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10/31/2016

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Eugene

Great post, Marcus. I like this suggestion in particular:

"First, journals might reduce the number of pages for standalone articles, and increase the number of pages for reply pieces, including replies to pieces in other journals."

One way to supplement this idea would be for journals to stop requiring (by convention) authors to dedicate a third of every paper to anticipating and discussing every possibly relevant objection. Unless discussing a particular objection allows an author to clarify his or her thesis, or refine it, or whatever, let's let readers/editors decide which objections are worth developing/publishing in response pieces.

This could cut the average journal article down from ~8000 to ~5000 words, and might increase the rate at which papers are actually read.

put a break on it

Marcus,
I followed the link to ... on average 10 people:

"If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 per cent of papers cited have actually been read. We estimate that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people."

If this were an academic journal, we would have sources cited to support such claims. Why should we believe this? Another estimate that has circulated is that you can count the readers of a journal article by multiplying by 10 the number of people citing it (see Price 1986). So my paper that is cited 140+ times has been read by 1400 people. The rationale is that a number of people may have read the article in their pursuit of relevant information for a current research project, one that has not yet been published or may never be published.

Marcus Arvan

put a break on it: The claim that the average paper is only read by ten people may be erroneous. But that is not the relevant claim vis-a-vis the point of the post. The relevant claim is that 80+% of papers are never responded to. Whether those papers make sound arguments or important contributions is never tested in the literature, so their absence of discussion can only be chalked up to some kind of "trust me/trust us" epistemic principle--a principle that due to human bias, I do not think we should be satisfied with.

Henry Lara

OK, here is a related question/concern: in a discipline like physics or psychology, if a finding is published, there is a certain assurance that *no matter who* did the study, if they followed sound scientific practices, their findings are true. At the very least, if a study has yet to be replicated, an author can be cautious of relying too much on it, but there is a certain epistemic guarantee stemming from the fact that it's a matter of time before the study gets validated. Now, I don't claim that's how science actually works, merely that a lot of people doing science think that's how it works and it may affect their research and article writing and citing practices.

What about philosophy? Philosophers don't, as a rule, present studies that can be replicated (although some do), but mostly present their ideas, or criticize those of others, via arguments. I don't want to dive into the merits or drawbacks of X-Phi, nor do I want to yield to a naturalized philosophy, such as advocated in this blog by Prof. Arvan (although I suspect I just gave him an opening to further advocate for it!) My point is that without the purported epistemic safety net of the scientific method, philosophers lack a way to distinguish between two well developed but opposite arguments...or a million of them. That's where the trust element comes in. I don't think that trust is an entirely bad thing, but I do agree that its susceptibility to bias, as well as other sociological factors like the pedigree of people and institutions, can effectively diminish the epistemic credentials of the profession, not to mention the enormous injustice done to thousands of hard working people. My question is then, is the "problem of never-responded to work" intrinsic to the way philosophy is (as opposed to merely eternally perpetuated bad practices) due to the methods used in the discipline (questioning, critical discussion, i.e., presenting or critiquing rational arguments), which in turn make it susceptible to the "Trust Me" Model? Because if it is, then we may be grossly underestimating the magnitude of the problem.

Pendaran Roberts

We do have a citation problem is philosophy, but I hope my stuff is read by more than a few people. My article 'Turning up the volume on the property view of sound' in Inquiry has about 450 downloads according to TandF. There are another 70 downloads or so on philpapers. How many people who download it actually read it? Hopefully 10%. So, about 50 people have read it. That's not horrible, given that all this stuff is pretty niche.

We're not writing popular press stuff. We're communicating with a relatively small number of people in our fields.

