just accept that. If you wanted fame, you chose the wrong profession. (Then again, there’s no right profession for that; you’re not going to become famous no matter what you do. Unless you become some incredibly heinous criminal – that still works, thanks to the news media.)

      However, you may have a chance to become slightly well-known. Here is how to maximize the chances of that:

    Publish a lot. This isn’t sufficient, but it appears to be necessary; I don’t know of any prominent philosopher who published little. What’s a lot? Let’s say at least two articles a year, preferably more.

    Have big ideas. If you publish papers on highly specialized topics, they’ll only be read by a small number of specialists, so it’s not that great, even if there are a lot of these papers. Try to pick a fairly central issue, and write a book defending a big theory about it, so that you can be cited by many people.

    Take an unusual position. For example, if you’re the only person defending infinitism in epistemology (the idea that beliefs are justified by an infinite regress of reasons), then everyone who talks about the regress problem will have to cite you ⇒ you win! So if you have views that are really unpopular, focus on defending those first.

    Network. Go to conferences and talk to many people. You could also try writing to people who work on things that you’re interested in, but be prepared to be ignored.

    Have style. The advice for maximizing your chances of getting published is almost the opposite of the advice for maximizing the odds of people actually reading your work once it’s published. If you write in a boring, technical, hard-to-follow style, you’re more likely to get published, but few will want to read it (exception: if your name is “Rawls”). If you manage to get something that’s actually well-written published, then more people will read it. They might even assign it for classes.


F. What to Expect

Suppose you do everything I suggested under (E). What can you expect? You should probably expect to become somewhat well-known, after ten or twenty years. Maybe after twenty years, you’ll reach a citation count between 100 and 400 on Google scholar. These days, given the sheer volume of academic writing, and the number of scholars, it is virtually impossible to become famous (e.g., on the level of Frankfurt, who has 3,000 citations for his top publication). Writing good work doesn’t do it, because you simply can’t get people to read it in the first place. It was much easier if you started fifty years ago.

      Furthermore, most of the citations to your work will be extremely superficial – they will just cite you as an example of a person who holds view X, where “X” is the most general, superficial characterization possible of your view. Even if you wrote a book containing dozens of arguments for different, interesting theses, still, people will only talk about one very generic idea in it. But you won’t be able to blame anyone for any of this, because you’ll be doing the same thing when you reference other people’s work.

      Many people will vaguely know who you are but not actually have read anything of yours.


IV. Anecdotes from the Academic Publishing Life

Here are some amusing anecdotes about my experiences as an academic author and referee. You might experience similar things, in which case perhaps you’ll be comforted to know that you’re not alone.

      I have on more than one occasion waited for more than a year for a decision from a journal. I usually send followup queries after a few months, and they say, “Still working on it.” The record was the Journal of Philosophy, to which I first submitted a paper in March of 2006. After one round of revisions, that paper was eventually accepted in August of 2010, and published in the “January 2011” issue (I use scare quotes, because that issue actually appeared several months late). The revisions took me one month; the remainder of the four and a half years was review time. (I think they forgot about the ms. or something.)

      On one occasion, my paper was rejected not only in spite of, but actually, in a way, because of the fact that I made the revisions requested by the referees. The referees suggested adding discussion of multiple different issues, which I did. The editor sent it back to them for re-review. One of the two referees responded positively to the revision, but the other never responded. After a few months, the editor decided to reject the paper because it was too long . . . which was true because I’d added these things the referees asked for.

      My second and third books were each rejected by over a dozen publishers. Both were eventually accepted by Palgrave Macmillan and then became prominent contributions to their fields, selling much better than most academic books. Lesson: many editors don’t know what they’re doing. One editor said it wasn’t clear who the audience for Ethical Intuitionism was, because it was about a very academic topic, but the writing style was not very academic. The editor complained that, for example, one sentence in the first chapter was the single word, “No.” Some of the publishers never responded to my query; others rejected it without soliciting any academic advice. Only two publishers actually sent the ms. of Ethical Intuitionism out for review.

      For one book, I submitted the ms. to Oxford. They asked me to hold off for a month on submitting it to other publishers, which I did. Then I submitted it to other publishers. Cambridge was going to review it, but when they learned that I’d sent it to Oxford a month earlier, they refused to review it. Then Oxford never finished their review. I wrote to the editor twice to follow up; he never responded.

      I’ve received many comments from referees that just seemed completely wrong. Sometimes, the reviewer seems confused or bad at reasoning, even to the point of incompetence. Other times, it seems as though the reader did not read the paper carefully at all. Other times, the reviewer seems to be a dogmatist who rejects the paper because he disagrees with it. (Most philosophers are really surprisingly dogmatic.)

