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08/26/2020

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John Protevi

Thanks, Helen, really interesting post, and I think it's wise advice.

This is in the context of responses to Covid-19, but these ideas on robustness, efficiency, and resilience might generalize: https://www.facebook.com/john.protevi/posts/10219013011108043

Wastefulness

It is unfortunate that professors are so pressured to publish like machines. This rush and pressure to publish have resulted in negative consequences: low-quality articles being produced.

The irony is that perhaps some inefficiencies can help decrease the wastefulness in terms of the quality of articles that often results from hyper-efficiency itself.

In terms of writing accessibly, it’s a skill to cultivate. I used to think that writing simplistically and accessibly should be easy. Now I realize it’s actually hard to do for many philosophers.

Translating philosophical ideas onto paper can be extremely difficult. When I first entered philosophy I had this trouble. I knew what I meant, but had such a hard time writing it down in a way that would make sense to my readers.

Then I realized that I used to study biology and what do biologists do? They observe and name things and put them into categories. I got in touch with my roots; my love for biology and higher-order thinking and conceptualization. Going back to the basics, I thought, is probably the best way for me to explain certain philosophical ideas that would be the least convoluted for me and my readers.

Now I see philosophical concepts from a taxonomic framework. Starting from the highest generalization possible and then working my way and filling the details later. This, in turn, allowed me to write simplistically.

Tom

“This rush and pressure to publish have resulted in negative consequences: low-quality articles being produced.”

My take: if you look around and find yourself thinking “almost all of this is bad” then you’ve probably misunderstood what good looks like. This is an almost-instance of the following maxim: any inference that supports the conclusion “everyone else is dumb” relies on premises that are themselves dumb.

I read a *ton* of philosophy, almost all of it in journals and almost all of it from the last five years. The idea that pressure to publish is producing loads of waste looks to me like trash. Soooooo much of what I read is excellent that I just don’t know what your lot is complaining about.

Wastefulness

Hi Tom,

If you read closely, I never specified *how much* philosophy papers are of low-quality. Rather, I made the general claim that rushing and being pressured to published results in articles of low-quality being produced. It could be some, many, or most. I don’t know exactly. But there are at least *some* based on my experience of reading them.

Perhaps you are right that I am misunderstanding what ”good” looks like. But that's only because your claim presupposes that there is already an agreed-upon definition of ”good” is in terms of the quality of philosophy papers. But is that true? Has the philosophical community come to a consensus yet? Enlighten me. Hence why you assumed I misunderstood what ”good” looks like.

In previous posts, Amanda said that the majority of philosophy papers she read were also of average to low quality. Thus, I am not the only person who believes this. The only difference is that I am inferring one of the causes for how come there are average to low-quality papers being produced e.g., hyper-efficiency (pressure to publish).

You and I probably have different standards for what we consider to be ”high quality” or “good.” If the philosophical community hasn’t come to a consensus about what “good quality” is, then I am definitely not misunderstanding anything in this case. Instead, my threshold for “good” is probably higher than the average or yours. And that’s because I’ve read excellent works in the past. Interestingly, many of the excellent works I’ve read are law articles.

Both share similarities insofar as both use reason and argumentation in their articles. Many law papers are better at reasoning and synthesis than other philosophy papers from my experience. This is probably due to the fact that legal scholars know all too well about being impartial and avoiding the hypostatization fallacy many philosophers commit.

Mike

A reasonable premise is that philosophy journal articles are like most other things: they fall on a bell curve. So, it would be surprising if there was a very large number of *excellent* ones.

It also seems reasonable (as an initial reflection) that the rush to publish discourages a certain kind of philosophy journal article, namely, the kind that results from years of deep reflection on an issue.

Whether or not you want to call only those "excellent", I don't know, but it's not implausible that the push for efficiency will shape the kinds of articles produced, encouraging ones that make "small technical points", merely introduce a new distinction or point out a counterexample, etc. What's less clear is just how much the actual effect has been, since these sorts of articles have always been around (and in large numbers).

Tom

Hi W,

You're correct, you don't say that most papers aren't good. It was merely something that I took to be an implicature of what you did say. In any even you've said it now ("Amanda said that the majority of philosophy papers she read were also of average to low quality. Thus, I am not the only person who believes this.") so I don't think there's much left to be said about that.

