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03/02/2020

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a philosopher

I see a lot of papers which have some large subset of the flaws you list, but no one being so egregious that it's obviously a rejection. Usually the weight of all the flaws, together, seems to me to warrant rejection. But when the paper only has one or two of these problems, I usually find it difficult to decide if it's a reject or an R&R. Perhaps I'm more (or too) forgiving.

Perhaps this falls under one of the above categories, but a problem I often see is papers that are just too convoluted. They defend multiple theses and the overall organization of the paper is hard to discern or follow: e.g., I'll find myself on page 17 wondering how we got here, given what was said on p. 5, or unsure of how what's on p. 8 matters or why it needs to be there at all.

Finally: perhaps this is subjective, but I've read some papers that are just boring. I don't mean the writing style, but the thesis and problem they address. They are clearly the result of highly specialized debates which, perhaps 20 years ago, started with compelling and important questions of wide scope, but now have devolved into hyper-technical and jargon-laden responses-to-responses. Usually the author is making some very specific point, e.g. that if we assume X, Y, and Z, we can fix problem A previously raised in response to proposed solution S to problems B, C, and D, where B, C, and D are themselves at least two steps removed from the original compelling issues which kickstarted the debate. Even when done really well, it's often not clear to me whether these papers make a valuable contribution to the literature. This sort of paper is obviously valuable in a field like mathematics, where the logical connections between theorems and lemmas are strong enough that such work makes a contribution towards an eventual solution of some well-defined problem. But my sense is generally that when philosophy papers get to this stage what's happened is that we've lost touch with anything meaningful and just playing with empty jargon, that we've reached a purely verbal dispute, that we're merely formalizing or making precise the obvious, or that we're spinning in circles.

Amanda

I don't agree that not addressing the literature is automatically a reason for rejection. I think it highly increases the odds, because either, (1) the paper does not add anything that is sufficiently new, or (2) other papers in the literature make points that are so important to address, that the author's own points are not worth discussing unless they are addressed.

The above said, I think a paper is worth publishing if the following holds: the paper does not cite papers on similar topics in the literature, however, the paper still says something that is importantly new, interesting, and that it is well-argued.

For those who disagree with my statement above, do you disagree because you think, (1) It is *impossible* for an argument to be interesting and worthwhile if it lacks key citations or, (2) Do you think that even if a paper is interesting and worthwhile in all other respects, there is something wrong with publishing a paper that misses citing key discussions in the literature?

I am also a bit skeptical of scanning philpapers to see if the article "misses" something it should have cited. If you are not really familiar with the area or the papers that pop up, it seems a bit unfair to conclude it was wrong of the author not to cite something. Perhaps if you read the paper, it would be clear why it wasn't cited. Sometimes titles and abstracts are misleading.

Trevor, I am curious why you wouldn't at least sometimes think that missing key citations is a reason for R&R instead of a straight rejection?

One reason I think my position is important, is that it allows the discussion to take place between a wider range of people, i.e., persons who do not usually write in a literature can publish something if they have something interesting to say. Since most people seem to agree with Trevor(in my experience) it becomes very hard for people who don't have an AOS in an area to publish in it. Not only that, it provides a huge advantage to those with low teaching loads and lots of research support to publish outside of their area, because they have the time to do the extra background research. Those at teaching schools will have to resign themselves to "sticking with what they know." Or at the least, there will be a lot of pressure for them to stick to what they know.

The more I read reviews for articles other than my own, the more I get depressed about the state of the profession and about how unfairly critical most philosophers are of other philosophers.

Amanda

One reason I frequently reject a paper is that most of the paper is summary and that the point the author adds isn't all that interesting. I suppose this is why there is so much luck in the review system. I consider it a flaw if a paper mostly reads like a summary of the literature. But it seems others like this kind of thing.

