The “Insanely Low Acceptance Rates” of Philosophy Journals

The dirty secret of philosophy is that we have insanely low acceptance rates—often well under 10% —for papers. This low rate is only defensible if you think that publication in philosophy has the kind of inductive risk that any false positive leads to society’s catastrophe. Nobody thinks that.

Those are the words of Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam), writing at Digressions & Impressions in response to the guest post here the other day on bad referee behavior by  Elizabeth Hannon (LSE).

What are the acceptance rates of philosophy journals? Here is data from on that from 2011 from the European Science Foundation (ESF) (via Certain Doubts), presented in a graph made by Jonathan Weisberg (Toronto) and originally posted at his blog, that I modified to eliminate information not relevant to our purposes here:

Modified version of graph from “Visualizing the Philosophy Journal Surveys” by Jonathan Weisberg

This data doesn’t include all philosophy journals, but it does include many prominent ones, with about two-thirds of these having acceptance rates under 10%. How does that compare to other disciplines? Here is some data from 2013 for some other fields:


from “Journal acceptance rates: A cross-disciplinary analysis of variability and relationships with journal measures” by Sugimoto, Larivière, Ni, and Cronin (Journal of Informetrics, 2013)

Note that the lowest median journal acceptance rate among these fields (in business) is over 20%. Ironically, given Schliesser’s remark about how only a worry that “any false positive leads to society’s catastrophe” could justify philosophy’s low acceptance rates, it’s the field of health—in which, presumably, false positives are more likely to be dangerous—that has the highest acceptance rates!

The researchers responsible for presenting this data note that their sources tend to be incomplete and more likely to include more prestigious journals. This is something it has in common with the ESF data on philosophy. Nonetheless, we should be cautious about drawing direct comparisons with the philosophy data we have. So let’s cautiously say that philosophy journals have relatively low acceptance rates.

As you may recall, Hannon suggested we consider the proposal, “if someone fails to fulfill their duties as referee, the journal will not accept submissions from that referee, for some period of time to be determined.” Schliesser thinks we should direct more of our attention to features of the system in which authors, referees, and editors are operating. He writes:

The high rejection rate has made publication de facto a lottery where those who need publication most are at the mercy not just of the timeliness but also humors of the least appreciated element in the system, the anonymous referee. Because there is a veritable arms race in publication, this means that papers are now routinely submitted early and then improved through a dialectic with the very same anonymous referees…

So, rather than punishing free riding referees (which creates its own collective action and procedural fairness problems), the more rational response… is to increase the acceptance rate in professional philosophy from the the top journals down to about, say, 30% or so… 

Given that these days most publication is really electronic publication, there is no reason to keep the number of articles and journal space so limited. My  proposal would eliminate a good chunk of the problem in the profession: a lot fewer papers would be shopped around (releasing valuable editorial and referee time); young scholars, who meet the minimal professional competence the discipline expects, would not be part of an unfair lottery anymore; and the sense of mystique and prestige surrounding publication in a top journal would disappear. Multiple publication would still be a sign of (would-be-)productivity and professional competence, but journal publication would stop being the proxy for extremely fine-grained (and in my mind absurd) differentiation of judgments of quality. That’s how it should be. Also, it will halt the excessive nature of the arm’s race; with that higher acceptance rate people will be less impressed by any extra publication beyond what is taken to be the new normal.   

As Schliesser notes in an update to his post, his proposal echoes one made here a couple of years ago by Neil Sinhababu (Singapore) in “2,000 Spaces For 10,000 Papers: Why Everything Gets Rejected & Referees Are Exhausted,” in which he argues that we should “work towards creating a lot more journal space (maybe 3 times as much as we have now) for… additional papers to be published.”

Comments and suggestions welcome.

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