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10/15/2020

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Marcus
I think this conception of the past or the time of the big change is mistaken. I got my tenure track job in 2002, and people from my own PhD program were saying I had a publication list that would get one tenure back in their days. I already had two articles in PhilSci, and two PSA papers, and more. Further, the dissertation as a series of articles has also existed a long time. I was at a Phil of Sci place, and were generally encouraged to do it. I finished in 1997. So this is all before 2008, which really was dreadful. But the trends are much older.
I think the collection of article type dissertations have real value - perhaps you can have a thread on it.

RJM

I agree with everything in the OP. I am however increasingly finding that teaching provides more of an incentive to read widely, and often (though sadly not always!) deeply. If--as most of us do--you end up teaching topics with which you have at best a passing acquaintance, this gives you an opportunity to greatly expand your philosophical frame of reference. Or at least I have found this to be the case. Perhaps I've just been lucky.

Mike

"My question is this: to some extent, is engaging with others' work best thought of as a duty to the profession? Even if there are not particular professional rewards, it seems like we might just owe it to each other and those who've come before to dedicate time to others' work."

I don't think this is the way to look at it. Engaging with others' work is best thought of as a necessity for doing competent research. As a referee, I've caught several papers now proposing new solution X to problem Y, when X was already proposed in a paper just 5-15yrs old. (Nor was the author proposing a new argument for X over the alternatives.)

If you want to add to human knowledge, you need to know what's been said before and build on it. Not only do I see (as a referee) papers proposing ideas published just 5-15yrs ago, I also see published work presenting (perhaps with elaboration, but no citation) ideas already in "classic" papers of my field from the 20th century. It's a waste of time to produce scholarship or research that just reproduces what was said before (in ignorance of it). I get that there's too much to read, but a lot of this reproduction is from prominent work, either recent or in classic papers. As to how much of the existing published literature just reproduces past ideas, I'm not sure. I wouldn't be surprised if it were 10-30% in prominent journals, and well north of 50% in less prominent ones.

As to what to do about it, we need to incentivize people back towards the slower, more careful model. I grant that it's hard to change the top-level incentives, but those in positions to should be pressuring their university administrators or politicians or whoever that existing measures of research (even if quite sophisticated) are failing and incentivizing poor research.

But we can also work within our existing high-level incentives. It should be a discipline-wide writing norm that people, in their papers, not only explicitly state their thesis, but explicitly state their original contribution (the thesis itself? the argument for it? what?). In theory, this should be clear without someone saying "My original contribution is ...", but in practice it's often not clear. Following many people's complaints, the current trend in refereeing standards needs to continue --- we need to continue shifting away from referees making decisions based on whether "they're convinced" and towards decisions based on whether the paper genuinely adds to the literature, i.e. is *original*, interesting, competent, etc.

(Notice that I'm *not* advocating for any sort of standard of having a "lit review" section. I'm not saying we should expect people to prove that their contribution is original; just make the contribution explicit, so it's easier for referees to check that it's original, and get referees to care enough to check. A lot of this happens anyway, but, evidently, not enough to stop *a lot* of unoriginal stuff from being published.)

The net effect of these changes might be to slow down publications, but if they're slowed for all philosophers across the board, there's nothing unfair. Maybe they make it much harder for graduate students to publish, but the reality might just be that (as people thought in Marcus' day) most graduate students just aren't ready to publish, i.e. to make a genuine contribution to the literature.

I get that this is a complicated situation with many relevant factors I haven't mentioned, so perhaps, all things considered, my proposal is a bad one. Still, the obvious point is that since we philosophers are the editors and referees of our own journals, we have tremendous power in shaping standards and incentives so that people read more.

OP

Thanks for all the comments! I just wanted to briefly follow-up on one of Mike's points:

"[T]he reality might just be that (as people thought in Marcus' day) most graduate students just aren't ready to publish, i.e. to make a genuine contribution to the literature."

I couldn't agree more! This is partly my frustration with the current system. If there weren't pressure to publish, I would just focus on reading and developing my thoughts so that, at some point, I would be more likely to make genuine contributions. However, given current pressures, I feel very rushed to put out whatever work I can muster. I'm not sure this benefits anyone, but it's also hard to see other options.

Evan

There are many reasons to engage in others’ works. One reason to engage in others’ work is because it will prevent some intellectual gaslighting. For example, one time my professor was skeptical of my idea, but then I decided to do more research on it and what did you know I wasn’t the only one who thought about it. I felt relieved because there were so many scholars who wrote about it. I figured, “You know what? If you’re skeptical of my idea, I’ll cite the consensus instead. Good luck arguing against that.” Citing the consensus is good to shut up the intellectual gaslighting and save you from constant questioning and doubts.

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