And no, neither I nor my words "presupposes that there is already an agreed-upon definition of ”good”". Compare the following: you and a friend go to an art museum. Your friend looks at each piece, even very famous pieces, and declares them to be crap. It's reasonable for you to conclude based on this that your friend doesn't know what good art is. You can safely conclude this even in the absence of a definition of good art.

I claim that you and Amanda and folks like you are guilty of something similar---you're going to the `museum' of philosophy (that is, the place---academic journals---where the experts have chosen to curate their collections of exemplars of excellence) and declared the contents to be by and large crap. I can safely conclude from this that you don't know what good philosophy is.

We might also think of it probabilistically: either most people writing papers don't know what a good paper is (in which case *many* people are making a coordinated error) or *you* (one person) are judging matters by the wrong criteria. The probability of the latter seems far higher than the probability of the former.

In general, echoing a point I made above, I think this is a case where it's useful to reflect on something my mother used to say: if everywhere you go stinks, check the bottom of your shoes. I'm saying you should check your shoes.

Wastefulness


Hi Tom,

Your analogy is interesting and would work if philosophers or referees actually came to a consensus as to what “good quality” is. But have they? You provided no evidence. Just mere analogy. Newsflash: analogies work if they sufficiently correspond to reality.

In the world of visual art, there are objective criteria since there are principles of design that we rely on to judge artworks e.g., breadth, use of space, color theory, rule of thirds, consistency, repetition, proportion, contrast, emphasis, balance, etc. These principles are universal regardless of what museum you go to. There are niche museums like the Dali Museum, that only curate Dali’s works, but nevertheless, many of Dali’s works are considered excellent because they utilize those principles of design. Some his of works are mediocre. But they’re displayed in these museums to commemorate him and house his works as a whole even if they are not considered his masterpieces.

I’m also an artist myself too and I also follow and use these principles of design in my work. I knew this while taking AP Art Class back in high school.

This, I’m skeptical that your analogy is as symmetrical as you assumed because, in another post that Marcus made outsourcing the pet-peeves of reviewing or referring, it every referee who commented has their own tastes and standards! Go figure.

Second, you wrote: “And no, neither I nor my words "presuppose that there is already an agreed-upon definition of ”good.”

No, but there is a kind of presupposition that your argument unconsciously or indirectly has: metaphysical/empirical presupposition. In order for your claim that I’m misunderstanding what “good quality” looks likes, you implicitly assumed that these journals actually have set criteria already and that the referees all follow them.

However, since articles are reviewed by individual referees who have their own individual standards (as Marcus’ post showed), I remain skeptical of your claim about my misunderstandings. Not to mention the posts on this website about referees not reading fairly or unjustly
rejecting articles left and right.

For all these reasons, I remain skeptical that most philosophy papers are of *excellent* quality. Based on what I’ve observed on this website in terms of refereeing and journals, it seems the opposite: the probability of many or most philosophers committing errors is higher!

Now, most journals have *types* of articles they are willing to ”curate.” That’s fine. Metaphysics journals will curate metaphysics articles. The Ethics journal will curate articles on ethics and morality. And so on. But that’s not the same as curating *high-quality* articles.

Tom

I mean, I dunno man. I feel like if I've reduced things to the point where you're defending your position by saying that aesthetic judgments are based in objective universal principles, then maybe I've won?

Anyways, I'm not making an argument by analogy. I'm using the analogy to try to help you see something straightforward: if you disagree with the experts you're probably wrong.

The rest of what you say is... weird? I mean, it might surprise you, but I've published quite a bit. So I'm actually aware that journals don't have set criteria and... didn't say that? Also art isn't like that either, in spite of your weird assertions to the contrary.

At the end if you're willing to embrace the `everyone but me is dumb' conclusion, then... ok. I don't really think there's much more to say, other than well, no that's probably not how things are.

Wastefulness

Tom:

First, I’m going to be as precise as possible because I value and respect reasoning and clear communication. You claimed that a lot of the articles you’ve read are considered excellent. You wrote:

”Soooooo much of what I read is excellent that I just don’t know what your lot is complaining about.”

I’m going to assume your exeraggted phrase ”Soooooo much” implies ”most,” or at least, ”a great many.”

Here’s my question: How do you know they are excellent? What makes them ”excellent”? Please answer me. I really wanna know.

Second, you wrote: ”if you disagree with the experts you're probably wrong.”

