2,000 Spaces for 10,000 Papers: Why Everything Gets Rejected & Referees Are Exhausted (guest post by Neil Sinhababu)

The following is a guest post* by Neil Sinhababu, Associate Professor of Philosophy at National University of Singapore. It concerns a publication crisis: how the number of new journal submissions outstrips the number of places to publish all of them, creating a backlog

2,000 Spaces For 10,000 Papers: Why Everything Gets Rejected & Referees Are Exhausted
Guest Post by Neil Sinhababu

Philosophers are writing many more papers each year than journals have space to publish. This is why authors often send good papers around for years before publication, editors are swamped with submissions, and referees face overwhelming numbers of referee requests. I’ll lay out the calculations that lead me to this view of our situation, and then suggest a solution.

I estimate that philosophers are writing about 10,000 papers a year and submitting them to a journal for the first time. Here’s how I arrive at that calculation.

I start with the estimate that the top 100 international PhD-granting departments employ on average 20 people with PhDs (at all levels from postdoc/VAP to Super Distinguished Professor), who each submit one paper per year. Obviously some of the young folks are churning out papers at a faster rate and some people aren’t writing for journals for whatever reason. But I think it’s reasonable to average this out to 20 initial submissions per top-100 department, for 2,000 papers per year.

I’d estimate about 3 times as many papers coming from PhDs at departments outside the top 100. For each research-active philosopher at (say) University of Wisconsin, there seem to be about three at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette, Concordia, Beloit, UW-Stevens Point, and all the smaller Wisconsin departments put together. At you go down this list you get to schools where people don’t submit as many papers per year. But since a large majority of research-active philosophers work outside the top 100 departments, I’d expect about 6,000 papers coming into the system from them every year.

About 500 PhDs are awarded per year. I’ll assume that in the year leading up to the PhD, the average grad student shoots off two papers. That’s 1,000 more papers. I’ll assume a equal number from all their younger grad school friends, for a total of 2,000 graduate student papers per year.

2,000 + 6,000 + 2,000 adds up to 10,000 new papers entering the system per year. As a quick sanity check on these proportions (though not the final totals) I looked at the Philosophical Studies Online First list. It’s slightly more grad-student-heavy than the breakdown here indicates, but in other respects not far off. And as Philosophical Studies is a pretty good first paper destination for grad students soon to go on the market, that sort of makes sense.

Next question: how many papers are published in journals prestigious enough to help with jobs, tenure, and promotion? I’ll assume 100 or so journals of this kind — say, 40 general-interest journals and 60 specialty / subfield journals. If each one publishes 20 papers a year, that’s 2,000 papers.

We’re making about 10,000 papers every year and trying to stuff them into 2,000 spaces. Worse yet, the backlog of rejected papers mostly remains in the system, so in year two we’re trying to stuff 18,000 papers into 2,000 spaces. In year three we’re stuffing 26,000 papers into 2,000 spaces, and in year four it’s 34,000 papers into 2,000 spaces. That means that about 94% will be rejected, which approximates current rejection rates for generalist journals in the American Philosophical Quarterly / Pacific Philosophical Quarterly / Canadian Journal of Philosophy class.

Some people think the 10,000 papers/year estimate is too high. My estimates are so imprecise everywhere that it could easily be half that. But the same crushing oversupply of submitted papers can be generated with 5,000 papers per year — it just takes more time to develop the backlog and a lack of enough other publication venues. We could’ve easily gotten to the current journal space crisis with 5,000/year rather than 10,000/year.

You can see how this situation is playing out in what journal editors say and do. I often hear from them that there’s more good competent work coming in than they can publish (they even tell me this when they’re not rejecting my papers). The half-year closure of Nous and PPR to new submissions is largely a way to prevent them from being overwhelmed. In resigning from the AJP editorship, Stewart Candlish described how submission volumes had gone from 300-350 in 2007 to 600 in 2013. He offered a good explanation: word processing and the internet have made paper production and submission much easier. So people are writing and submitting a lot more than they used to.

Sometimes papers fall out of the system. Repeatedly rejected papers can eventually appear in edited volumes or be absorbed into research monographs. And people sometimes give up on papers (or the profession). Even then, the papers take up referee time before leaving the system. A paper refereed ten times before falling out of the journal system has consumed the energy of at least 10 referees.

These days, papers frequently go from rejection to rejection for a few years before acceptance. With many junior scholars hiding their papers to ensure blind refereeing, philosophical conversation is held up. Competent and useful papers that could’ve moved discussion forward instead eat up a dozen referees’ time as the shortage of journal space forces rejection after rejection. When papers get published, it may be less because of their philosophical quality, and more because one luckily gets a referee who hasn’t so deeply internalized the tight constraints on journal space.

What to do about this? There’s no solution without implementation difficulties and some bad consequences. My suggestion is to work towards creating a lot more journal space (maybe 3 times as much as we have now) for the additional papers to be published.

Tripling the amount of journal space will require work and money. While it might seem easy for journal editors to just put more things up on the internet and save on shipping by not mailing bulky rectangular objects to university libraries, some costs rise with a rising volume of published articles. Copy editing is the major one that I’ve heard editors talk about, and there may be others. I’d be surprised if the cost was prohibitive, though. If the cost per additional published paper is $250 (I don’t know what the real price is here) the cost of publishing 4000 more papers per year is $1 million. That’s a lot of money for one philosopher to have, but not a lot of money to pay for solving a large disciplinary problem. I hope the people and institutions who find money to pay for making more space are suitably rewarded with prestige in our profession.

I’m sure that a lot of people wouldn’t enjoy having to master three times as much published work. You simply wouldn’t be able to read all the work in your area. (I don’t think most people can do this now, especially people like me who work in a lot of areas.) But please recognize that you’re not reading all the good work in your area right now, even if you read all the published work. Lots of good work just doesn’t find a home, because there’s so little space and the process is so random.

To put the point sharply: the best 2,000 papers that meet only rejection in 2016 will probably be better than the 2,000 papers accepted into our top 100 journals. This is because there are so many more rejected papers. While their average quality will be lower, the 2,000 brightest stars among them will likely outshine this year’s accepted literature. But the light of these stars won’t reach us this year. And with a little bad luck, it never will.

Fragment 1/7 1965 Bridget Riley born 1931 Purchased 1970 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P07104

Bridget Riley, “Fragment 1/7” (1965) 

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