Our books

Become a Fan

« Who submits to top general philosophy journals? | Main | What have you learned about being a good professional philosopher? »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


In a way, however, it might be thought that Stanley's story vindicates the current peer review practices of the top journals. For "[Stanley's Knowledge and Practical Interests] is the result of three revise and resubmits, and finally a rejection from Phil Review. One of those drafts was also rejected from Mind, and also from Nous." And had his work not been so heavily vetted, it may not have come together to receive as much attention as it did, such that "[it]...is the fifth most cited work of philosophy since 2000 in Phil Review, Mind, Nous, and the Journal of Philosophy (book or article)."

Marcus Arvan

Hi Eugene: nice point, and well taken. But I still can't help but wonder. Stanley's work may have benefited tremendously from the vetting he received at those journals, but for all that -- given its influence -- it seems his work was likely *good* enough to be accepted by all of them, and yet all of them rejected it.

Isn't this disturbing? Rigorously vetting work is one thing. Systematically *rejecting* great work that later becomes wildly influential is another! It is a string of false negatives across several influential journals. Shouldn't strings of false negatives like this worry us, especially given the effects that they may have on people less well-placed than Stanley (i.e. people at small schools, etc., who may not have the opportunity to publish the work as a book with OUP)?


But I guess the point I was making was precisely that Stanley's experience wasn't "a string of false negatives." His work, on this line of thought, wasn't up to snuff while it was still being refereed at Nous, et cetera. Eventually, with enough feedback, his work was ready to be published. And it was!

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa

It seems pretty plausible that Stanley's previous work was good enough to warrant publication in a top journal -- that his rejection constituted a 'false negative'. I'm not particularly inclined to conclude that journals are too selective on this basis. It's probably not an appropriate use of this blog to name names, but I think that there are lots (and lots) of 'false positives' in the top journals too. It seems to me that the conclusion to draw is that top journals are highly fallible at choosing the best papers, without exhibiting any particular bias in favour of accepting or rejecting.

(Indeed, given the fact that appearance in top journals is pretty close to a zero-sum game -- there is a pretty inelastic availability of slots -- it's hard to make sense of the idea that they're not getting things right "on average".)


This post won't directly respond to Marcus's questions, but I want to support the worry raised in his post.

So, I'll just say that I find this to be a problem. The culture of philosophy seems to be that one must play it safe in order to survive. But safe work is not only dull, it doesn't say or do much. And the history of philosophy seems to show that new approaches to old problems are what matters, even if the arguments in favor of those approaches aren't perfect. (Others, including Marcus, have expressed similar worries in the past.)

The journals practices here are representative of how many (not all) philosophers genuinely think philosophy should only be done. As such, I'm not sure whether to continue onto a Ph.D or not since I'm not certain I'll be happy to work in the discipline (I have my MA, fyi).


I worry that journals are too selective at some times and insufficiently selective at others. Some terrible stuff seems to slip through the peer review process and this same process seems to be block very good stuff. I think there are various causes for this, but one problem is that referees aren't given sufficient guidance by editors. It might be good if editors distributed something like a grading rubric to try to standardize things a little. As someone who referees a lot of work, I'd appreciate it if editors distributed something like a series of questions about the paper instead of just asking for comments. I think it could actually speed the refereeing process and level out the quality of reports a little.


I want to second Jonathan's point. It's not a problem of false negatives per se. The general issue is just that, in my view, the so-called top journals do not have a particularly good track record of selecting very good papers. Part of the problem is, of course, that people disagree, and maybe even reasonably so, about what constitutes a very good paper. That said, I have read many papers (in my area) in the 'top journals' where I felt truly astonished how this paper could have made it past referees and editors. (I will add, FWIW, that more often than not such papers are written by famous people at prestigious programs.)

It seems to me that minimally, people should stop pretending that there is a magical formula by which the top journals scan papers for the best qualities. The decisions are ultimately made by people in the light of their own presumptions, biases, controversial criteria of 'quality' etc.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Clayton: I was thinking the same thing. In my understanding, some journal editors used to take a much more active role in shaping journal reviewing standards (Ryle was well-known for taking an active -- some would say too active role -- while at Mind). Anyway, I think it is a great idea. When reviewers are left entirely to their own devices, bad tendencies can arise, be perpetuated, etc. (and indeed, seem to have done so). I think it would be great if editors took a more active role, and that a series of questions to direct reviewers would be a great place to start.


I'm sympathetic with this worry, and wonder if it could just as easily be framed in the opposite way: Are journals insufficiently selective (on other criteria than those they are too selective about)?

As De Cruz suggests, maybe "the peer review process is geared towards finding mistakes rather than identifying bold new ideas." But that means journals should be much harsher about rejecting submissions that present--without mistakes--cautious, bland, predictable ideas. Even the language of "mistakes" here needs examination. What kinds of mistakes do and should journals focus on--stylistic, argumentative, factual?

Consider the point that Stanley's book was improved through the peer review process. Improved in what ways? In my experience, peer review improves my work above all in its clarity and style. It doesn't substantially change my idea, my thesis and argument, but how well I communicate it to the audience. Even where peer review finds mistakes in my argument, these are still primarily mistakes in presentation, which are fixed not by substantially changing my thesis but tailoring and refining it.