While there is a point at which a paper's "bad writing" makes me reject (especially when the bad writing causes communication problems) I try to be tolerant of typos and sloppiness because (1) I do not think these issues are nearly as important as having a good argument and interesting thesis, (2) these issues can easily be corrected in revisions, and (3) I think it is biased against, (a) people with less research resources, and (b) people who come from lower class backgrounds. I went into my PhD program from undergrad at a poor university and had come from a poor high school. There was a lot of grammar deficiencies I had going into grad school. While I corrected for most of these, I think I will always make more mistakes than those who learned these habits in elementary school. I do think it is my responsibility to learn the professional system competently. But I don't think competence should require too much - especially when mistakes do not influence the main argument of the paper.

I agree with "a philosopher" about boring papers and papers that use too much jargon.

Chris

I agree with "a philosopher" and Amanda in that one reason I often find myself rejecting a paper is lack of originality or significance. If the paper is perfectly careful and good in all the ways one would hope (avoiding the 7 problems Trevor mentions in his post) but is lacking in originality, I will point out to the editor that the paper isn't especially significant - it is mostly focused, for example, on secondary or tertiary issues, or there is little original argumentation (too much summary). I then leave it up to the editor to decide if that means accept or reject. No surprise that it can depend on the journal. At more prestigious journals in my sub-specialty, they will take that as grounds for rejection.

Shen-yi Liao

In the abstract, I don't disagree with any of these reasons. However, I do think there is a tendency in the profession to focus so much on the ways in which a paper is inadequate rather than on the new paths it charts.

I was quite guilty of this early on. (I keep meticulous tracking of papers I review.) In the first few years out of graduate school, I rejected most papers. Coding a reject as 0 and R&R as 0.5 and accept as 1, my average was 0.2. This was very silly. There were many papers that I rejected that were eventually published and made very important marks in the respective literatures, and I now recognize my rejections to be a mistake. I simply was too focused on the ways it didn't maximally persuade me, rather than its own virtues.

In the last couple of years, I've been trying to remedy that. My overall view is that there are so many intelligent and diligent people in our profession, trying to say new things on so many problems, that it's really a tragedy that so many paper get stuck in the peer review cycle. In fact, some papers I thought were really good never saw the light of day, and that's a loss for everyone. So, just to compare, in the last couple of years my average is 0.7. Perhaps some of those papers exhibit some of the flaws cited in this post, and perhaps rejection would have been warranted, but I also feel like we should look harder to see what is good about them.

Trevor Hedberg

Amanda, you raise a good concern. I should have clarified that I don't think most of these issues in isolation are automatically grounds for rejection unless they particularly egregious. I think it's normal for even worthwhile papers to have flaws, and nothing that's correctable at the proof stage (like grammatical errors) would even register with me unless it hindered by understanding of the content. That said, on the particular issue of engaging with existing scholarship, I think there's a tendency for people to cite too little and to overlook relevant publications in specialty journals. (Marcus wrote a post about this called "On Citation Practices in Philosophy" way back in 2014.) The result of not citing this material is that a lot of valuable scholarship remains unnoticed and is not engaged with. That's part of why so many papers in the humanities have 0 citations. This was more understandable in the era before online library databases and PhilPapers, but the time costs of doing this research is much lower now than they were 20 years ago. So I would be reluctant to change my standards on that particular metric.

Amanda

Thanks for clarifying ,Trevor.

Yes, I am familiar with Marcus's position and post. This is one point where Marcus and I seem to disagree.

I do agree it is a problem to ignore speciality journals and people who are not big names. However, I do not see the solution as focusing on citations. Here is why:

- I am extremely skeptical that citations equal, or have a close relationship to, "engagement." I fear that this push to cite will result in lots of more papers having lots of more citations, but having basically no more engagement. Papers will have long lists of citations where only a handful of the papers cited are ever read or engaged. I know that I've been cited many times where the author puts in a note but there is no discussion of my paper. In theory, I think the hope is that someone will read the other person's paper and see the citation of mine, and then go read my paper. I just am skeptical that this will happen with much frequency.

To summarize the above, I fear that the push for citations will result in those on the margins (publications in lesser known journals from less known people) getting pushed even further to the margins. Why? Because citations will be used as an excuse, i.e. "We don't ignore people who are not prestigious, they are cited all the time!" However, the citations will be nothing more than a line of text.

