I. THE ESSAY
This essay describes my own personal take on certain aspects of what Z has called the Publication Racket.
When philosophy journals contact me to request that I referee an article, they typically request that I submit my review within two months. Some journals request that I submit my review in as little as six weeks, or even four weeks. Ugh. I tend to think of serving as a peer reviewer as a sort of civic duty for academic philosophers.
Yes, it takes time and effort, and sometimes it can become a real hassle (particularly at busy times of the academic year). However, it is clear that in order for the system as a whole to function, we all need to be willing to devote some time and energy to the peer review process.
Why, then, does it sometimes take journals more than 6 months to deliver a verdict about articles that have been submitted?
And why, after several months have passed, do some journals simply send a rejection notice that includes nothing in the way of comments or feedback?
Or even worse, after months of waiting, who do they often deliver a negative verdict plus an astonishly nasty and hurtful referee’s report?
Aargh. This is killing my philosophical will-to-live.
I suspect it has much to do with procrastination: people agree to review articles and then just never get around to it.
Or when they’re pestered and reminded of what they promised to do, they get nasty and take it out on the poor author.
While I’m sure many would agree that this is regrettable, there also seems to be widespread acceptance that “that’s just how things are.”
It is clear, though, that this state of affairs puts individual researchers (particularly those who are untenured) in a very precarious position with respect to getting their work published. It begins to seem as if the entire publishing process is structured so as to benefit journals and disadvantage individual researchers.
Recommendation: If you agree to be a peer reviewer, be sure to provide thoughtful comments in a timely manner. It really doesn’t take that long to read someone’s paper and provide some comments. As a general rule, you “owe” the field two reviews for every one article that you send out to be reviewed. This is a responsibility you should take seriously.
Recommendation: Shift the terms of the competition. Send slightly different versions of the same article, with different titles, to two different publishers. Hopefully at least one of them will provide you with timely and useful feedback!
The peer review process, as I understand it, is an opportunity for philosophers to give and receive valuable feedback about each others’ work. Its aim is not to denigrate the work of others or tell people that their writing is awful.
However, some referees are, well, simply fucking brutal. Their comments are extremely nasty and often provide little input as to how the paper might be improved. It begins to seem as if the default position is not one of respect or collegiality, but rather hostility.
More generally, reviewers often appear to make little effort to be charitable, and all-too-frequently their comments even indicate that they have not read an article all the way through.
Now, of course it is important for writers to develop a thick skin, to be receptive to criticism, and to use negative feedback as a learning opportunity.
As academic philosophers in the Professional Academic State, we have been trained, or conditioned, to be adversarial, resistant, critical, and skeptical.
But have things gone too far, beyond rational tolerance. Is this general attitude of anger and hostility good for the field? NO! Does it undermine collaboration? YES!
Recommendation: Pretend it’s NOT anonymous. When providing feedback, adopt an attitude of collegiality and pretend as if you are engaging with someone you like and respect.
Recommendation: View yourself as both part-critic and part-collaborator. DON’T be an asshole reviewer. DON’T be accepting of others who are asshole reviewers.
The journals are being inundated with submissions, but are the articles that get published really that awesome? Surely there is some high-quality work being done, but there also appears to be an increasing tendency to focus on minutiae rather than the “big picture”: have analytic philosophers started to write more and more about less and less?
The journals value precision, rigor, and clarity of argumentation, and I think we all can agree that these are important aspects of strong philosophical writing.
Also worthwhile, however, are efforts to tackle “big questions” about the human condition, to introduce novel approaches to personal identity or free will, or to provide interesting philosophical commentary on some aspect of contemporary society.
Is it more productive to be very precise but to say very little (NO!), or to be somewhat looser in one’s argumentation style but say something quite substantive and provocative (YES!)?
Perhaps some will say we don’t have to choose between precision/rigor and making a substantive contribution to some important philosophical question. (Indeed, there are journals that often manage to accomplish both goals.) However, when I read through many journals, I do notice a tendency to focus on extremely narrow topics. I think the field would benefit from greater numbers of articles that attempt to tackle big topics in innovative ways, even if some of them turn out to be less “rigorous.”
