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Expat Grad

For me this only comes up, as mentioned, when there are significant time constraints. For example, if I am working with a tight deadline, I will look at papers that look most relevant first, then read things from top journals/well-known philosophers as I feel I have a better chance of finding something insightful/useful quickly.

That said, I also tend to read a) the most recent papers, and b) papers by people I know (and know are `good') as I will be able to ask them questions directly if necessary.

referee ... again

I have a few points I want to make.
I think you misunderstand the purpose or function of citing work. You are not under any obligation to cite every source that discusses your topic. Indeed, contrary to what Marcus says, you are not under the obligation to cite (all) recent work on the topic. You are obliged to cite the sources that you used, that is, the sources that influenced you.
Further, this way of selectively reading that you find objectionable is not unique to philosophy nor is it a new phenomenon. Derek Price, in Little Science, Big Science, cites a study from the 1950s, a study of the use of periodicals in a science library in London, UK. The library held 9120 titles (that is, different journals). In the one year studied, about 4800 journals were NEVER used; "2274 journals were only used once" (75).
The most popular journal was used 382 times, etc. (see Price 1963, 75).
I occasionally see a manuscript I rejected as a referee for Journal A appear in print in Journal B. Almost invariably, Journal B is a lower grade journal, and the paper is published more or less as I last saw it. This not only puts me off the author's work - who I only now discover to be who s/he is - but it also puts me off the journal.

Michel X.

I don't think anybody was suggesting that one is under an obligation to cite all prior work on a topic. But I do think what Marcus was suggesting is that only reading work done in the tippy-top journals isn't all that much by way of research, and can easily lead to important citation failures.

Marcus Arvan

referee...again: Thanks for your comment!

Maybe I am misunderstanding the purpose or function of citing work. But I don't think your alternative description of its function fits very well with standard practice in almost any field. You write, "You are obliged to cite the sources that you used, that is, the sources that influenced you." I don't know of a single field where that is considered appropriate. In the hard sciences, psychology, sociology, whatever, one is generally expected--indeed, obliged--to utilize "good scholarship." In particular, referees routinely criticize (and even reject) scholarship that does not include appropriate citations.

The point of citations--according to these standard practices--is not simply to reflect "who you read" or "who influenced you." It's supposed to represent who you *should* have read. If someone has published Argument X and you write an article on X but don't cite it--particularly if one passes off X as one's own original argument--then that's poor scholarship. We have every right (and, I say, obligation) to expect sound scholarship in this regard.

In any case, maybe the standards that I advocate are too strict. I worry, however, that the standards you advocate are too lenient. I am glad, however, to have the opportunity to debate this--and I'm happy to reconsider my position. I wonder what others think!


I will read almost anything from almost anywhere, if it's relevant to my topic. (During my dissertation stage, I read a chapter of an undergraduate thesis.) I will also cite anything I think is good or which represents a relevant position in the literature.

But I don't peruse just any journals. There are maybe six or seven which I will look at without having anything in mind. I think the distinction is important.


There are a number of ways one can fail to live up to scholarly ideals. One way is to violate whichever citation obligations a referee...again thinks we incur in writing papers. But it seems that another way we can fail to live up to such ideals is to only be conversant about work published in the very top general journals on account of only reading articles published in the very top general journals. So we can go ahead and grant a referee...again everything he or she says about the citation obligations we incur in writing papers, and still find the reading habits of philosophers in general, well, odd.

anon junior

I think we should distinguish two claims:

(a) Philosophers have an obligation to read all published work (regardless of venue) relevant to their interests.
(b) Philosophers have an obligation to cite all published (and presumably in many cases unpublished but circulated) work (regardless of venue) important to their arguments.

It's not entirely obvious to me whether you, or the reader you quote, is endorsing (a), (b), or something different (in between?).

Nobody should disagree with (b). If existing work provides a serious objection to an argument I am making, I would be guilty of bad scholarship if I neglected it; if it anticipates my argument itself, I would be guilty of a serious professional breach.

However, (a) is way too strong. If I have an obligation to do something, it does not follow that I thereby have a (higher-order) obligation to do everything in my power to ensure that I am able to meet it. So long as they are willing to accept responsibility should they fail, people are normally free to take some risks. So it strikes me as a largely pragmatic question how much to read, and where: within reasonable limits, you get to decide how you will balance the cost that you might miss something important against the benefit of efficiency. If you decide only to read work that looks really interesting, or when you have strong evidence that the work will be good, that's your business.

Marcus Arvan

Anon junior: Thanks for your comment.

While I can't pretend to speak for my interlocutor (a referee), they seemed to be disagreeing with (b). They wrote that one is only an obligation to cite sources that inspired or influenced one's work--and that is exactly what I was pushing back against. I'm glad you seem to agree. And indeed, the editors of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science seem to broadly agree as well (http://thebjps.typepad.com/my-blog/2015/01/deskrejectionfrench.html ).

But, I also think you are right on (a). One cannot reasonably expect someone to read everything, and so the relevant question is: how much of the relevant literature is one obliged to read and cite? To which I think you provided a good answer: one is obliged to read and cite everything recent--even if it's not in a top-ranked journal--that either (1) gives something like the argument your paper makes, (2) provides a serious objection to something your argument, or (3) anticipates your argument. The problem, as I see it, is that philosophers often seem to disregard these reasonable expectations, only citing things in several top-ranked journals.


"The problem, as I see it, is that philosophers often seem to disregard these reasonable expectations, only citing things in several top-ranked journals."

Indeed, it seems to me that this is a serious problem. For example, a recent paper of mine was accepted for publication in a "mid-tier" journal. I told a colleague of this and they then asked me whether I had any regret about the paper being accepted at a journal that likely has a much lower readership than the top journals. I said I didn't, because surely anyone with an interest in topic X would come across my paper in a quick Phil Papers search and would then have to have at least read it before writing on the topic. But this colleague was incredulous since "philosophers don't read, and if they do, they only read stuff from the top."

Needless to say I now regret that the paper was accepted at the mid-tier journal.

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