      One of my papers was rejected over fifteen times before I gave up. Every time, the reason given was that the referee disagreed with the argument, but no two referees agreed on exactly what was wrong with the argument. I kept adding sections explaining why such-and-such objection was wrong, but the referees would just invent new spurious objections. In one case, I sent a message back to the editor, explaining the errors in the referee report (e.g., referee said I never defined x; I quote where I defined it). The editor agreed “to some extent” that the report was factually wrong, but this of course didn’t make any difference. They’ll never overlook a negative referee report, however incompetent the report is.

      On the other side, I once wrote a referee report, and then the editor forwarded to me an angry message from the author about how I’d misunderstood the paper. It turned out that I’d overlooked a “not” in a sentence, or something like that, thus ascribing to the author the opposite of his view on a particular point. The angry message didn’t convince me that the paper was any good, though, so I ignored it.


V. What’s Wrong with This System?

A. Bad referees

You may have gotten the impression by now that I am not overwhelmed by the charms of the academic publishing world. The first category of failure in this system is poor quality refereeing. What I have in mind here is . . .

 

1. Absurd delays

I.e., referees who sit on a paper for several months before looking at it, or sit on it for several months and never look at it, and maybe never respond to the editor’s queries. This is extremely inconsiderate and unprofessional. Some of these authors are trying to get publications out before they come up for tenure. You’re not only failing to help; by holding on to it, you’re preventing them from getting their paper reviewed by anyone else.

      Waiting for 3 months before looking at a paper does not make it take less time to read. Why is it that when you get forty student papers, you can grade them in a couple of weeks, but it takes 3 months, or 6 months, or maybe a couple of years, to read a journal submission?

      Now, you might think, “It takes more time to read a journal submission, because you have to give comments.” No, that’s not it. It might actually take more time to read student papers, because they tend to be much worse, and it’s harder to read bad papers. Anyway, there’s no way that a journal submission takes, say, fifty times longer than a student term paper. We can get through a dozen grad student term papers, or a few dozen (shorter) undergrad papers, in a week or two. Referees just choose to sit on the journal submissions because they don’t give a damn about the author or the journal.

      Recommendation: if you’re not going to read the paper within a month, tell the editor you can’t do it. If you’re an editor, give the referees about a month. If they don’t do it by then, send it to someone else. Then post on the internet the name of the referee who promised you a review and didn’t do it.

 

2. Rejection due to philosophical disagreement

I.e., referees who reject a paper because they disagree with it, on controversial philosophical grounds. Now, sometimes a paper should be rejected because the argument is no good. But that doesn’t just mean any argument that you think is mistaken. If the argument is one that some intelligent and reasonable philosophers would find plausible, then that should be good enough.

      Of course, with that weak standard, many more papers would be accepted . . . but the journals don’t have enough room for more papers. Solution: more papers should be rejected for reason (e) under III.A.1: uninterestingness. I would like to see more controversial arguments, but fewer semantic arguments, fewer small technical points, fewer “meta” arguments about the state of the discussion or the relationship between so-and-so’s theory and some other theory.

      Some referees are dogmatic; they’ll say some point you’ve made is obviously wrong, where it’s a point that in fact many competent philosophers would endorse. This happens mostly in ethics and political philosophy. Example: if you think either that utilitarianism is ridiculous, or that deontological ethics is ridiculous, then you’re a dogmatist. You need to either stop refereeing papers or learn to suspend your dogmatic beliefs when refereeing. Both utilitarianism and (various forms of) deontology are reasonable starting points for a philosophical paper. The profession doesn’t know which of these views (if either) is correct, so it’s worthwhile to work out implications of either view. (But an author should not just assume some very idiosyncratic, controversial variant of either of these views.)

      When refereeing a paper, the question to ask is not, “Is this convincing?” The question is, “Does this add to the discussion? Would people like to talk about it?”

 

3. Confusion

Some referees just seem to be bad at philosophy – they get confused about the argument, or they make obviously bad objections (which could be easily answered, but the author never gets the chance to answer them, because the paper just gets rejected). I’m still not sure why this is. I’m not sure if it is because there are many philosophers who are bad at philosophy, or because journals wind up asking people to referee papers who shouldn’t be doing so (e.g., someone who doesn’t know much about the area, who is just starting out in the profession, or who is from a non-research school).

