While I was at the Pacific APA this weekend, I stumbled across several conversations on reviewing practices—a couple of which involved the question of whether it is or is not “a reviewer’s job” to help authors improve their papers. I’ve always thought the answer to the question is obvious: of course we should. On the one hand, I think it’s obvious that we should regard each other as colleagues, and colleagues should help each other out. But, more to the point, it seems obvious to me that one helps authors improve their papers simply by doing one's job as a reviewer. After all, one's job is to justify an editorial decision. But, or so it seems to me, any conscientious justification of an editorial decision just will provide the author with helpful information for improving their paper. First, if provides critiques the paper justifying rejection, one helps the author improve the paper by helping them see what is wrong with it. Similarly, if one provides grounds for an R&R or conditional acceptance, one also helps the author improve the paper—by explaining what works in the paper, and what needs work. As such, it seems to me, if one does one’s job as a reviewer, one necessarily "helps the author improve the paper" (and indeed, one possible improvement could be throwing the paper in the trashcan—a kind of improvement that some very competent reviews have helped me achieve in a few cases myself!).
All that being said, I overheard one rather strange concern about reviewer feedback in at least two separate conversations this week. In brief, the concern was that by giving ample feedback, a reviewer might actually be doing something untoward—adopting the role of a “ghost author.” The implicit thought behind the concern seemed to be this: “A published philosophy paper should be primarily the ideas of the author of the paper, not third-parties—as that would essentially make the third-parties authors of the paper in question, while not receiving appropriate authorial credit.”
Have any of you come across—or had this worry—before? I have to confess that I was astonished by it. Why? For a number of reasons. First, many well-placed authors in philosophy work in large research departments in which they can receive ample feedback from colleagues; many of them regularly give papers at invited department colloquia and conferences, again receiving ample feedback, etc. Second, many particularly well-known works by well-known people are widely known to be thoroughly collaborative. For instance, if memory serves me correctly, Derek Parfit publicly shared drafts of On What Matters (formerly titled “Climbing the Mountain”) for years, incorporating and addressing concerns by a truly wide variety of readers. Finally, it is often said—rightly so, I think—that philosophy is almost always a deeply collaborative process. We develop ideas by reading others’ work, by having conversations in seminars and at conferences and over drinks; we solicit feedback from our friends and colleagues; etc. That’s what philosophy is all about! So, then, I really don’t understand where the “ghost author” worry comes from, or why we should take it seriously. But again, I heard the worry at least a couple of times this week, so I thought it might be worth discussing.
Am I missing something?