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06/20/2019

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Nicolas Delon

Having several papers under review roughly concurrently is certainly a good strategy, one I’ve only started implementing recently. My worry with *10* papers under review at the same time is not that it’s flooding the system; it’s that it’s an enormous amount of publishable papers to be working on at the same time—should I assume that’s not even counting invited publications and the like? Even assuming you wouldn’t be writing them all simultaneously you’d need to be working on very many different papers concurrently and doing your very best on each of them (not doing your very best is what clogs the pipe). Kudos to those who have that many distinct unpublished papers they’re that happy with but that sounds very demanding to me.

Paul

While I can't imagine have 10 papers under review at any given moment--or really ever for that matter--I agree with the larger point. We all know that for every acceptance you get a LOT of rejections, so you got to just keep submitting. One piece of advice I received by a full prof at my university is to not change anything until the paper has been rejected by 3 journals, because it really does seem like a lottery. I don't follow this completely, since if I read charitably, I usually find at least one good constructive comment in the reviews, so I will at least make a change or two, but quickly so I can submit it somewhere else.

I also agree with Marcus's second point, and fortunately that was something that my mentor and chair stressed. They don't all have to be home runs. And academic social media (philpapers, academia, researchgate) level the playing field to some degree when it comes to publishing pedigree, so your pubs in less prestigious venues can still be seen and interacted with by lots of folks...

Pure speculation

I suspect that at least part of what makes a reviewer lean towards rejection has to do with the fluency heuristic - that is, the tendency to assign more positive value to experiences that involve faster, less effortful processing. In other words, the harder your paper is to read, the more cranky the reviewer will be. I think this is going to be especially relevant in the beginning of the paper, when the reviewer is forming a first impression (and most likely, making up their mind). If this is right, then it might be a good idea to spend a lot of time really finessing the style of the first section of the paper, as well as the abstract. If reading that part of the paper is easy and pleasant for the reviewer, they'll be more positively inclined to bear with you later on when writing things that are hard to read becomes unavoidable.Then maybe they won't try as hard to come up with objections, or they won't care about those rejections quite so much. Something similar is probably also true of editors looking for reasons to desk reject a paper.

Trevor Hedberg

I think the bigger concern with the "10 papers under review" standard is that most people will not be able to juggle 10 publishable ideas at the same time. I know plenty of people who publish a steady stream of work but very few who have that many works-in-progress at the same time. It takes a long time to nurture an idea into a paper that stands a real chance of being published, and I worry that aspiring to have 10 papers under review at all times will lead people to pursue a quantity-over-quality strategy that is counterproductive. Often, a more balanced approach -- one that involves consistently submitting material for review but also investing significant time in revising and polishing work -- will yield better results overall. Also, there has never been a point in my career thus far where I have simultaneously had 10 papers in my possession that were all worth publishing. Some ideas just don't pan out, and others wind up failing to advance the literature in a meaningful way. If you only have 4-6 publishable ideas on tap at one time, you're not likely to be throwing 10 papers at journals.

Anon

Since lots of people are focusing on the 10 number, I just thought I'd chime in: in the OP Marcus also mentions throwing some less competitive journals into the mix, and once you do that, less than 10 still counts as playing the odds appropriately. I've been aiming for 3 under review at once, not the top journals, and that's gotten me 1 or 2 a year.

Marcus Arvan

Hi all: yeah, ten papers is a lot, and I only did it for a little while (though it did work as advertised!). The more relevant point, I think, is that there may be a tendency among early career people not to have enough pieces under review. When I was in grad school and a recent PhD, I only had a couple papers under review. I figured that was enough—but it’s really not, in my experience. You may not need ten papers under review at any given time, but you definitely need more than a couple. I’d say I average about 5 right now, and that the number is only this low because I have tenure and now feel the freedom to focus less on quantity.

On other thing I’ll note, to address Trevor’s concern about only having a handful ofnpublishable ideas at any given time and Nicholas’s concern about having so many papers being too demanding. When I first heard the 10 Papers Rule from my two friends, I considered it an absurd number I would never be able to reach. But, since I figured I’d listen to them (since they were so successful), I gave it a shot—drafting up just about every idea I had that I thought was halfway interesting. This led to dramatic overproduction. I’ve drafted probably four times as many papers as I’ve published—many of which are just sitting abandoned in computer folders. But I also think I came up with more *good* ideas than I would have otherwise.

Anyway, I actually found it *fun* and that the more I drafted, the more ideas came. I’d even go so far as to say it was sort of a transformative experience where I came to realize that drafting up new papers can be fun and useful even if many of them don’t make the cut in terms of sending out to journals. I think I probably learned something useful in every paper I drafted up—even the half-finished ones that ended up going nowhere. And in any case it made research a whole lot more fun and exciting to be constantly exploring new ground than polishing the same paper over and over again. I have a saying: “You can’t polish a turn into gold, nor turn gold intro a turd”—the point of the saying being that spending time trying to polish old things has diminishing returns compared to drafting new things (you can’t turn an unpublishable paper into a publishable one by spending more time on it, and a paper with publishable ideas probably doesn’t need a ton of extra polishing—so why not draft up something new?).

