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« How to Write a Dissertation -- Part I: Finding a Topic | Main | How to Write a Dissertation -- Part II: Getting the Dissertation Moving »

07/05/2012

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Tuomas Tahko

There are at least two aspects to a rejection on these types of ground.

Firstly, it comes in degrees: if a paper develops a new argument for the existence of God then perhaps it is indeed publishable regardless of previous papers to that effect. But if it happens to be a 'new' argument very similar to a previously published one, then the story is different. So, there the similarity to previously published papers surely comes in degrees.

Secondly, journals generally reserve the right to reject papers based on the interests of their readers and the overall spread of topics of the journal. For these reasons it might be perfectly justifiable to reject even an excellent paper if it's on the same topic as a recently published paper. In the interest of appealing to as many readers as possible, journals often try to publish papers on diverse topics.

So, I can see at least a couple of scenarios where it's not unreasonable to reject a paper on these grounds.

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Tuomas,

Thanks for your comments.

As for your first point, I am talking about a genuinely novel argument for p. By “novel,” I mean that p has been supported thus far by q, r, and s, whereas Author argues for p from x, y, and z.

As for your second point, I think it raises a few questions:

1. How broad/narrow does a topic have to be? For example, in a journal that specializes in epistemology, it is unreasonable for the editor to say, “We’ve already published a paper on epistemology, so we can’t publish yours.” So epistemology is clearly too broad, even for a general journal. What about virtue epistemology? Is that too broad as well? Gettier problem? Is that narrow enough?

2. Suppose that a general journal has been publishing papers on X for the past year. When does the editor get to say, “ok, enough with X already”? When does a topic get exhausted? As I see it, by publishing papers on X, the journal has signaled to authors that the editorship of the journal is interested in publishing papers on X. In that case, if there is genuinely new things to say about X, the journal may have a professional obligation to publish these new results, given that it had signaled to authors that it is interested in research on X.

Marcus Arvan

I certainly don't think it makes sense to reject a paper *just* because it defends the same conclusion as other recently-published papers. What does seem reasonable to me, though, is a kind of "bar raising.". Once an argument has been given for p, anyone who wants to defend p on other grounds should presumptively have to show that their grounds for p are better than whatever grounds have already been offered. After all, if you have a good argument already, what's the use of other arguments if they're not better? In any case, Moti, if you're having this problem, I think the best way to go is to try to revise the relevant papers this way. Don't just give your new argument for p. Try to show that it's a *better* argument for p than those already out there. (If your papers already do this, then I guess I'd say the editors are either being unreasonable or aren't yet convinced the innovations improve over existing arguments).

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Marcus,

Thanks for your comment.

I think you are probably right that some editors adopt something like the “bar raising” policy you describe, and so they expect new arguments for p to be better than extant arguments for p. So your advice is well taken.

But I am not sure that this is a policy they ought to adopt. First, what makes one argument for p better than another? Take conceivability arguments, for example. What makes recent conceivability arguments in terms of zombies better than Descartes’ conceivability argument for dualism? But I take it that it would be unreasonable for an editor to say something like “Although novel, this conceivability argument from zombies is not better than Descartes’ conceivability argument in Meditation 6, so we cannot publish it.”

Second, even if we have good arguments for p, we sometimes need more arguments, especially if extant arguments for p are not conclusive, and there are arguments against p. In that case, we could weigh the arguments for and against p. For example, external world skepticism is very much an open question, and there are good arguments for (e.g., Descartes’ demon) and good arguments against (e.g., Moore’s hands). One more argument, which is different from extant arguments, though not better, might tilt the balance either for or against skepticism.

Consider the following analogy with science. I take it that no editor of a scientific journal would say something like: “We’ve published numerous papers on transitional fossils already. Although this paper reports new findings about transitional fossils, and so it presents evidence that is different from the evidence presented in the papers we’ve published so far, it doesn’t give a better argument for evolution. So we cannot publish it.” This will never fly in science. Why should it fly in philosophy?

Brad Cokelet

Hi Moti,

I have also heard people point out that topics get hot and then die out again, and I suspect that editors want to avoid papers the seem to flog a dead horse, so to speak. Presumably editors have a responsibility to "advance the debate" or "keep the discussion lively and moving".

Perhaps keeping this in mind can help you reframe things in a way to avoid the response you mention. People also talk about an article "re-kindling" or "reviving" interest in a topic, and I think that if a lot has been published on a topic (esp in the journal to which you are submitting) it might help for you to frame your new argument for the (well discussed) claim with some discussion of why your new argument sheds new light on the larger significance of the relevant claim (e.g. how it connects up with other issues). Just an idea...not sure it will fit your case or work...

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Brad,

Thanks very much for your comment.

Incidentally, who is setting trends in philosophy? Is it editors, journals, conference organizers, bloggers, or all of the above?

Brad Cokelet

Great question. I like to think that it is individual researchers setting the fires and editors, journals, and organizers fanning them into maturity and, well, death. But clearly one's status in the profession makes it easier to set trends...

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