In the comments section of Daily Nous' recent post, "Referees with Attitude Problems", an individual commenting under the handle 'Perplexed Marketeer' writes:
I wonder whether this is a jerk referee comment:
“The paper relies heavily on an account provided by [redacted]. This account hasn’t really been taken up substantively in the literature, so it seems to me ill-advised for the author to rely on it in this paper.”
I wonder how many other papers have been given the same criticism, resulting in a self-fulfilling objection. Doesn’t an account get “taken up substantively in the literature” by accumulated instances of people making use of it? And if the first instances (it’s not like the account is that old–five years or so, and belonging to someone who has continually published in the field since) are rejected because no one else has cited it, that will doubtlessly give the impression that no one finds anything positive about it.
Although I won't belabor the details, something very similar has happened to me before: a referee complained that a paper I submitted appealed to a theory that had not yet had uptake in the literature, implying this was at least one reason to reject the paper. Accordingly, like 'Perplexed Marketeer', I too wonder whether:
- Whether this sort of thing is a problem, and if so
- How often it occurs.
Obviously, I cannot settle (2) here--so I would like to ask you, the Cocoon's readers, whether anything similar has ever happened to you. What I can do, though, is reflect on (1) a bit. Is it problematic for a referee to recommend rejecting a paper because the argument or theory the paper invokes has not had substantial uptake in the literature?
On the one hand, I can imagine several arguments in favor of the idea that this is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. First, one might maintain that it is referees' job to recommend for publication articles that readers are likely to have interest in reading--and, if a paper appeals centrally to a theory/argument that people have not shown interest in so far, that is some reason to think readers might not find the new paper of much interest, either. Second, one might maintain that if an argument/theory has not had much uptake in the literature (particularly after a number of years), that is some reason to think that it is objectively not of much interest--as, if it were, people would have noticed and discussed it by now.
Although, as always, I am more than willing to listen, I have to confess that on first blush I find these rationales wanting. First, both rationales seem to me unpersuasive because, or so it seems to me, in the typical case--in Perplexed Marketeer's case, as in mine--the very point of the paper submitted is to argue that the argument/theory in question warrants more attention than it has been so far afforded. Second, the fact that the literature has not yet recognized the importance of an idea, theory, or argument is not itself any good reason to think that it is not important and worthy of more consideration. After all, there can be all kinds of reasons--among them, scientific/philosophical inertia, resistance to new ideas, and (potentially) preference for ideas from "famous" scholars--why a good, important idea might not receive due attention. And indeed, a widely publicized recent study of the scientific literature, "Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?", suggests as much: namely, that while "famous names" are alive, the scientific literature tends to revolve around their ideas, squelching progress, whereas when they die, more new ideas, innovation, and yes, new "names" begin to flow into the literature. Here's the abstract:
Consistent with previous research, the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases precipitously after the death of a star scientist (relative to control fields). In contrast, we find that the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases by 8% on average. These additional contributions are disproportionately likely to be highly cited. They are also more likely to be authored by scientists who were not previously active in the deceased superstar's field. Overall, these results suggest that outsiders are reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive and that a number of barriers may constrain entry even after she is gone. Intellectual, social, and resource barriers all impede entry, with outsiders only entering sub fields that offer a less hostile landscape for the support and acceptance of "foreign" ideas.
This, I think, raises the biggest worry to have about the practice of referees (if, again, it is a common practice) recommending rejecting papers on grounds that they have "not had uptake." All things being equal, or so it seems to me, the kinds of ideas and arguments that are most likely to have uptake in the literature are mainstream ones by well-known figures in the field. And indeed, or so it seems to me, citation data in philosophy broadly confirm this: wide swaths of literature--whether it is the metaphysics literature on ground, the political philosophy literature on justice, etc.--tend to cluster around a very small number of "name figures." As Kieran Healy put it, "On the average hardly anyone is getting cited, be they man or woman." Given that the philosophical literature appears to revolve around arguments/theories by a relatively small, select number of people, the practice of recommending rejecting arguments that "have not had uptake in the literature" will tend to exclude...well, just about all of us from having our ideas taken up in the literature. But that, it seems to me, is precisely what we should not want. Each paper should be judged on its own merits--and, if a paper makes a strong case that an idea, theory, or argument should have uptake in the literature, referees should recommend publication for precisely that reason--so that ideas that warrant discussion but have not yet been discussed begin to receive the uptake they are due!
In any case, I'm still curious: how pervasive is this phenomenon? Have you had a referee recommend rejecting a paper on the grounds that it engages with or develops an idea that "hasn't had uptake in the literature"?