      I suspect the problem might be that the leading figures in an area keep refusing referee requests, maybe because they get too many requests, because they have too many other things to do, and/or because they don’t like refereeing and figure they’ve achieved enough status to not have to do things they don’t like. So then the editors send the paper to minor figures or unknown figures. Apropos of which, I started getting referee requests very early in my career, before I was known as an expert on anything. I think it started in my very first year as a professor.

 

4. Careless reading

Sometimes, it just seems that the referee hasn’t read the paper carefully – e.g., he’s misunderstood the paper in a way that should not happen if one were paying attention. He thinks you meant something that you explicitly ruled out, he raises an objection that you refuted and doesn’t seem to know that you did so, etc.

 

5. The incentive problem

I think the problem of bad referees is caused or exacerbated by an incentive problem: there is little incentive to do a good job as a referee. There are two aspects of this. First, refereeing is double-blind: the referee’s identity is not revealed to anyone other than the editor. (The author’s identity is also secret, unless and until the paper is published.) If you knew that your referee report was going to be attributed to you, you might read the paper carefully, think carefully before raising objections, and try to finish in a reasonable time.

      Second, refereeing is strictly pro bono. You’re paid nothing for it, so rather than feeling a duty to the author and the editor to do a good job, you feel like you’re doing them a favor by doing anything at all. If they wind up thinking you did a crappy job, the author can’t do anything, and the worst the editor might do is stop asking you to referee things . . . which you’d probably actually prefer. So really, the incentive is to do a crappy job.

 

6. Unpredictability

There is no consensus in the profession on what is good work. Obviously, many things will be generally agreed to be bad. But very little is generally agreed to be good, and the same paper often draws extremely disparate evaluations. After many years in the profession, it seems to me that referee decisions are mostly random. One referee’s report is no predictor of another referee’s report; one journal’s decision is no predictor of another’s.


B. Incentives for bad work

Let’s move on to how the system is set up to produce lots of low-quality work. It makes good work hard to publish and creates incentives to write bad work.

 

1. Bad writing

I’ve already discussed the incentives to write badly (sections III.A.6-8), using jargon-filled, convoluted, obfuscatory prose with unnecessary technical digressions. This happens because it’s more important to convince the referee that you’re “smart” and that he can’t say you’re wrong, than it is to make anyone enjoy your paper or feel enlightened or stimulated by it.

 

2. Minor points

I’ve also indicated the incentives for writing papers with uninteresting theses. Most interesting ideas have already been discussed at great length. To continue to say “new” things, we must divide our fields into increasingly specialized, tiny subfields. If a point hasn’t been made before as far as the editors or referees know, out of hundreds of thousands of published philosophy papers and books, then the chances are pretty good that that’s because few people have thought about the question the point is about – which is a pretty good indication that it is not a very interesting or important thing to think about. This is part of why academic research is about increasingly trivial things. As economists would say, the low-hanging fruit has been picked.

 

3. Sophistry

Of course, there are exceptions – much research is still being done on important questions. But again, there is the constraint that one must say something “new”. Now, if you’re advancing an idea that has never been advanced before, despite that many smart people have spent a great deal of time discussing the very issue you’re interested in, then there’s a pretty good chance that the reason the idea has not been advanced is that it’s so clearly false that no one could believe it, or no one could think of a way to defend it. If you can be the first to come up with a way of defending something generally considered obviously false, then there are great rewards for you. You can get published, you can stir up discussion and make a name for yourself.

      But if something is generally considered obviously false, and if no one till now could think of a way to defend it, that’s a pretty good indication that the idea is in fact false. So we have a system that rewards sophistry: clever ways of defending what is obviously false.

 

4. Metadiscourse

Academic articles contain a good deal of metadiscourse: discussion about the discussion (e.g., about the taxonomy of theories, about the state of the debate, about whether so-and-so could accept such-and-such view, about whether defenders of Xism “should” be sympathetic to Yism). It also contains (is this also metadiscourse?) a good deal of discussion by one author about another author’s ideas – papers responding to A’s defense of Xism against B’s objections, and so on. This is much less interesting than discussion directly about the primary philosophical issues. For instance, a paper that tries to convince you that we have free will is more interesting than a paper that tries to convince you that people who support such-and-such theory about free will should be not unsympathetic to so-and-so’s theory about causation. Again, this relatively uninteresting metadiscourse is partly the result of the demand to constantly say new things.