Marcus Arvan

Just to clarify: I don’t mean to imply that revising and polishing old work isn’t important (it is). I merely mean to suggest that, in my experience, there are diminishing returns to it such that it can be more effective to prioritize drafting new stuff over spending a ton of extra time trying to polish things that probably “are what they are” already.

The reader

The original reader here. Thanks for all these thoughts, both Marcus and everyone else. Marcus' number (10) caught me off-guard as well, at first. Right now I have 5 papers out with 2-3 in the works, and I thought I was producing a lot! Guess not. I have made 15 submissions (between 8 distinct papers) over this past year. 9 rejections, 1 withdraw (it was 4 months and the journal had yet to find a referee), and 5 still waiting for decision. I did have one R&R, but it turned into a rejection. More recently I have started to vary the journals a lot, submitting to more specialist and lower-ranked journals. Perhaps that will help.

To "Pure speculation", I've worked a lot on writing up better introductions. The old introductions and abstracts I used to write were terrible. I think mine are much better now? In any case, I don't feel like it's helped much, although I'm sure you're right that having an introduction that doesn't get to the point hurts you. The problem, I think, is that different people have fairly different ideas about how the first few paragraphs of a paper should read. I've gotten conflicting advice on just what makes for a good introduction to a paper. What makes one referee cranky probably goes unnoticed (or is expected) by another.

Michel

I think Marcus's take is right: you just need to persevere until you luck out and get two sympathetic referees. There are lots of small things we can do to help referees be sympathetic, and easing the burden of reading is one of them, but ultimately it just comes down to getting a good draw. One thing that I think is helpful (and my anecdata seem to support it!) is including an explanatory letter to the editor if the paper is at all weird or non-standard. It seems to help with the referees you get, and maybe makes the editor more sympathetic to verdicts that aren't outright yeses. Or, at least, I think it worked for me! (But it's still purely anecdotal. I have no real evidence.)

I've had as many as 7 under review at a time, of which five were ultimately accepted. It's not too hard to have a lot out at the same time, provided you're consistently working on new material, because it takes so long for things to get refereed, and everything gets rejected so many times, so the pipeline backs up a bit. On the other hand, it can clear quickly and all at once, leaving you with a whole of revisions to make before you send things out again. (I'm in that situation now, and it's a tad overwhelming! I have to learn to be more efficient when it happens.)

No so cynical

I do not believe that people are as cynical about refereeing as they imply. Really consider the following. Compare the papers that you have had accepted (even after multiple submissions) with those that have never been accepted. Are the former not better papers? (isn't this evidence that referees are picking the winners?) Further, do people really have such a grim view of referees' comments? I have genuinely benefited from refereeing. I have improved my arguments and clarified my expositions of views. To be clear, I have published quite a bit, in journals such as Philosophy of Science, Synthese, SHPS, Erkenntnis, but also Nous and APQ.
I think expressing this cynical view gives young scholars a very distorted view of the profession and publication norms and practices.

Marcus Arvan

No so cynical: I'm not sure why you think people here are cynical about refereeing.

The peer-review process has absolutely improved my papers, and I have benefited from referee reports. But this is because of the 50% or so referee reports I've received that are actually conscientious and well-composed. It's the other 50% or so--the reports that are five sentences long, deliberately inflammatory, etc.--that are a serious problem. And anyone who has been through the process knows how much luck is involved. Sometimes, you will get one referee who explains clearly why your paper is an important contribution to the field - but the other referee dashes off 5 sentences simply reporting their opinion that the paper is trash (without any argument justifying their opinion). Further, empirical research on referee reports indicates that inter-rater reliability is barely better than chance - which again suggests that peer-review is to a very big extent "the luck of the draw."

None of this is cynicism. It is simply recognizing the *fact* that the peer-review system--and the peer-review reports one receives--can be tremendously inconsistent. And it's not just a few people reporting this. David Bourget did a survey at PhilPeople where people reported similar things, and I did a survey finding the same: https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2018/12/incentivizing-better-reviewer-behavior.html

Amanda

Not so cynical: I notice *no* difference in quality, on average, between the papers that I have had accepted and those that have not been accepted. I guess I could be wildly off on my assessments, but to the extent that I have feedback from peers, their assessments have mostly aligned with mine. Even more, the papers I like the most, i.e., that I think are the best, are not the ones published in the most prestigious venues. Not surprisingly, my most prestigious publications are in language/epistemology/metaphysics. I don't like this stuff all that much, but I do it because I am at a research school and I need to have some papers in top journals. These journals aren't very interested in the papers that I think are my best work. I suspect this is because of my non-traditional topics (they have been desk rejected on account of topic or style more than once). But yeah, I guess I could just be better at writing the traditional stuff, and not as good at writing the stuff I enjoy more, but I kind of doubt it.