Sam Duncan

Marcus,
One larger issue here is the extent to which publishing has become an arms race. At most institutions academics need to publish an absurd amount if they want their tenure decisions to be fairly certain. And for people trying to move to a better job, especially those without Leiterrific pedigrees, publishing is one of the few ways they can better their chances. Add to this, the absurdly bad practices of most journals (which you've documented in great detail here) and everyone below the associate professor level faces huge pressures to follow a through a lot of spaghetti at the wall and hope some sticks strategy of publishing. If you're trying to get tenure at an R1 you probably need around ten papers in the pipeline if you want to get the required 5 in good journals before you're up for review (and 6 or 7 in good journals wouldn't hurt if you want insurance). These days the expectations are only somewhat lower at so called teaching schools. And for those without steady jobs they need to throw everything they have out there now just to better their chances for the job search in a years time. All this means I think that a lot of us put a lot of papers out there, and in our heart of hearts we'd have a hard time defending the need of some of them to exist. How many of us really have good ideas for ten papers at the moment? Even if we do practically no one has the time to develop that many papers unless they're at the start of a two or three year postdoc. So I think the sheer pressure of the hiring and promotion market pushes a lot of us to put papers out there whose basic idea we're not entirely sure about or that are very much underdeveloped even if there is a good idea there. (Before I got a permanent job I was guilty of that, and I probably still would be doing it if my current job had the absurd research expectations most jobs do these days). So I think that there's a lot of bad work out there I don't think it's because it's done by bad philosophers but it is yet another symptom of a profoundly broken academic system. The arms race means that most of us don't have the luxury of carefully developing our ideas and it also means that there's such a huge amount of stuff out there (much of it mediocre) that it's incredibly difficult to figure out what's worth reading and what's not except by looking at the journals so good stuff gets ignored. I think our citation crisis is a symptom of deeper problems with academia, and sadly I have no idea how to fix those problems.

Slobodan Perovic

1) What I am worried about is that many papers in philosophy are read but never cited. So "trust me" attitude may really be dishonest b/c at least some people will lift ideas and arguments and never credit the sources. I have very recently heard a very convincing and very disappointing account of such a case involving one of the most cited/prominent philosophers. So the situation may be even more bleak than your insightful post suggests. 2) The idea with response pieces in a journal is great. 3) I was amazed recently how editors and reviewers in science policy journals enforce citing of relevant research pieces. You just have to engage with existing pieces: if you think it's crap say briefly why it's crap, or cite it otherwise at an adequate place. We could introduce a practice of that sort in philosophy.

overworked

There are lots of key disanalogies between physics and philosophy, but here are a few big ones:

(1) reading a philosophy paper at the level of depth necessary to properly engage with it in print takes WAY more time than reading it at the level of depth necessary to get a rough idea of its quality,
(2) this reading cannot be farmed out to grad students and/or postdocs, and
(3) it is much harder to know in advance in philosophy than in physics what of other people's work will be relevant to a given project.

Given all these factors, the amount of philosophy being produced, and the amount of time philosophers have to spend doing other things, it's just not feasible to assiduously study every paper that purports to have something to say about a given topic. The "trust me" method is obviously imperfect, and surely denies some papers the audience they deserve, but the epistemic labor has to be distributed somehow and I haven't been given a better way.

Of course, one possible fix is crowdsourcing! If you have concrete examples of awesome papers in low-ranked journals that people should engage with more, why not throw 'em up! It could even be a regular feature of the blog.

(p.s. that article you link doesn't do itself any favors with that snide mention of the religion papers. all those titles look super interesting!)

Chris Stephens

There are a number of good suggestions here - but I'd rather see philosophers reform their citation practices and habits more than I would like to see more space devoted to "reply" pieces. As it is, I think too many philosophers write papers of the form "Professor Goofmaker says X, and here's why X is wrong..." (see Dennett on "Higher Order Truths about Chmess"). Instead, if you can provide a general (alternative) solution to whatever problem Professor Goofmaker is answering, the fact that Goofmaker is wrong will simply fall out of the correct answer (say, Z).

Pendaran

I noticed that in philosophy our lit reviews require no rigorous process. It's just one person's survey of the lit he deems important. In psychology a lit review must use a systematic and rigorous method for going through all the literature. This way it takes bias out of which literature gets reviewed. My wife was amazed that we don't do this. I think we should. It would help citation rates of little known papers that might in fact be highly relevant and important contributions.