 

5. Weak claims

The fear of saying things a referee will disagree with (since disagreement on the referee’s part is the primary cause of rejection) also leads us to qualify and otherwise weaken our claims as much as possible, consistent with still saying something. This makes our claims uninteresting, but since it’s much more common for a referee to reject a paper because he disagrees with it than for a referee to reject a paper because the thesis isn’t bold enough, the incentive is to accept that tradeoff.

      One of my favorite examples, from a recent book: “My speculations on this score are at best the roughest approximations to the truth. Still, I try sketching a naturalistic picture of human normative life, and enough in it coheres and fits the phenomena to make me think the truth may lie somewhere in its vicinity.” Footnote Notice that the first sentence is so qualified that it not only fails to assert that the author’s theory is true; it actually entails that the theory is definitely false. The passage suggests that the author’s view is probably not even close to the truth.

 

6. Salami publications

Because the profession rewards quantity, but people have only so many ideas, the incentive is to slice one’s ideas into the smallest publishable pieces. Rather than packing as much content into a paper as one can, one puts in as little as one can get away with.

 

7. Repetition

For the same reason, we tend to publish the same idea repeatedly. If you have two ideas, but you need ten publications to get tenure . . . just publish your two ideas five times each, with tiny variations.


C. Uselessness to Society

1. Unwanted writings

The philosophy publication system is also pretty much useless to society, where it seems to me that one might reasonably have hoped for something useful. Quite a bit of intellectual talent and energy is being channeled into producing thousands upon thousands of papers and books that hardly anyone will ever read or want to read. These articles and books are written almost entirely for other academics working in the same sub-sub-sub-specialization that the author works in. The main reason they are written is so that the author can get tenure or otherwise get credit for publishing. The main reason they are read even by the tiny number of people who read them is so that the readers can cite those articles in their own articles.

      Some years ago, I looked up statistics on how much philosophy was being published. At the time, the Philosopher’s Index (which indexed most articles and books in the English-speaking world) was getting 14,000 new records per year. The number has probably expanded greatly since then. PhilPapers presently lists 646 new records this week. What proportion of those books and articles could the average philosopher possibly read?

      In my years in the profession, I have read many papers. Almost none of them were read for the purpose of my learning anything interesting from them. Most were read solely so that I could give an evaluation to them – as in the case of student papers, which are written solely to be graded and then are generally thrown away; or journal submissions, which one reads solely so that one can say whether they should be published. My guess is that I’ve read more journal submissions as a referee than I’ve read published papers as a scholar.

      When the main reason why people do x is so that someone else can evaluate their ability to do x, it seems to me that something has gone wrong.

 

2. Narrow scholars

Most academics have very narrow intellectual horizons. Becoming an academic greatly narrows one’s intellectual field of view, actually preventing one from learning, thinking about, or discussing many interesting things that one might otherwise have learned and discussed.

      How so? In order to get published, one must stay current with the literature in one’s field. In most cases, that literature is enormous and constantly growing. So, to phrase matters in economic terms, there is a very large fixed cost to publishing in a given area. That fixed cost discourages one from doing work in new areas and encourages one to remain in the area one is already familiar with. The narrower the area, the easier it is to learn enough to publish there. So the system creates a collection of extremely narrow scholars, who know next to nothing about, and have almost nothing to say about, anything outside their tiny areas of specialization.

      Furthermore, the time demands of staying current in one’s own field are significant enough to crowd out general interest reading. It’s not that one literally has no time to read other books for general interest. It’s just that most people have a limited appetite for nonfiction reading, and it is more than filled doing the reading necessary to stay current in one’s field. So philosophers in one field typically know very little even about other branches of philosophy – to say nothing of natural science, psychology, economics, etc.

      The same problem affects scholars in other fields. But the situation is especially unfortunate for philosophers, because philosophy is, of all disciplines, the one that ought most to take in the big picture.

 

3. Why are we ignored?

Sometimes, philosophers lament our low profile in society. For instance, let’s say someone decides to have a discussion on TV of the ethics of cloning. They invite a couple of doctors, a politician, and a priest. No philosopher.

      Not always, of course; sometimes, philosophers are invited to things like this. But fairly often, when obviously philosophical issues are being discussed, people don’t even think to consult philosophers. (What if there was a public discussion of global warming, and they forgot to invite any climate scientists?)

      There are probably a variety of reasons for this. One reason is that we have an irrational educational system, in which people can complete sixteen years of study without ever being exposed to some of the most central questions in the history of human thought and what the great thinkers have said about those questions.

      But at least some of the blame has to fall on the philosophical profession itself. For the reasons discussed above, most philosophical writing is incredibly boring to most people. You can’t blame a television producer for not inviting someone from a profession that produces such fare.


