A few weeks ago I discussed some puzzles regarding anonymized peer-review, once again raising the question of whether academic philosophy might be better off adopting the peer-review practices in physics and mathematics. In physics and mathematics, it is common practice to everyone uploading non-anomymized papers to a public ArXiv prior to journal submission. Once papers are made public, they are then publicly discussed/vetted by other members of the profession. While this model "compromises" anonymized review [as everyone knows who wrote a given paper before it is submitted to a journal], the model has many virtues that I believe may outweigh traditional anonymized review. First, the public model lends itself to much faster dissemination of new information/new findings, as no one has to "withhold" new research from public presentation for months or even years for the sake of anonymized review. Second, the public model also arguably counteracts bias and chance better than traditional anonymized review--for whereas traditional anonymized review places publication decisions in the hands of the very few [and a paper can bounce around until one gets luck with the "right" reviewers], the public vetting process in math and physics enables large numbers of people to make public arguments as to a given paper's merits and/or deficiencies. As a follower of contemporary physics, my impression is that this works incredibly well: when a new paper is posted to the ArXiv, people publicly debate its merits, and it typically becomes very clear publicly whether the paper is good, bad, groundbreaking, etc.
Today, though, I want to reflect a bit more on a couple of concerns about traditional anonymized review that I only briefly alluded to in my earlier post: the issue of information dissemination. In particular, I want to suggest that traditional anonymized review in philosophy might have pernicious effects on public debate, incentivizing authors to hide arguments from public view during critical periods of intense public debate.
Consider, for instance, current debates about 'Brexit' -- the single biggest world issue at the present moment: an issue that some people regard to be an important step forward for Britain away from control of European bureaucrats, but others regard to be a colossal, world-changing mistake. Or take any other public debate as it emerges: for instance, debates about gun control, Supreme Court decisions regarding affirmative action, debate in 2003 about the decision to invade Iraq, or Supreme Court decisions regarding affirmative action, etc. Oftentimes, moral, social, political, and economic philosophers write and submit papers to journals that, in one way or another, bear directly on the public debates in question as they arise--and indeed, as social, political, and economic decisions are made [for, as we all well know, sometimes public debates turn into political decisions very quickly--as in the 'Brexit' case]. Now suppose, however, that a given author has a paper under anonymized review on the very issue in question. There may be no feasible way for the author to comment on the issue publicly without compromising anonymized review. If they were to post their paper publicly, it would compromise anonymized review. If they were to blog or write an op-ed about it, it would compromise anonymized review. Further, either action would plausibly compromise anonymized review in the future, since, if the author presents their arguments publicly, reviewers at any journals they submit the paper to in the future would plausibly be aware of who wrote the paper. So, since under our current review model and conception of professional ethics [viz. we have obligations not to compromise anonymized review], an author in the above situation is left with two viable options at best:
- Post the paper in public anonymously - which has clear costs for the author, as they cannot publicly defend the work if it is discussed, the paper does not count as published, etc.
- Withhold the paper's arguments from public discussion altogether - which is just to say that the author will have to withhold from public debate information they regard to be important and relevant to public debate.
In other words, when it comes to pressing moral, social, political, and economic issues, traditional anonymized review can put an author between the proverbial "rock and a hard place." They may want to engage in public discussion on an issue of great public importance, and yet see no clear way that they can engage in the discussion, with arguments they consider highly relevant, without violating their professional obligations not to compromise anonymized review. Finally, since as we all well know, peer-review can take many months at a single journal, and years if [as often happens] one gets rejections that require submitting the paper sequentially to different journals, this means that an academic philosopher can be incentivized to withhold potentially relevant moral, social, political, or economic arguments from public discussion for months or years.
And notice: none of these difficulties arise in the math/physics model. In the math/physics review model, as soon as anyone has a new argument or finding, it is entirely expected that they post the paper publicly, so that they can bring the new information to bear on current research/discussion immediately. Thus, I think there are serious, underappreciated costs associated with the traditional anonymized review model in philosophy. Philosophers often write on moral, social, political, and economic issues of great public importance--and yet our current review model, which has other problems as well, incentivizes withholding arguments from public view until, potentially, long after critical periods of public debate are already past, and indeed, until after important political decisions are already made. Notice: this is not a complaint per se, so much as it is an observation. There may, at the end of the day, be reasons to prefer the traditional model of anonymized review to the public model in math and physics--but, for all that, I think we need to be clear on the potential costs of the traditional model, and this is one big potential cost that I do not think has received enough attention.