This is true, but irrelevant when it comes to most philosophy articles because they’re not the empirical sciences! Duh! Most of the philosophy articles deal with reasoning and conceptual analysis which can easily be criticized by providing counter-examples, poking holes in the logic, criticizing presuppositions, criticizing definitions, etc.

By your logic, we’re not even allowed to DO PHILOSOPHY then. Do you see what you’ve written? Critique is one of the FOUNDATIONS of philosophic inquiry.

So I should just naively accept most philosophical arguments then since they’ve been written by ”experts”? The irony is that even ”experts” in philosophy still disagree with each other over many things themselves. For example, Kantians are skeptical of utilitarians. Virtue ethicists are skeptical of Kantians, etc. In the normative and conceptual realm, there’s plenty of room for disagreements. That’s just how it is. And one does not need to be an expert to disagree with philosophical works so long as one is well-equipped with logic and tools of reasoning.

Here is are my criteria for evaluating philosophical articles. They’re from Thomas Kuhn. I added five more: Precision, Practicality, Originality, Clarity and Theoretical Integrity, which will be apparent below.

1. Accuracy
2. Precision
3. Broad Scope
4. Simplicity
5. Fruitfulness
6. Internal Coherency
7. External Coherency
8. Practicality (How applicable is it? Are there any practical implications of it?)
9. Theoretical Integrity (How well the article succeeded in what it promised or set out to do).
10. Clarity (How clear is the writing? Can readers understand it?)
11. Originality (How innovative is it?).

Now, how many philosophy articles score a 9-10 (excellent) on all of these criterion? Very little based on my observation. These are my criteria. What are yours?


Mike

"I'm using the analogy to try to help you see something straightforward: if you disagree with the experts you're probably wrong."

I'm confused. Is the claim that referees only recommend acceptance on papers they deem "excellent"? I'm a widely used referee, and that's sure not the standard I use for publication. I recommend papers that are scholarly competent and make an original, interesting contribution to the literature.

In any case, you've totally ignored my point: If you really want to talk about what's "plausible" or has a higher probability, it's *far* more likely that, like most things, (a) journal articles fall along a bell-shaped curve, vs (b) that a large number of journal articles are *excellent*. Sure, a few articles published in philosophy journals are excellent along some dimension, will end up making a lasting contribution to the literature, etc. The rest? They are mostly competent, make a contribution to the literature, move the discussion forward, etc ... In other words, they're average, just part of the conversation.

"Excellent" is a high bar.

Wastefulness

I suspect that the mean number of articles being submitted are of average quality hence why the mean number of articles published is also of average quality. This whole issue is probably an epistemological one. Until you’ve read an excellent article, you most likely won’t really know which one is excellent or not. Either Tom is intellectually naive or just lack the critical thinking skills or tools needed to adequately differentiate between what’s excellent and what’s not. As well, considering the number of epistemic injustices that occur in the Academy discussed by many (feminist and Black) epistemologists, I still remain skeptical that the mean number of articles published is actually of excellent quality. So much of high-quality articles are not being produced partly because many or most scholars lack the frames of references that are often disregarded due to epistemic injustices.

You consider an article excellent? Well, you better come with justifications and criteria for that claim. I’m not gonna accept your intuitions when it comes to evaluation. I can’t believe I have to explain this on this website amongst a group of professional philosophers!

Tom2

The problem, Tom, is that many of the "experts" of the philosophy profession are in fact frauds. They are bad at philosophy. Some of them are not philosophers at all but (e.g.) political activists. (Frauds come in all colors and flavors, of course.)

So your claim that "if you disagree with the experts you're probably wrong", while sensible in many contexts, is not in this one.

Now you will doubtless ask: Is it really possible that such-and-such Big Name, who graduated from Fancy School A and holds a named chair at Fancy School B is really just a first-rate bullshit artist? Alas, it is really possible. The leader of the free world, the most visible and vetted man on the planet, Mr. Donald Trump, is a fraud par excellence. If it can be true for the most important context in the entire world, it can be true, a fortiori, for the philosophy profession.

That said, I actually agree with you about the quality of published work in philosophy: All things considered, it's pretty good. Work in some journals (PQ, PS, AJP) is reliably excellent ; in others (PPR, Nous), it's reliably mediocre, or maybe uneven. I think blind review helps a lot.

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