A White Paper on Publication Ethics in Philosophy


A project that “seeks to foster greater awareness among humanities scholars and editors about ethical issues in publishing, with a focus on the discipline of philosophy” (previously) last week published a white paper with its initial findings and recommendations.

Ramon Todo, glass book sculpture

The paper, “Just Ideas? The Status and Future of Publication Ethics in Philosophy,” is part of a process of addressing the fact that:

in the humanities in particular there is a dearth of the kinds of policies commonly found in the sciences and social sciences, which have established paths for determining the unreliability of research findings and rectifying unethical research, such as correcting and retracting articles. What such unreliable or unethical research means in humanities fields requires further elaboration to ensure that the highest ethical standards are understood and achieved in research in these disciplines. The issues raised about the ethics of publication in philosophy in particular prompted the question of what guidelines for publication ethics and best practices might be established for philosophy and the humanities.

It is based on a substantial amount of information gathering and feedback, including:

(1) a survey of existing explicit policies and statements on publication ethics of 265 journals in philosophy, (2) a set of in-person and virtual focus groups with journal editors and members of American Philosophical Association (APA) leadership committees, and (3) a set of focus groups with representatives from publishers of philosophy journals and representatives from COPE. Additionally, we (4) convened scholar conversations at the 2018 APA divisional meetings open to any attendee and invited feedback via the project website and (5) collected and examined the existing literature on publication ethics, especially with respect to the humanities and philosophy, which resulted in an extensive bibliography.

The questions that were discussed in the project’s focus groups with editors included:

  • Do editors’ and referees’ assumptions and decisions about what counts as real philosophy affect diversity (of topics, authors, styles, etc.) in the journals you work most closely with? If so, how?
  • In the sciences, there are explicit guidelines and shared understandings about when and how a piece of scholarship should be corrected or retracted. Are there similar understandings and guidelines in philosophy/the humanities? If not, should there be?
  • What constitutes plagiarism? Is there anything other than plagiarism that constitutes misconduct in philosophy that means an article should be corrected or retracted?
  • Who is responsible for discovering, preventing, and addressing misconduct? What (if any) mechanisms do we need to address allegations of misconduct that occur afterpublication?
  • How would you describe ethical research and citation practices, especially in scholarship pertaining to and affecting marginalized groups? Should journals offer guidance to encourage inclusive engagement with marginalized bodies of scholarship? If yes, how could they accomplish this?
  • What do you think are the main obstacles that make it difficult to accomplish diversity of authorship in journals? Are there practices that you know of or that journals have experimented with to address this situation?

The focus groups with publishers were centered around the following questions:

  • In what ways are humanities different from STEM in terms of ethical challenges and practices?
  • What humanities-specific policies/guidelines do you have in place? If you are “discipline-agnostic” in your approach, why? Have you run into any problems with the “discipline-agnostic” approach?
  • What would be considered conflicts of interest in the humanities context?
  • What policies (if any) do you recommend to your journal editors for handling post-publication discussions? How are the policies about who responds developed and how are they communicated to relevant parties?
  • Do you have plans in place for what to do should discussions escalate on social media post-publication? At what point do you determine that a response is required? Who is responsible for a response?
  • What advice or training do you give editors concerning how to handle social media criticisms and controversies?
  • What data/technologies do you have in place or can be put into place to better help journals understand publication patterns, including diversity of all kinds (e.g., demographics, professional rank, topics)?
  • What training do you provide to editors, especially in terms of publication ethics? When does such training take place? What about “refresher courses” for those who have been editors for several years?
  • What modes of communication do you use to let editors know about new guidelines they may need to take into account to develop their own journal policies (e.g., the use of preprint servers)?
  • What training (if any) do you offer in publication ethics for authors, reviewers, editorial boards?
  • What guidelines (if any) do you provide for pertaining to marginalized or vulnerable populations? What does accountability to marginalized and vulnerable populations look like for humanities research?
  • How can publishers help ameliorate the marginalization of underrepresented groups and bodies of knowledge in the humanities?
  • What training (if any) do you provide to help editors understand when corrections or retractions might be appropriate actions to take?

You can read summaries of the discussions of these questions in the white paper.

The authors do a good job of summing up a crucial aspect of the situation: “nearly everyone in the publishing ecosystem is looking to someone else for guidance.” They elaborate:

Editors expect referees to identify misconduct, but they do not always clearly communicate this expectation—or many other expectations—to referees. Referees seldom receive training (from a journal, from their graduate program, or from their professional societies) about how to prepare a review report. Editors generally assume that their publishers have policies in place to address misconduct, while publishers often look to the editors and scholarly societies to determine what is expected of scholars in their respective disciplines. While a number of editors are aware of COPE, they either believe that COPE’s guidelines do not apply to the humanities, or believe that COPE has explicitly defined policies and procedures that can be directly applied should a problem arise. Such misunderstandings persist despite the fact that COPE explicitly states its expectation that journals define these policies and procedures for themselves. Moreover, while it is widely agreed among editors that more diversity of authorship and scholarship is needed, and that current structures in publishing (and academia, more broadly) inhibit this goal, nearly everyone is stymied as to how to achieve this diversity and how to revise the structures that stand in the way.

So what can be done? The authors make some modest suggestions:

  1. Discuss and disclose. Based on our focus group discussions, our first and most important recommendation is that every journal undertake a series of discussions—with editorial team members, publisher representatives, and other key stakeholders—to articulate its values, standards, policies, and procedures as related to publication ethics (including diversity of methodology and of authorship), and to make those values, standards, policies, and procedures publicly available and easily accessible, to the extent feasible.
  2. Take steps to diversify journal leadership. In pursuit of methodological as well as demographic diversity, we encourage journals to pursue diverse representation in editorships, editorial boards, and reviewer pools and seek to involve these groups and individuals actively in the journal’s relationship to diverse communities.
  3. Encourage collaboration among scholarly societies. We recommend that scholarly societies—both within philosophy and more broadly in the humanities and humanistic social sciences—work together to identify common values and expectations for scholars across the humanities. 
  4. Continue to improve peer review. Though we did not make peer review a focus of our conversations, concerns with the peer-review system were an undercurrent through every focus group and discussion. We encourage journal leaders to consider how their current peer-review practices and policies serve their values and goals, and whether experimenting with new models and strategies for peer review might be worthwhile.

Each of the these is discussed in greater detail in the paper.

The paper was authored by Kris Sealey (Fairfield University), Yannik Thiem (Villanova University), Adriel M. Trott (Wabash College), Amy E. Ferrer (American Philosophical Association) and Rebecca Kennison (K|N Consultants), with input from an advisory board consisting of Linda Martín Alcoff (CUNY), Luvell Anderson (Syracuse University), Lisa Guenther (Queen’s University), Sally Haslanger (MIT), Nicole Hassoun (Binghamton University), Serene Khader (CUNY), Eva Feder Kittay (Stony Brook University), Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown University), Carole Lee (University of Washington), Christopher Long (Michigan State University), Mariana Ortega (Penn State University), Henry Richardson (Georgetown University), Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside), and Kyle Powys Whyte (Michigan State University).

The authors are seeking feedback. Substantive comments welcome here and also via a comment form linked to at the site hosting the paper.

(via Michael V. Dougherty)


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