2. My other thought is that being less picky about these things will often *help* those who are marginalized. Those who are less part of the "in-group" in philosophy are often at a disadvantage re citations. First, they have less time for reading and research. If you have to read a lot more, that takes away a lot of time from writing. Second, marginalized persons have a harder time knowing when new and important papers come out. Sure, they can check. But those in the know have been discussing these papers with their authors often for years via emails, conferences, workshops, etc. So those people surely are not going to miss citing it. Someone who has not had these advantages is just much more prone to miss these things. Here is another example: I am at a research school and I have an RA. I sometimes have my RA read my paper and then look for published papers on related ideas that I can use in footnotes, reference lists, and maybe incorporate key ideas. Clearly, someone without an RA is at a disadvantage in this area compared to me.

I know what some people will say: "I am not in a prestigious spot and I just make myself do the work. This is something everyone can do if they try." I think it is not that simple. Just because some people overcome these things doesn't mean that marginalized persons are not at an unfair disadvantage.

History Reviewer

I work in an area in the history of philosophy. I have rejected papers before because they did not sufficiently explain why the article's project was philosophically interesting, rather than simply historically interesting. Now, my work is very history-focused, in so far as I don't write things like "Philosopher X thought Y. And Y is a compelling philosophical position." Rather, I write things like "Philosopher X thought Y. Here is how Y is central to Philosopher X's system." So I don't expect articles to clarify historical philosophical positions that are also relevant to current philosophical debates. But I do expect a publishable article to explain why I should care, as someone who cares about philosophical problems and thinking throughout history, about whether some philosopher believed X or Y. Sometimes this is obvious. For example, perhaps the author is investigating someone's view about personal identity; I take it that if you are a trained philosopher or historian of philosophy, you recognize that personal identity is a topic of philosophical interest. Sometimes it's not so obvious, and the writer needs to do some work to explain the subject's interest. For example, perhaps the author is arguing that a philosopher from history was celibate. (This really is just a toy example. I have never read a paper like this.) On first glance, I don't see how this position is philosophically relevant. If the author doesn't explain why, I tend to reject the paper. I have read several papers which simply assume that any fact about a philosopher from history is relevant without arguing for this claim, which I take to be a major weakness.

You can thank me now

Unlike Trevor, I do not generally recommend rejecting a paper because the author exaggerates the scope of the claim they argue for. This is easily fixed. So if that is the key problem, I just recommend they qualify their claim. Indeed, in some cases I have said to the editor (and the author) that they do not recognize what their contribution is. I then proceed to identify it. In this way, I hope I have managed to salvage papers, and save them from a rejection.

Trevor Hedberg

YCTMN -- As I mentioned in my response to Amanda, I wouldn't generally take any of these particular items to be grounds for rejection in isolation unless they were severe mistakes. If the problem is easily corrected like in your example, that wouldn't be a big deal. But I have seen cases where authors are misrepresenting the significance of their paper and its conclusions so severely that it isn't that simple of a fix. In some instances, their views are very similar to someone else's, and they present their position like it's new or revolutionary when it's more akin to reinventing the wheel: when you strip away their rhetorical fluff, they aren't actually making a meaningful contribution to the discussion. In this respect, misstating the significance of their argument often dovetails into the concerns about papers being uninteresting that others have raised in prior comments.

Matias Slavov

Thanks for the post, this is very helpful.
I have a question concerning the length of the submission. Are concise papers rejected more easily? I find myself agreeing with Avram Hiller's proposal http://dailynous.com/2018/07/12/plea-short-journal-publications-guest-post-avram-hiller/ on publishing shorter pieces. Yet in my experience shorter papers, excluding venues like Analysis and Thought, are not that convincing for editors and referees to begin with.

Amanda

Matias: while some editors will say they like them, in my experience, sending an Analysis/Thought length paper to journals that are not Analysis or Thought, highly increases your odds of rejection. I wish it was otherwise!

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