Academic philosophy journals have a tendency toward dogmatic conservatism. Challenging an established paradigm, writing about a novel topic, or striking out in a new direction may not earn you very many accolades as a researcher in the field. In fact, it is more likely that such work will go unpublished.
Perhaps it is because philosophers find it “safer” to rehash topics that already have been discussed extensively.
Perhaps it is because reviewers who are very invested in a particular position may never be satisfied with an argument that challenges the very assumptions upon which that position rests.
Some philosophers care far less about “truth” than they do about ensuring that their positions aren’t refuted. They may approach the review process with entrenched biases and sometimes even an unwillingness to take seriously an alternative viewpoint.
I have heard academic philosophers use the word “different” disparagingly, as if those whose work lies outside mainstream analytic philosophy somehow don’t measure up.
My view is that such dogmatic conservatism is profoundly bad for real philosophy and that if more philosophers felt confident about taking risks, we would see much better and much more interesting work being published in the journals.
Recommendation: Keep an open mind. When you encounter something “different,” approach it with enthusiasm. Even if it turns out that the argument being presented is completely crazy, it might inspire fresh thinking.
Recommendation: Question the status quo. Tell the status quo to fuck off!, if you have to. Established paradigms may very well have elements of truth, but they also deserve to be questioned. Rehashing the same old questions in the same old ways not only is boring, but also undermines the pursuit of truth.
What is with the ranking of journals? Philosophers seem to feel the need to rank everything now: academic departments, graduate programs, academic journals, blogs. But why do we feel such a great need for external validation? The field would so totally benefit if researchers worried less about rankings, and devoted more of their time to collaborating and reviewing one another’s work.
Recommendation: Ignore the rankings. Fuck the rankings! Rankings matter only because we believe they matter. The more people think they are bullshit, the less important they become. Write about topics that interest you, find confidence within yourself, and don’t let other people ruin the field that you love.
II. THE EPILOGUE
Thank you for submitting # APA-15-0135 entitled ‘“Fck the Second Amendment!” and “Fck the Death Penalty!” Too: Real Philosophy, Professional Philosophy, Guns, Capital Punishment, and Free Speech in the USA’ to the Journal of the American Philosophical Association. I am sorry to tell you that the editors have decided not to publish your paper in the Journal. Our referees commented in part as follows:
The author takes on an easy target: the deleterious effects of the professionalization of philosophy. Who would deny that embedding philosophy in university settings contributes to a loss of authenticity? Who would deny that institutions that support professional philosophers impose ends inimical to serious philosophizing? This is news to no one.
The author’s mistake – or one of the author’s mistakes – is to imagine that it has not always been thus for philosophers. Institutions that support them – universities, the church, the literary establishment – discourage honest philosophy. Philosophers who are philosophers are always the exception, always manage in spite of the system. We do not need the author to tell us this is so, especially not in a patronizing, self-consciously epigrammatic tone.
The author urges philosophers to institute change by shaking students and others out of their complacency. This is to be done by brandishing the F-word in the course of articulating and defending socially significant positions, to wit a repeal of the second amendment and abolition of the death penalty. The author is sure such behavior would result in censure on the part of one’s colleagues and one’s institution. But if that is so, the technique would be self-defeating – and almost certainly result in a hardening of positions embraced by the intended audience.
The stated aim of the J-APA is to publish papers that are not just ‘more of the same’. Sadly, this paper is just more of the same.
Z: “News to no one”?
“We do not need the author to tell us this is so”?
And “[s]adly, this paper is just more of the same”?
Really? This essay is a fusion of some of my recent posts on Against Professional Philosophy. So if it’s news to no one, and they do not need me to tell them what is so, and the paper is just more of the same old thing,
then why has APP had 10, 000 page views over the last 14 days, oh my most intellectually daring and infallible Fortune 500 Philosophy Club master, JAPA the Hutt?