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What kind of "savaging" do you have in mind? The sarcastic Chinese economics journal review is clearly over the top. Most of the philosophers I respect would see reviews like it as needless put-downs and be disappointed in me if I wrote one. But it would be a strange person indeed who went to all that trouble in a report only its recipient and maybe some editors would read.

More generally, sure, people have some moral reason to be nice, but what follows? Not that authors have a right to niceness, or can always legitimately expect or demand it; it is and should be sometimes within one's rights to be mean. (The alternative would be way too tedious and constraining.) Nor, for related reasons, that journals should regulate niceness somehow.

Note too that there is a place for nastiness in public reviews, at least. McGinn's review of Honderich, and Strohminger's review of McGinn, are cases in point.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Ben: Thanks for your comment.

(1) You ask what kind of savaging I have in mind.

My quick answer is: anything that bears a whiff of meanspiritedness. So, for example, it is one thing to point out misspellings (viz. "There are many misspellings in the paper. On p. 1 'X' should be spelled 'Y'). It is another thing to write, "This paper is sloppily edited. The author had no business submitting a paper in such shoddy shape." It is unnecessary--and, I think, a bit meanspirited--to *say* the latter sort of thing. Simply pointing out that there are misspellings is enough. There is no need to go beyond that and talk of the author's "sloppiness", etc. Even if the person was sloppy, that's just humiliating.

Or, to take another, more substantive case, it is one thing to say, "This paper does not, in my judgment, make a significant contribution to problem X." It is another thing to write, "Author's theory of X is trivial and uninteresting."

These may seem like small (even trivial!) differences, but they add up. When a review contains a lot of "color commentary"--not merely pointing out problems with a paper, but using derisive language to *refer* to those problems--the overall tone of a review can have a mocking, humiliating quality. You may not have ever had this experience yourself, but I am willing to bet many, many readers of this blog have! (I know I have).

(2) You say that people have a moral reason to be nice, but not a *right* to niceness.

I reply: This is why I pretty much despise talk about rights. By my lights, "rights" are often a way of excusing bad behavior (viz. "I know I was being a jerk, but no one has a *right* to kindness"). Another problem is that people disagree about rights. You want to say no one has a right to kindness. I disagree. I want to say people have a RIGHT to kindness--that we should be kind, period, and that people have the right to expect it. I understand you disagree. But it's at this point that I want to ask, "What kind of people should we be? The kind of people who DO think people have a right to kindness, or people who don't?" I think the answer is obvious. We should be the kind of people who see other people of goodwill as *entitled* to kindness. If you don't think we should be people like this--people who see fit to treat people kindly, not as a nicety, but as a general moral duty--I'm not sure I can convince you to the contrary.

Finally, you write (3): [T]here is a place for nastiness in public reviews, at least. McGinn's review of Honderich, and Strohminger's review of McGinn, are cases in point."

I almost entirely disagree. I think *negative* book reviews have a place. If a book is terrible, one has a duty as a book reviewer to let readers know (so they don't waste their hard-earned money, and time, on a bad book). But, I want to say, *nastiness* is never okay. McGinn's review of Honderich was awful, and Strohminger's review of McGinn was, in my view--although very, very funny--an awful case of "taking the low road." Recently, I showed the Strohminger review to a famous senior figure in another academic field, and the first thing out of his lips was, "That was entirely unprofessional. Is that really what philosophy is like?" Although this person understood a bit more when I explained the back-story (i.e. McGinn himself, and his history of brutal reviews), he was still pretty stunned, and adamant that reviews of this sort (McGinn's reviews, Strohminger's, etc.) would never be tolerated in his field.

On a similar note, we then talked about Q&A sessions at job talks and conferences. He said people in his field are always kind to speakers, and never "go for the jugular" at talks. This, obviously, is very different than philosophy, where Q&A's, particularly at job talks but also at conferences, can look a lot like a "blood sport."

I think all of this is really stuff to think about. Compared to at least one other (well-respected) field, philosophy seems a far more aggressive, mean-spirited place. The mere fact that anyone in our field would think people *aren't* entitled to kindness, in all honesty, sort of makes me shudder!


Re (1): They do indeed add up. I probably should have stressed how much I agree with your main point: I'm sure that a really nasty review would motivate me to abandon or over-revise a paper, rather than do my best to fix it up or submit it somewhere else (even if it is more likely that I should do the latter). This in itself is a strong non-obvious consideration in favor of moderation, as you imply.

Re (2): Much rights talk annoys me for similar reasons! (However, nearly all of my ire is directed at defenders of property rights or rights of non-interference.) But note that I didn't say, nor did I want to say, that no one has a right to kindness! I said that people do and should have a right to be mean sometimes. This is compatible with the existence of an obligation or duty to be kind in a large class of cases, which I actually endorse.

