A number of proposals have been floated recently about how the review process might be improved at philosophy journals. I've suggested getting tough with reviewers, using a variety of "carrots and sticks" to incentivize quicker, more conscientious reviews by referees. Similarly, one anonymous commenter suggested that better reviewing practices might be achieved by journal editors ranking reviewers, and reviewers getting more credit in the profession for doing a good job.
However, others have suggested--both in the comments section of the same post, and in my facebook feed--that reviewing practices might be best improved by one or more of the following:
- Prohibiting journal submissions by graduate students.
- Limiting the number of submissions anyone can make to journals in a given time-frame.
- Imposing costs [e.g. monetary costs] on authors, so as to disincentivize authors from clogging up the review process with subpar papers.
All of these proposals strike me as wrongheaded, and I would briefly like to explain why.
First, each of these proposals seems to be based upon the assumption that the "real problem" with the philosophy journal process is that the system is overburdened. While I sympathetic with the notion that editors have a hard job to do, I think there are a number of compelling reasons to think this is not the problem with philosophy review process:
- Journals and reviewers in other disciplines are at least as burdened as in philosophy, yet other disciplines do not have the same pathologies [I, for instance, have submitted papers to psychology journals--and my wife is an academic psychologist--and their reviews, including desk-rejections, tend to be very prompt, detailed and conscientious. Furthermore, I have conversed with at least one philosophy journal editor who says that the real problem is referees not getting their reviews done on time].
- Philosophy review practices and turnaround times were problematic long before the recent explosion of submission numbers. In my early days as a grad student--a long time ago now--graduate students rarely sent out papers for review. Yet journal turnaround times were, if anything, far longer back then [in the case of a few notorious journals, regularly over a year]. So, there is no reason to think that our profession's turnaround problems are due to "overburdening." Such problems existed, as a matter of our profession's culture, long before journals became as burdened as they are today.
- If the the problems in our discipline were the result of an overburdened system, [A] most/all journals would struggle with turnaround times, and [B] problems would not be solved by better practices. Yet [A] and [B] are both false. Some prominent journals that receive large numbers of submissions have excellent turnaround times [see e.g. AJP, JESP, and Phil Quarterly] and others that once had horrific turnaround times have substantially improved due to better editorial practices [see e.g. Mind].
The simple facts are these:
- If people have enough time to write their own papers, they should have enough time to review papers for journals in a reasonable amount of time--just as professionals in other academic fields do.
- Some journals make sure their reviewers do their job, despite the "overburdened" situation, and other journals don't.
Although I am sympathetic with the idea that journals might utilize some incentives to reduce the burden of papers they receive [I am open to the notion of a journal giving a particular authors a "moratorium on submissions" if that author submits papers of plainly unprofessional quality], the above facts strongly suggest to me that the main problem isn't an "overburdened system." The main problem is one of culture: of reviewers--at some journals at least--not doing their jobs in a reasonable amount of time with a reasonable amount of conscientiousness. As Neil writes,
I've been saying the same thing over and over again for a long time, and no doubt anyone who has paid attention is sick of it. Guess what? I'm going to say it again. I really think that what is needed is much less revolutionary. Here's the real problem in philosophy wrt journal submissions: referees take such a long, long time. Here's what to do about it: stop taking so damn long. It's not a fact of nature that it takes 6 months to referee a paper. Other fields don't tolerate this. Philosophy is not harder than these other fields. Editors tolerate this behaviour because its a collective action problem: there just isn't a big enough pool of referees who will agree to submit reports within 4 weeks.
Speed up journal review time, and the other problems shrink dramatically. Unfairly treated by an incompetent referee? Oh well, that's only a few weeks lost and there are plenty of other comparable journals. Conversely, if you wait 11 months for your incompetent report, the opportunity costs are huge (especially for the non-tenured).
I know for a fact that some of the people complaining about journal practices sit on papers for months themselves. They can get stuffed, as far as I am concerned. Until they change their behaviour, they have no right to complain. When enough people change their behaviour, the problems won't be solved, but they will be greatly diminished.
As Mind's recent turnaround [and other speedy journals] indicate, the solution to our profession's journal review problems is not to impose additional costs on vulnerable members of our profession, such as by preventing grad students from submitting papers, or by imposing monetary costs per submission. The solution is for journals to better incentivize journals doing their job promptly and professionally--and there are plenty of journals in our field and other fields that show it can be done, burdens and all.