Most papers by people with PhDs in philosophy, like maybe 80 or 85 percent, I suspect are roughly equal in quality. They are well thought out analytically, and mildly interesting. I do think acceptance is in large part a gamble for all those papers, and the part that is not a gamble is the roughly 50% of the time that the reviewer knows the author.

Of course, there are exceptional papers that are far above and beyond average quality, and then some terrible papers. I do think most of the exceptional ones eventually get accepted, but it often can take many rounds because the thoughts are out of the box. I am more confident that awful papers get rejected, unless they are written by a star.

So how is all that for cynicism lol? Truth is uncomfortable and unpleasant, alas.

Amanda

And not cynic, why did you feel the need to mention the journals you published in? Is that supposed to add some type of legitimacy to your claim? Because if you had *not* published in those journals, and made that claim, it would somehow be less legitimate? If we are really evaluating on the equality of arguments...

Marcus Arvan

Amanda: here’s just one anecdote in support of what you just wrote. One of my mentors—a very influential senior figure in a particular AOS—told me that the best paper he ever wrote got rejected by nine journals, ending up in a low-ranked journal. Naturally, that article is now widely cited and engaged with.

Amanda

Yes, thanks Marcus. It happens all the time. I just have heard this from so, so, many people...it is really hard for me to understand how there are still so many people out there who think that peer review is mostly accurate and mostly blind. I mean, there are lots of open public conversations where people use their own name to talk about, (1)how many times some of their best work was rejected, and (2) how often they review the work of someone they know. In spite of this, there is still this significant contingent of philosophers who think publications are this pure area of philosophy, almost solely related to merit and not corrupted by few sources outside of reason itself. I don't get it. Not only is there no evidence this is true, there is *lots* of evidence that it is not.

To be clear, peer review does work a decent chunk of the time. Sometimes it really is blind, and reviewers do a good job and offer helpful comments in a constructive manner. When this happens, that is great. On the whole, I do probably think there are somewhat higher odds that the best papers get published in the best journals. But I see this as just slightly higher odds with so, so, many exceptions.

All philosophers have various philosophical interests at stake in the profession. Those who come from prestigious backgrounds have an interest in the perception that prestigious and talent are closely linked. Those who have published well (whether by luck, connections, or genuine philosophical talent) have an interest in the peer review and reputation system as being seen as legitimate. Those who have tried publishing without the same success have an interest in the opposite. Those at R1s have an interest in the perception that people at R1s really are more talented at research. I could go on.It is hard for me not to think that it is these interests which shapes the relevant mistaken perceptions, for it is hard for me to see what else it might be.

Of the options out there, peer review probably is a bit better as far as allowing people without connections to achieve success. At least with peer review the process works well a respectable amount of the time. However, the bar of "works well" is set very low at the start.

Related story: two days ago I had what I considered an incredibly valuable professional experience. I had recently reviewed a paper for a prestigious journal. I was sort of wavering between reject and major revisions, and ended up going with the latter. The paper had a number of important conceptual insights, but the way these insights were organized and expressed needed quite a bit of work. Anyway, for the first time in my experience, (and I have done a lot of reviewing) I had a chance to see the other reviewer's comments. This reviewer (reviewer 2, of course, who recommended reject) was incredibly aggressive, uncharitable, and missed key points from the author. I have heard many complain about referees before. But it is a different thing when you see an unfair report of a paper that you, yourself, also reviewed. It is sort of just like a bright light is shined on the truth that you are not the only one, and that many reviewers simply do a bad job with their task.

The reader

Me again: Thanks to Marcus and Amanda for your defense.

A quick question for those still paying attention. One way to hedge off all the potential objections is to address them. Another way is to hedge the thesis with qualifications, e.g. "I show that all X are Q, except maybe for the following cases". A third way is to soften the assertive force of the thesis: e.g., "I don't aim to show thesis X definitively, but instead to argue that it ought to be taken more seriously than it currently is".

What do you think of the relative merits to these approaches? Lately I've been trying out the last, since I like it the most. It still allows you to put forward bold claims that catch attention, doesn't require filling your paper with pedantic objections-and-replies, but acknowledges the reality of what you've actually accomplished. Plus, the reality is that no philosophy paper definitively shows its thesis, so... you're just being honest.

Amanda

Reader: personally I go with 3, saying something like, "according to my theory, x and y can explain Z. I don't mean to say that x and y are the only explanation or even the most important, but similarly that X and is one way and it is a compelling way....

Marcus Arvan

'The reader': I've done all of those kinds of things. I think it really depends on the paper. Just let its content dictate which of those three strategies best fits the case at hand. However, I will say along with Amanda that I probably do the third the most often. But oftentimes it's a combination of (1) and (3), where I try to head off as many objections as possible while also saying that I'm trying to argue that X warrants my attention. This is, broadly, what I take "referee proofing" to amount to: leaving as few holes as reasonably possible while pitching a paper as a new word rather than the "last word."

The reader

Thanks Amanda and Marcus!

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