Philosophy Adjunct

Developing Sam Duncan's comment above:

I think there is a further dimension to the idea that 'most papers published are crap' beyond blithe dismissal of our `intellectually inferior' collegues. There is a sense in which most (virtually all?) publication is insincere. We publish because our MBA-weilding corporate overloads threaten to turn us into adjuncts if we do not. There is the suspicion, then, that most of what is written is not written because the author is really invested, or really take themselves to have anything very significant to say, but because they have to produce high-impact words. I recall reading on the 'Against Professional Philosophy' blog their receipe for writing an article publishable in top journals (http://againstprofphil.org/philosophical-rigor-as-rigor-mortis-or-how-to-write-a-publishable-paper-without-even-having-to-think/). I have received advice from about how to go about publishing which is depressingly similar in content.

There is, then, a sense that most production is not worth reading because we already have a sense that it was produced just for the sake of being produced. When you combine this with the fact that there is just more and more and more to read all the time it is no surprise that people look for some way to narrow down what they have to focus on. You are absolutely right that the 'trust-me' method is a problematic way of making our workloads manageable. But the problem is not just an epistemic one. It is an institutional and politicial one. This predicament strikes me as a prime example of how the corporatization of intellectual life undermines the epistemic worth of what it purports to be improving.

This leads me to propose another solution, which we should take up as a discipline, and which academia in general should take up. Let's publish less! Let's make publishing and conferencing voluntary! Let's find more accurate measures of what makes an academic `productive' and worthy of tenure, and insist on them. Let's argue that the corporate robots that rule university life are ignorant of the value and meaning of intellectual activity. Let's argue they have a perverted conception of learning, knowledge and research which has no place in university life, and drive them out. If we don't cut the infection out at its source I think it is more than likely that your proposal would just shift the `crappiness' from the articles to the replies, without really improving the epistemic credentials of our discipline, or making the academic life worth living.

Amanda

Am I the only one who views this as good news? 10 reads! I have published a number of articles in well-respected places but I really was not hoping for more than 4 or 5:)

And yes, as someone trying to make it into the profession I see publications not as a search for ideas or truth but largely a meal-ticket. I figure what I like about philosophy is getting to chat with my fellow professors, read good philosophy, have intellectual peers and work at a university. I really see publishing as a means to an end. (And why? Because when I know no one cares or will read my work I cannot see it as anything else.)

Sam Duncan

Philosophy Adjunct,
Thanks for you comment, but I hope it won't seem ungracious if I take exception to blaming all this on the "corporate university" or "corporatization of intellectual life." I do think that there are some harmful trends in the academy that fit those terms. Perhaps the biggest one being the uncritical obsession with numbers and rankings in and of themselves and the failure to ask whether or not those numbers measure anything of value. But most academic philosophers are as bad or worse than our "corporate overlords" on that score.
However, the term misses a lot and it might even obscure more. To be honest I even sympathize with some of the things people label "corporatization." For instance, those of us who work at state funded schools are public servants and I think that gives the public every right to ask whether they are getting their money's worth from us. (Mind you a lot of proposed ways of measuring that are truly awful, but that's another issue.)
I think the deeper problems here are the obsession with research, contempt for teaching, and the way that academy has become a winner take all system where some superstars do incredibly well but most others struggle to even keep a roof over the heads. Most teaching focused jobs pay very little and have no stability so everyone is desperate to get out of them, and those with TT or otherwise stable jobs are desperate not to fall into the adjunct world. The only way to do this is to rack up as many publications as possible, but as I said that creates pressure to publish even when we don't have good ideas or time to develop the good ideas we do have. If the system prioritized teaching or just gave a living wage to teaching faculty it would remove a lot of that pressure and I think the quantity of mediocre work would fall greatly. Moreover, putting more emphasis on teaching would help the quality of research in other ways. Having to teach keeps me honest in my research I've found. If I can't explain to a smart undergrad who's interested in philosophy why what I'm working on is important I'm inclined to think it probably isn't. If more academics had this check I'm fairly certain it would keep many philosophical debates from coming completely unmoored from reality and falling into an obsession with pseudo-problems and pseudo-solutions.

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