D. Recommendations

You probably won’t like my suggestions, and there’s almost no chance that they’ll be adopted. But here they are anyway.

 

1. Charge for submissions

Some journals (but none in philosophy that I know of) charge authors a fee to submit their papers. Philosophy journals should start doing that. Not a large fee, not enough to make publishing unaffordable to anyone. Something like $25. I think this would cut down on frivolous submissions, cases where the author hasn’t put much effort into the paper and just decides to send off a paper she did for a seminar, because there’s no cost to it and maybe she’ll get some comments on it. This proposal would also help to implement the next proposal.

 

2. Pay referees

Book publishers commonly pay referees, but journals do not. Journals should start paying too. It needn’t be a lot; maybe $25, maybe $50. This might make referees feel that they have an obligation to the editor to put in some effort, since they’ve accepted a job, rather than just doing a favor for the journal.

 

3. Use a rating scale

Journals ask referees for a verdict: accept, reject, or revise and resubmit. (Some give more fine-grained options, like “major revisions” vs. “minor revisions”.) Instead, they should ask the referee to rate the paper on some scale – say, a scale of 1 to 10 (with fractional ratings like “8.1” allowed). This is more informative and would enable editors to make more rational cutoff decisions when they get too many publishable papers.

 

4. One referee is enough

Asking two different people to referee each paper, as most journals seem to be doing, is too much. They’re probably doing this because they’re trying to cut down on acceptances by requiring positive reports from both referees.

      The first problem is that this is basically screening out controversial (and therefore interesting) papers, because most rejections are due to referee disagreement. A paper that both referees endorse is not better than a paper that one referee supports and the other opposes; it is merely less controversial.

      The second problem is that this practice is basically doubling the workload on the community of referees. As a result, it becomes far more difficult to find people to referee a paper. By asking so many people to referee for them, Phil Review, say, is making it harder for every other journal to find referees. And as a result of that, journals have to go further down their list of potential referees, meaning that they must rely on less suitable referees. When you require two referee reports, you’re harming the entire profession.

 

5. Change the standards

Referees need to be explicitly instructed on what they are supposed to rate. They should not rate papers based on whether they think the paper is right. Nor should they focus on how “new” the idea is. Rather, they should be rating the paper on criteria such as “Would this stimulate discussion?”, “Would readers like to read this?”, and “How important is this idea?”

      Referees who can’t get this and insist on writing reports focused on whether they agree with the paper should not be asked to referee in the future.

      The questions asked of referees could include “How well-written is this paper?” Obviously, no paper should be published merely for being well-written. But writing quality could at least be one factor considered (keeping in mind that there are many more qualified papers than journals have space for). If this were done, then perhaps philosophers would make more effort to develop writing skill.

 

6. Refereeing by editors

The above suggestions assume that we stick to the current system of selecting referees – i.e., making an ad hoc arrangement, for each individual submission, to get someone with no particular connection to the journal to referee the submission.

      This is a terrible idea. The referee has no stake in the quality of the refereeing. Since the journal uses many different referees, what the journal will publish is unpredictable; it’s a matter of which referee you happen to draw. And there is little difference in what one should expect from different journals, since they all have more or less the same pool of referees.

      Instead, most refereeing should be done by the editor, or a small editorial board.

      Problem: the editorial board may not have the expertise to referee every paper. Solution: in special cases, they could send out a paper to an outside expert, but this should be a minority of cases. Alternate solution: journals could just publish in those areas where the editors have expertise.

      Second problem: the editors don’t have time to review all the submissions. Solution: see below.

 

7. Require long abstracts

When submitting a paper to a journal, the author should have to submit a long abstract, say, 2 pages. In those two pages, the author must convince the editor that there is an interesting idea and that the editor will want to read the rest of the paper. Otherwise, it gets rejected. Unlike the case with most actual abstracts, the long abstract should reveal the basics of the author’s argument.


These suggestions will not fix all the problems I’ve noted above. But they’re the best I can think of now. At least they would make some improvement on some of the problems.


VI. Other Sources

    Publisher rankings

    Journal rankings

    Journal data (review times, acceptance rates, etc., from author reports)

    Theoria roundtable (discussion among journal editors)

    Co-citation network (study of citation patterns in the top 4 journals)

    Neil McKinnon’s guide

    Peter Smith’s guide

    Why won’t I read your work? (a philosopher explains why he won’t read unsolicited work from non-academics)



©Michael Huemer

Revised: August 10, 2015