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02/27/2016

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Kristina Meshelski

If publishing is a means for specialists to share research findings, converse about them, and advance human knowledge in general then you should publish what you think other researchers need to read. This may or may not be one's best work, it really depends on the state of the field. Also publications are used in different ways in practice- an article can be very necessary to publish in the sense that people will immediately read it and change their own research in response, or it can be useful for teaching, or it can be used to translate one sub field for use by another sub field... For me it really isn't about which work is the "best", it's about what will others find most useful.

Kristina Meshelski

At any rate, it is less anxiety producing for me, and probably makes me a better philosopher, to think of myself as trying to be of use to other researchers (and maybe to the public) than to think of myself as constantly being judged by other researchers. Sometimes hard to do, but that's what I try to do.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Kristina: Thanks for your comment! I think the general attitude you're espousing sounds healthy. Conceiving oneself primarily as trying to be of use to other researchers--rather than as constantly being judged by them--seems like a promotion-focused approach (which might, for that reason, be good for those of us who are promotion-focused!).

At the same time, I can't help but wonder whether it largely (if not entirely) pushes the central practical question, "What should I try to publish?", back a step. After all, suppose your aim is to publish stuff that might be of use to other researchers. How are you to judge *that*?

Here again, it seems one could adopt a conservative, prevention-focused approach (viz. "Other researchers are only likely to find good work useful, so I'd better not try to publish stuff that isn't really good!"), or a riskier, promotion-focused approach (viz. "I don't know *which* of my works will be useful to others unless and until I publish them, since reviewers and readers are the ones who will judge whether that work is useful to them!").

Do you think conceiving yourself as a researcher in terms of "use to others" tips the balance in one direction over the other here (i.e. a less conservative approach to publishing)? On the one hand, you could adopt the conservative approach of deferring to others' judgments (i.e. ask other specialists you know whether your work is useful). Yet, I have worries about this approach. In many creative areas of human life (film, literature, philosophy, music, etc.), "experts" have a pretty poor record spotting how useful a piece of work is in advance. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter book was rejected by almost every publisher, Gottlob Frege was totally unimpressed by Wittgenstein's Tractatus, etc. One can of course adopt a conservative approach of deferring to others, but in that case one runs the risk of not sending out work that *might* be useful on the basis of a few people who think otherwise. On the flip side, one could adopt a much liberal approach of deferring to one's own judgment of what is likely to be "useful"--but there are risks there in the other direction: one could be deluded, thinking a new paper one has written is likely to be "useful" (when, let's say, it is actually terrible). So, here again, even if one simply conceives oneself as aiming to be "useful" to other researchers, one runs into the same problem again, no?

publishing person

Marcus,
There are many reasons to publish. Generally, one should publish high quality work only. And I would say that people should try to publish in journals that bound to be read. Publishing in obscure journals counts for very little, and such papers are seldom read (and then seldom cited).
With that said, many of us have other incentives to publish. I work at an institution that, like many in the US, assess merit and give raises annually (when they give raises), and one of the criteria used in determining who gets what sort of raise is publications. There is thus an incentive to publish annually. This sort of incentive cuts two ways: it does encourage one to finish projects that may otherwise just lay around (and should be finished), but it can also encourage excessive publication (and publication of weak papers).
And, sometimes I have agreed to contribute a paper for an invited volume (special issue or edited book). I sometimes agree to do so, even though I may have other things I would rather work on. I may want to contribute a piece because of the other people involved.
But one thing your post asks us to reflect on is why we are bothering to publish. I find it extremely rewarding, but it is most rewarding when the paper is of a very high quality, and it is received by others as such.

Trevor Hedberg

I've seen many discussions about this topic before (both on this blog and elsewhere), and there's always one thing I can't pin down: what exactly do we mean by "bad work" in this context? The plausibility of a maxim to avoid publishing bad work is going to hinge pretty significantly on just what's being defined as bad work. Here are some possible definitions:

Bad work = "work that is judged by your peers and/or mentors to be bad"

But philosophers disagree so frequently in their judgments that some are likely to find your idea promising while others think it isn't. Thus, since it will be hard for you to identify your bad work, it will be hard to avoid publishing bad work under this criteria unless you publish very little (i.e., publish only those things garner extremely widespread support from your colleagues and/or mentors).

Bad work = "work that is, by your own lights, not the best work that you can produce"

If this is the standard for bad work, then there are two problems with trying to follow the maxim. First, you can underestimate the quality of your own work (or overestimate the significance of an objection to it) and thereby misjudge the merits of your work. Second, this standard makes the imperative to avoid publishing bad work too demanding: why is every paper you produce required to be your absolute best for it to be worthy of publication? Surely there are some good ideas that advance debates and are worth publishing even if they aren't the best or most original ideas that the author ever had.

Bad work = "work that is below some rough threshold of excellence, either by your own lights or by the consensus of your peers"

This is my best effort at generating a plausible definition of bad work, but there is still some vagueness in this definition because it doesn't specify what the threshold of excellence is supposed to be. Is it the top 10% of one's work? The top 25%? The top 50%? Does the threshold vary from person to person? Might there be some experienced and talented philosophers who are justified in publishing nearly everything they write whereas certain other philosophers should exercise more discretion? Is this threshold established primarily by the status of the journal in which one is able to get the paper published? I don't have first answers to these questions, but I think we've got to make an effort to answer them if we're to understand what is meant by an imperative to avoid publishing bad work.

Pendaran Roberts

Worrying about whether something you've written is really good enough to be published is a good way to insure you publish little.

Whenever you get an idea that seems to you to be a novel contribution, write it up the best you can, and send it somewhere. Revise the manuscript based on the rejection (you'll most likely be rejected), and then send it elsewhere.

Often referees' comments will evidence that they don't really understand what you're saying. If so, make efforts to be clearer.

Often referees' will have objections. Even if you think they're dumb, try to accommodate some of them and respond to them. You are likely to get one of the referees again.

But you do have to draw a line somewhere. If a comment is really over the top or really misguided, ignore it. I've often done this.

If you have a novel idea and you keep working on it, improving it, and revising it based on comments, you'll eventually get published.

Don't worry about having been rejected a lot. It's a lottery. Even good papers that end up being published in top journals may be rejected many times.

My paper 'An ecumenical response to color contrast cases' was rejected 6 times before being published by Synthese. In fact, it was rejected by far worse journals. http://philpapers.org/rec/ROBAER-2

In sum, I wouldn't worry about what is good enough to submit. Do your best to write novel and interesting stuff then submit it. See what the referees say, then revise.

Let the peer review system decide what should be published. That's how I've gone about it for the last few years, and it's worked pretty well for me.

Not to say the whole process doesn't suck!

Kristina Meshelski

Hi Marcus, and sorry for my late reply! Yes, I admit this does push the question back a step. However, I find it easier to be an objective judge about whether my work is useful to others than to be an objective judge of whether my work is *good*. I think I sometimes over-value my work and sometimes under-value it, depending on my confidence level at the moment. Not that I am very sure about my work's usefulness, but it seems to make the issue more tractable.

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