I once had a colleague, now quite a well-respected person in his sub-field, and the holder of a prestigious professorship at one of The Fortune 500 Philosophy Club universities, of whom it was said that he loved refereeing because that way he could keep his enemies out of print. Indeed, after a few drinks, he would freely admit this to be the case—but never over e-mail. A clever professional man, this.
In any case, the anecdote nicely illustrates two uncomfortable truths about the publication racket in professional philosophy: (1) that it’s very difficult to be published at the top academic journals and presses, especially for young or otherwise unestablished philosophers, and (2) that referees all-too-often are complete assholes, by more or less systematically keeping their competitors out of print, under the pretense of applying the terribly rigorous standards of their sub-field.
The third uncomfortable truth, of course, is (3) that referees often sit on papers for half a year or longer, and then when they are pestered by editors, they finally respond by submitting an ill-tempered, unfair, negative report, again under the pretense of applying the terribly rigorous standards of their sub-field. Let’s call these the semi-asshole referees. I’ve also heard it said that semi-asshole referees sometimes don’t even bother to read the papers they’re being pestered to review—they just skim a few pages, and then submit that ill-tempered, negative report. Of course, that can’t really be true.
The upshot, in any case, is that philosophers who send their work to journals or presses for review must simply submit themselves to power-wielding editors and referees. And do you enjoy being under their thumbs?
I’m now going to propose four radical reforms for the philosophy publication racket. The first two are specifically designed to address problem (1), the third proposal is aimed at problem (3), and the fourth proposal is a concrete, practical recommendation about how to begin implementing the other three proposals within the next year.
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Proposal 1: For young or otherwise unestablished philosophers, permit unrestrictedly many simultaneous submissions of the same paper or book MS to different journals or presses. And if multiple offers of publication are received for a given paper or book MS, then s/he gets to choose which journal or press to go with.
Proposal 2: Established philosophers should stop submitting their papers to academic journals and also stop submitting their book manuscripts to academic presses, and instead self-publish by posting their new work online.
For the purposes of this proposal, all and only tenured full professors of philosophy are established philosophers, just because they’ve reached the top of the greasy T&P pole; and all other professional philosophers are more or less unestablished, just because they haven’t reached the top of the greasy T&P pole yet. Apart from that, the established/unestablished distinction has no normative implications whatsoever.
Publication in special journal issues and edited collections is almost always invited, and only perfunctorily refereed, if at all, and has no negative impact on young or otherwise unestablished philosophers that I can think of—so it seems OK.
Proposal 3: At the time of submission, the person whose work is being submitted for review chooses whether or not s/he wants her/his name revealed to the referees. Nevertheless, the identities of all referees should be revealed to the person whose work is under review, at the time the referees submits their reports. And in cases in which the referee fails to submit his/her report by the previously agreed-upon deadline, then the identity of the referee should be instantly revealed to the person whose work is under review and also to the other referees.
Proposal 4: The new editor of the new Journal of the American Philosophical Association (J-APA) should immediately and personally implement Proposal 1, Proposal 2, and Proposal 3.
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I think it’s sufficiently obvious how these four proposals, if implemented, would largely fix the three problems. So I’ll conclude by briefly considering some objections and offering replies.
Objection 1: These proposals, if implemented, would put the person submitting his/her work for review in the driver’s seat, instead of editors and referees, and therefore it would be the end of the philosophy publication world as we know it.
Reply 1: Right.
Objection 2: These proposals, if implemented, would seriously lower the quality of publications at top academic journals and presses.
Reply 2: I seriously doubt it. On the contrary, it’s my strong impression that the world is literally filled with extremely talented young or otherwise unestablished philosophers whose first-class work fully merits being in print at the top academic journals and presses, but simply aren’t being published because of the three problems.
Objection 3: If Proposal 3 were implemented, then no one would ever agree to be a referee.
Reply 3: Really? On the contrary, it’s my strong impression that lots of referees—or at least a modest majority—are neither complete assholes nor semi-assholes: they never use refereeing/reviewing as a way of keeping their colleagues out of print, they always do their reports on time (or have genuine, good excuses for not doing so), and never submit ill-tempered, unfair reports. So none of these philosophers would ever be worried about their identities being revealed. Moreover, the increase in submissions due to the implementation of Proposal 1 would be adequately offset by the decrease in submissions due to the implementation of Proposal 2.
Objection 4: There are two serious problems with implementing Proposal 2.
First, many college and university administrations use publications as criteria for pay-raises for all faculty, including of course tenured full professors, and also use non-publication as an excuse for pushing the latter into retirement or otherwise reprimanding them. So that’s a significant disincentive for moving to a self-publication system.
Second, self-publication would lead to a significant decrease in the quality of publications.
Reply 4: With respect to the first problem, self-publication could play precisely the same functional role as refereed publications, even on the fairly dubious assumption that these administrative practices are just. Granted, right now if only a few established philosophers started self-publishing, they might not receive raises and could be pushed into retirement or otherwise reprimanded by administrators. But if some famous philosophers led the way, and they made the reasons for their self-publishing explicit and public, then pretty soon it would be OK for everyone else too. For example, the new editor of J-APA could do that right away. So implementing Proposal 4 would launch the anti-philosophy-publication-racket movement like a rocket.
And with respect to the second problem, if self-published work is inherently excellent, then other real philosophers will read it and discuss it; but if it’s not inherently excellent, then it will be more or less ignored, and no harm done. Either way it’s OK.
Objection 5: If Proposal 3 were implemented, then established philosophers wouldn’t get any more professional glory or money from journal publication or book publication, and therefore they’d be serious losers in the great academic game.
Reply 5: If established philosophers want to be gamesters instead of real philosophers, then they could still publish with a commercial journal or press, and get professional glory and/or money that way. But if their work gains them the respect of other real philosophers for its intrinsic excellence, then self-publication will be as effective as publication in academic journals or presses. They wouldn’t get any professional glory or money that way, but those aren’t what this enterprise is really all about, are they?