Now, that kind of improvement is perfectly compatible with a "bad" paper, understood as one with something new and insightful to say. A blank page has no mistakes of that kind. And so: even if peer review does "improve" a paper, does it improve it in the most important ways?

(This should also lead us to wonder: are the "best" journals really that great? What kind of "good" qualities are they selecting for, and might they select against other good qualities that are more philosophically important than those selected for?)

Marcus Arvan

Hi Eugene: Thanks for your reply!

You write: "But I guess the point I was making was precisely that Stanley's experience wasn't "a string of false negatives." His work, on this line of thought, wasn't up to snuff while it was still being refereed at Nous, et cetera. Eventually, with enough feedback, his work was ready to be published. And it was!"

Following Anon 10:37, I sort of doubt this. Stanley's work might have benefited greatly from the three revise-and-resubmits at Phil Review and subsequent submissions (and rejections) from Nous, JPhil, etc., but presumably the paper's main *argument* -- the argument that has now become wildly influential -- was there all along. It's hard for me to believe it wasn't "up to snuff." It seems far more likely to me -- based on my own experience with uncharitable reviewers, as well as the historical record of ridiculous rejections in other fields (J.K. Rowling's string of rejections, Andy Warhol's, U2's, etc.) -- that Stanley ran into a string of people who failed to appreciate the importance of the paper's basic ideas. Alas, maybe the problem here isn't one at all unique to philosophy. Given that the problem crops up in most fields of work, maybe the real lesson is that people in *general* are too critical and often unable to recognize great ideas when they're staring them in the face!

Just a few fun examples:

“We feel that we don’t know the central character well enough.” The author does a rewrite and his protagonist becomes an icon for a generation as The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger sells 65 million.

“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.” A rejection letter sent to Dr Seuss. 300 million sales and the 9th best-selling fiction author of all time.

“An absurd story as romance, melodrama or record of New York high life.” Yet publication sees The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald become a best-selling classic.




I think the lesson to draw here is that publishing in a "top" journal =/= good work, and not publishing in a "top" journal =/= bad work. Unfortunately, those are the inferences far too many in our profession tend to draw.

Wesley Buckwalter

I agree with some of what's been said about the process itself. I'll just add that top philosophy journals could absolutely remain super selective (rightfully or wrongly) and also simply accept more papers per year. By comparison the most prestigious journals in other fields such as science and nature clock in around 8-10%, whereas say, Mind is at 6%, and others probably less. I suspect it's not due to lack of quality in philosophy papers.

Helen De Cruz

I agree with Wesley that it would be no problem for the most selective journals to print (online publish) a few more issues per year, without perceptible loss of quality. Australasian J of Philosophy has an acceptance rate of 5%, for instance. I think Mind and the other top 5 have even less acceptance rates. And yet, I'm not super-excited by most of the stuff I read in Mind, or JPhil or PRev. Most of it is, like much of philosophy, incremental. There are, of course, wonderful papers in there too. But by accepting a bit more, we might get a few more daring papers in good journals that otherwise journey from journal to journal. Now that many libraries are moving to online issues and cancelling their physical subscription, cost isn't an issue. PhilStudies publishes lots of issues, and it's a good quality journal. So if all top journals moved to the PhilStudies model instead of the 4 issues per year, I don't think it would be at the detriment of quality.

Scott Clifton

I often wonder where is the line between a paper putting forth an implausible argument/account and a paper putting forth an argument/account where the reviewer has in mind substantive objections. Recently I had a paper receive a revise and resubmit, which had four sets of referee comments. The first two said that the paper was outstanding scholarship, the third missed the point of the paper entirely, and the fourth cited work in cognitive neuropsychology that purportedly cast doubt on the argument I was making. I looked up and read the literature on the work cited in the fourth referee's comments and the findings are less cut and dried than the referee suggested. This seemed to me exactly the kind of thing that should be discussed in a public forum--an author makes an argument drawing on empirical work, another person provides an objection, based on different empirical work, and the author replies by trying to show that the objector's cited empirical work doesn't cast sufficient doubt. Alas, two sets of glowing referee comments + one clueless set + one set citing questionable empirical work purported to refute the argument = R&R. (This after nine months under review. I suspect that the journal's editors were looking for a reason not to accept the paper.)


Eh, slap in a footnote raising the objection and pretty much what you just said here (but fleshed out a bit). And in a referee report note that referee #3 whiffed on their interpretation of your paper. Should be a slam dunk publication decision out of this.

Scott Clifton

Unfortunately, Rachel, the particular journal I had submitted to handles R&R's like new submissions. That's a whole new review process and I cannot wait another nine months for a decision that might not go my way (if, say, the fourth reviewer is again asked to review it).


But even if R+Rs are sent to new referees, don't the editors send the original referee reports to them as well? Surely the journal doesn't treat the R+R literally like a fresh submission, does it? I've had about 5 R+Rs and even in cases where the papers were sent to fresh referees, they always say the original referee reports along with my resubmission report.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Subscribe to the Cocoon

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory


Subscribe to the Cocoon