Flipping the System: One Possible Solution to the Publishing Odyssey (guest post by Felix Bender)

In the following guest post*, Felix Bender (CEU / Amsterdam) surveys some proposed solutions to our current time-consuming, backed-up, overcrowded system of publishing academic articles, as well as some problems with them, before offering up an interesting solution of his own.

[photo by J. Weinberg]

Flipping the System: One Possible Solution to the Publishing Odyssey
by Felix Bender

1. The Problem

We all know the dreadful journey our papers must take until they are not only received positively by an editor, but sent out to review, received (somewhat) positively by the reviewers and the reviews receiving somewhat positive responses from the editor. Often, there is a second iteration of this whole process. Even more often, however, a paper’s journey ends before any of the latter steps: they are simply desk rejected.

In Political Philosophy this seems to be a huge problem. The acceptance rates of some journals are very low[1], making them much lower than the acceptance rates in other academic disciplines. For scholars this often means that they have to go through many, many submission processes until they find a journal that is at least as interested in their paper as they are in publishing in it. Researchers often wait weeks, if not months for even the first editorial decision on a manuscript, and then have to iterate the same procedure for many times for each journal, often being rejected on grounds such as fit or simply the mere preferences of the editors. This results in an ever-ballooning amount of papers existing in the cloud.[2]

2. Some Solutions Others Have Offered

How can this problem be solved? One solution would be to make the pool of papers floating around in the cloud smaller. Several different scholars have debated how this could be achieved. One could simply restrict access for some parts of academic professionals, thereby eliminating many contributions from the get-go. One could, for example, make it inadmissible for PhD students to submit papers before they graduate.[3] While this solution would undoubtedly cut the submissions to journals, it is not as promising as it sounds. Why? It favors the status-quo. Junior researchers, especially PhD students from less well-known universities have (mainly) one way of appearing in the landscape of their prominent peers, getting known and landing a job: publications. If they were barred from publishing papers, the PhD students at famous institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, and EUI would cement their advantage. For if there is no other standard for judging the quality of a prospective hire, universities will revert mainly back again to the name of the institution and the academic stardom of the referees. Even if the system is not perfect as it is and people at such institutions are already advantaged, the possibility of publishing offers a way to overcome such barriers.

Another proposal would go in the exact opposite direction: restricting publication in peer-reviewed journals to junior academics only. This would entail that older (tenured) academics publish their work in online venues, series of invited volumes, and other outlets other than peer-reviewed journals. These outlets would encourage participation, leaving the possibility for replies. All in all, established scholars would not suffer from such an option. Their names are known, meaning that their work will be found and read—enough people want to know what the argument by a famous scholar in the field is. However, this method is faced with a different problem: it would merely shift the demand for publishing from peer-reviewed journals to publishing in such outlets. It would shift where the “value” in publishing lies, leading journal publications to be seen as less important than publications in which works by the well-known and established appear, and we would then see the exact same pooling, competition, waiting periods, and frustrations, but in this case for different outlets.

Others have proposed solutions that are, perhaps, more actionable but that do not solve the underlying problem at hand, such as introducing scorecards for desk-rejections.[4]

Another possible solution would be to adopt a “publish first, curate second” approach. Such an approach would entail that the authors decide when and what to publish. Peer reviews would also be published (anonymously or not) and curation would occur after publication, not before. While this may work in the life sciences, as Bodo M. Stern and Erin K. O’Shea suggest[5], one must be skeptical with regards to the humanities. The danger here seems to be that we would run into the opposite problem of what we are experiencing right now. We would run into the danger of being swamped by so many publications that we would, inevitably, resort to reading only the established names as a means of “quality assurance”.

3. Flipping the System

What if we could restructure the system in another way? What if we could do something besides banning parts of academia from publishing or asking journals to increase their acceptance rates (which would be great. But how should this be done? Forcing journals to have minimum acceptance rates?)[6]?

How could we, in other words, make the publishing system more efficient both for the authors and the journals?

One possible way to change this would involve the creation and use of a general platform or system to which all academics and all journals have access to. Researchers would upload their paper, title, and abstract to the system and it would appear there for journals to choose among.

In the current system, authors approach editors, seeking a journal in which to publish their work. My proposal flips this around: the editors, through the system, approach authors, seeking content for their journals.

Certain details would need to be worked out. It is imperative, for example, to make the process blind. (There might still be possible problems of some people in the system undermining anonymity, but there’s no reason to think that there will be more of that problem compared to the current system.)

My proposal involves making the system more transparent. One would be able to see which papers are selected for peer-review and which are eventually published.

Additionally, researchers would get rid of the process of searching for a fit with a journal, which can be extraordinarily time-consuming owing to being able to submit one’s paper to only one journal at a time. It would allow journals to select papers they are interested in, and if they want, create special issues on specific topics.

My proposed system would require editorial teams to comb through the database of articles and select ones they see as promising for their journals, but it would not necessarily mean a much greater workload. One possible way to limit the number of articles appearing in the system would be to allow each scholar to submit only (let’s say) two articles at a time. This in itself would promise not only a limitation of the size of articles floating around in the cloud, but also force scholars to further value the quality of their submissions over the quantity.

All in all, such a system would possibly make the publishing process more effective both for researchers and journals. That means: more time for researchers, less time waiting for first decisions by journals, more quality-oriented research articles, a better allocation system regarding the fit between article and journal, and more transparency in the system. This, one might think, is but a researcher’s utopia, but maybe it is a realistic one.


[1] The “Insanely Low Acceptance Rates” of Philosophy Journals

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

[3] The Publication Emergency (guest post by J. David Velleman)

[4] A Desk Rejection Scorecard (guest post by Antti Kauppinen)

[5] A proposal for the future of scientific publishing in the life sciences by Bodo M. Stern and Erin K. O’Shea

[6] The “Insanely Low Acceptance Rates” of Philosophy Journals

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