Readers may (or may not) have noticed that I haven't had anything to say about recent political events on the Cocoon. This isn't because I have nothing to say. Far from it. I have a lot of thoughts I would like to share. The problem is that most of them are under anonymized peer-review. Which brings me to several questions I initially broached last summer:
- Does anonymized peer-review stifle timely moral and political discussion?
- What are our obligations as authors and human beings vis-a-vis anonymized review in turbulent political times?
- Should anonymized review be replaced by the more open form of public review practiced in math and science?
I want to open up all three of these questions for discussion, but let me say a few words first.
On the first question, I do not know of any clear evidence--besides my own anecdotal experience--of whether anonymized review stifles timely moral and political discussion. However, what I do have is my own experience, and I can clearly and strongly say that I have withheld (and continue to withhold at this very moment) moral and political arguments from public discussion because of anonymized review. Because I don't want to break anonymized review right now, I won't detail exactly how this is the case. What I will say instead is that it has been incredibly frustrating--indeed positively depressing--to feel like I have things to say as a moral and political philosopher but cannot say them, at least not without violating the professional obligations I have to the places I've submitted my work to (which require anonymized review). While I don't pretend that the arguments I have withheld from public discussion would "change the world" or anything like that (indeed, they might be horribly mistaken!), the very fact that I have felt like I have to withhold these arguments for months on end distresses me greatly. As we see in world events today, things can happen very fast: few predicted the Brexit vote, and even fewer the Trump election, and the consequences of these votes will probably play out quickly as well (as evidenced by how much has already happened in both cases). Peer-review, on the other hand, is dreadfully slow. A single paper can bounce around at journals for months or even years. Supposing it is a paper on moral or political philosophy (and relevant world events), whatever moral or political points the paper makes--and might have contributed to timely public discussion--may be withheld from public discussion until well after relevant world events (elections, political decisions, etc.) have unfolded.
This brings me to my second question. What are our obligations as professionals and human beings in this sort of circumstance? On the one hand, some might suggest that if one is a philosopher and one has written on an issue of great moral or political immediacy, one's moral duties as a human being should take precedence over one's professional duties: one should bypass anonymized peer-review, post the work publicly as soon as possible, and contribute to public debate. Alas, I don't think things are this simple. For, on the other hand, given current norms in our profession--in which most papers do not appear to be widely read, cited, or engaged with unless they appear in top-ranked journals--an author in this position faces a dilemma, particularly if they are not at a prestigious institution. If they post the paper publicly (without it passing peer-review and appearing in a well-regarded journal), no one may read or engage with it--and, by posting it publicly, they compromise the very anonymized review-process that their paper needs to pass to end up in a journal where it may get read and engaged with! This horn of the dilemma incentivizes the author to fall on the other horn: they can place the paper under anonymized review and wait for the process to play out. But this just brings us back to our initial problem: namely, that by putting the work under anonymized review and respecting the anonymity of the process, the author withholds their ideas and arguments from public discussion for months, even years--undermining timely and open moral and political discourse.
All of which brings me to the third question: should anonymized review be replaced by the more open form of public review practiced in math and science? I have already argued many times that it should. The time and place for "anonymized" review is past. In the internet age, "anonymized" peer-review is not so anonymous anyway--indeed there are many ways that anonymized review is routinely compromised. So, why do we keep on keeping on with the same old review process? Academic math and physics have demonstrated that a different, more timely public review process can work--one where professional norms are to post work publicly before submitting to journals.
In closing, I want to be clear that I don't begrudge any of the places I have submitted my work to for requiring anonymized peer-review at the present moment. I understand it is our current system, and so I have worked within it, waiting patiently (at least as patiently as I can) for the system to work. All I mean to suggest once again is that--for many reasons--we may want to rethink our discipline's publishing norms and practices. We live in a fast-moving world, and I think philosophers should move with it. We should want norms and practices that incentivize philosophers to engage openly in timely moral and political debate, not stifle it--and I fear (once again, from personal experience) that our current norms and practices may do the latter.
But I am only one voice, and as always I may be wrong. What do you think?