Re (3): Honderich's book was irresponsibly bad, and McGinn's was both irresponsibly bad and sexist. When famous philosophers write irresponsibly bad books, I think it's fine to call them out on it; when they write sexist books, I think it's fine (in virtue of more general considerations against tolerating sexism) to really let them have it. Ridicule has a long and proud history as a weapon against domination!


The argument for kinder reviewing seems to be both moral and epistemic. I think the latter is exaggerated: I referee often, and there are lots of papers that are truly bad and obviously so. Part of the deal has to be that authors have the discipline not to submit papers that are, in a number of obvious ways, not ready for publication. Authors do not in general display that sort of discipline: they don't review the paper for errors (minor and major) before submitting, they don't ask colleagues for comments, etc., they don't look closely at the literature in the area, and so on. The fact that too many unsuitable papers are being submitted for review might explain why referees get irritated. I recently completed a book review for what turned out to be a collection of mostly bad (some plainly narcissistic) papers. It was not edited well at all, and it included a lot of poor scholarship. Refereeing and reviewing are very hard work; all the more so if the papers are not well-considered. I had to revise the review three times to tone it down, and I'm not entirely sure I should have. If authors feel free to submit just any sort of work (in many case, presumably, for comments), it doesn't surprise me that they sometimes get unkind comments. So, it's not just a matter of serious, disciplined scholars receiving unfriendly comments on their hard work. It's also a matter of undisciplined authors submitting work that is no where near ready for publication.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Mike: Thanks for your comment. My argument is mainly moral. I think there's no good moral reason to write mean-spirited things--especially given various mitigating factors. Not everyone has the same resources to get feedback, help editing, etc. Some people--with 4/4 or 5/5 teaching loads--may be extremely stretched for time, and may find themselves having to send out sub-par work. I think reviewers should recognizing that such factors often exist, and so, instead of getting angry at authors, make it clear--in a respectful way--what's wrong with the paper. This is responsible reviewing, while avoiding unnecessary mean-spiritedness out of charity and kindness.

At the same time, I do think it's useful to keep in mind our own epistemic limitations. There may well be plenty of papers we can reliably classify as sub-par...but I still don't think it follows that we should appeal to some such principle to justify writing meanspirited reviews. For, as history indicates, many reviewers seemed pretty sure now-class papers were "trash." Given how often people are badly mistaken about paper quality, I think once again--out of charity and kindness--we should act with epistemic humility. The argument here, in other words, is not purely epistemic. It's that *morality*--considerations of charity and kindness *combined* with recognition of our epistemic limitations--mandates toning down rhetoric.


"Some people--with 4/4 or 5/5 teaching loads--may be extremely stretched for time, and may find themselves having to send out sub-par work. I think reviewers should recognizing that such factors often exist, and so, instead of getting angry at authors, make it clear--in a respectful way--what's wrong with the paper."

Thanks Marcus. Here we disagree on four scores. First, the sheer number of bad papers cannot be the result of faculty with 4-4 or heavy teaching loads. I know lots of people with difficult teaching loads who produce very good work. Second, having a heavy teaching load does not justify burdening referees with bad scholarship; I'm claiming that that is as immoral as providing intemperate reviews; it's simply a violation of professional responsibility. Finally, as I noted, refereeing work is really hard, and not just because it is largely unrecognized work. Asking a referee to read closely and offer comments (i.e. be professionally responsible) on work that does not display the same level of professional responsibility is, I'm suggesting, unfair and wrong. So while I think you're right that referees ought not to be unprofessional in the ways you note, I'm submitting that an equal moral burden falls on the potential authors. But I don't expect we'll come to agreement on this.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Mike: Thanks for your comment. A couple of thoughts:

(1) Either you are reading more bad papers than I and you are a better judge of paper quality than I, or you're a much harsher critic. For my part, I suspect it may be the latter, for a couple of reasons. First, I read a *lot* of papers, and think a lot of them are quite good--even though I may not be entirely convinced by the argument. Second, given how many good papers are consistently rejected by journals, many reviewers (you?) are arguably working with inaccurate, overly conservative standards for what counts as good work.

(2) Do you work under a heavy teaching load? I only ask because, if you don't, what makes you morally qualified to judge? Your *intuitions* about what a person's obligations are under duress? Something else? For my part (and of course there is a lot of normative ethical theorizing behind it), I think it is *fair* and permissible for some major burdens (people working under high teaching loads) to saddle other people with more modest burdens (reviewers who willingly accept an assignment) with certain costs, including the cost of possibly having to read a bad manuscript (though I do think there are some minimal standards of care that authors should take before submitting).

Anyway, yes, I expect we won't agree on this--but what's your (moral) argument if not a bare appeal to intuitions? Mine is based on an impartial account of the fairness of burden-sharing. Those who suffer more burdens should be able to shift some of them--in some small part--to those with lesser burdens.

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