Plenty Of Woe To Go Around: A Post About A Philosophy Journal


What the hell is going on? You might occasionally ask yourself that question when confronted with the problems, missteps, malfunctions, and other obstacles that seem to be part of the normal experience of academic life—for example, when you send in an article to a journal and it, and the journal’s staff, seem to vanish. A reader of Daily Nous recently wrote in:

A lot of my work is metaphilosophical.  This makes the journal Metaphilosophy a natural venue for my stuff.  I really like the journal and a lot of stuff it publishes. Unfortunately, my experience submitting to them is a long way from ideal. The articles I have published with them took over 18 months to receive a first verdict and the articles I currently have with them have been there over 9 months. I send regular requests for information every month or so but all but one or two of these get no response. Maybe this is just my experience, but I suspect not. Does anyone else have stories to share? 

I know I could just withdraw and submit elsewhere but that’s not the conversation I want to start here. The discipline really benefits from having a journal for metaphilosophy. It would be really great if it could sort some of these issues out. 

Those are excessive wait times, and it is annoying—and possibly career-damaging—to deal with them, especially with an unresponsive editorial staff.

Yet let’s not forget that editing a journal is hard work. I suspect that for most editors, their work often goes not just unappreciated, but unnoticed—until there is something for someone to complain about. So if you have had a good journal experience recently, take a moment and send an appreciative note to the editor(s) there.

I reached out to the journal’s editor, Armen Marsoobian, of Southern State Connecticut University, where Metaphilosophy is housed, to see if I could learn more about what is going on there. He was rather forthcoming, and it isn’t a pretty picture:

Sorry to hear about the complaint. We did have a significant problem last year and earlier this year because the university put in a new spam filtering system called Clutter. Because of funding limitations we rely on a student worker to monitor our e-mail. She was unaware of what was happening and we lost dozens of inquiries over many months. Additionally, other computer-related problems compounded the problem. When complaints have come directly to me, I have tried to follow up promptly but I am human and may have missed a few… 

I agree that in some cases there has been an excessive delay in the review process. Referees have taken much more time to write reports and finding referees has become more difficult. Our submissions have multiple reviews with at least one substantive report. I also personally attempt a final look before the author is informed of our decision…

There’s more:

As you might be aware cutbacks in highuer education, especially at public institutions, have adversely impacted scholarship. My university has withdrawn all support for the journal—even our office space was severely reduced two years ago. I and my associate editor used to receive reassigned time (release time) of one course reduction for the editorial work on the journal. These hours were taken away from us four years ago. We have a four-course teaching load per semester at my university so you can guess what the impact has been. Colleagues in my own department who I have relied upon for evaluations have found it difficult to find the time to help due to an administratively-imposed increase in class size…. I have in the past made an attempt to find a better “home” for the journal but negotiations failed. I hope you get the picture. 

That is pretty bad, and I suspect that it is not the only journal facing significant obstacles and (to understate things) inadequate institutional support. With a fuller picture, we might consider a campaign to the administration of Southern State Connecticut College about the importance of having a publication in the profession addressing increasingly important metaphilosophical issues, and urging it to provide Metaphilosophy with the resources it needs to function well.

Professor Marsoobian notes that some improvements are in the works:

In August we will put in place a new automatic submission process which will send out acknowledgements and keep contributors informed of the status of their submissions. This will add an extra cost but we will try to find the money somewhere.

He adds:

I pledge that starting in August we will significantly reduce the backlog of submissions and put into place a more efficient and reliable process of evaluation. For those who have encountered difficulties with their submissions, I offer my sincere apology.

So one lesson here is that editors of journals may be facing down serious problems of their own. That said, this post should not be taken as one that encourages authors to refrain from contacting editors of journals where their work appears to be languishing. Feel free to contact and complain, but do so in a way that acknowledges the burdens of editing a journal and the possibility that there may be very good reasons for delays. Still, even if there are such reasons, it could be prudent and perfectly acceptable to withdraw the paper and submit it elsewhere.

Discussion welcome.
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M
M
5 years ago

A perhaps naive question: why doesn’t Wiley (which publishes and gets the revenues for Metaphilosophy) pay for all of the Editor’s needed resources (for the staff needed, for the office space needed, to pay adjuncts for relevant course reductions, etc.)? If it did, then the Editor wouldn’t be so dependent on his institution’s financial resources.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  M
5 years ago

Because, why would the lord pay for the cow when the serfs milk it, bottle it, deliver it, pour it, and serve it for free?Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
5 years ago

Not understanding how office email works and its junk mail system (clutter) is not something I think is excusable. This is basic technical competence! Report

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Postdoc
5 years ago

This is at best very unfair to the journal staff. Our university is CONSTANTLY adding to, taking away from, reorganizing, and otherwise altering its various tech arrangements, including email and learning management software. We get endless emails about programs we haven’t heard of, corporate training sessions for some thing, upgrades that change interfaces in ways you won’t understand, and so on. To keep up with all of this takes a serious time commitment. And sometimes, they don’t bother to tell you until after you’ve had a problem. The current upgrade in Moodle, for example, will randomly hide certain student grades under some conditions. You won’t know until your students complain, and you then have to go into your gradebook and manually unhide each hidden grade, even if you’ve repeatedly told the program to show all grades. So it makes professors look bad but doesn’t give them the tools to look good (except to send email to the students warning them of the problem). They are switching to Canvas later this year, and so we are also supposed to learn a new LMS software platform. I see what’s wrong with Moodle! But the only solution is more hours spent pretending that mastering software is something everyone loves to do and is good at. They switched from a Microsoft Exchange server to Gmail last year (again, apparently for good reasons), and it wrecked havoc with calendars (especially for those of us with personal gmail accounts) and who knows what else. And yes, the help desk is ready to help you – but that’s a phone call, a message, a return phone call and so on.

I don’t know what journal management adds to this morass, but the compulsory number of hours spent navigating software changes is an ever-increasing part of our jobs. Those are hours that have to come from somewhere. Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
Reply to  Gordon
5 years ago

We’re talking about office email though and a junk mail filter. That’s not a specialised and complicated system like Moodle. Not understanding that you need to check your junk mail filter from time to time is a special kind of incompetence. Report

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
Reply to  Postdoc
5 years ago

It is not incomptence, it is something that someone new to the job of handling things like this would not yet know to look out for. No need to take frustration out on an undergraduate assistant.Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
Reply to  HK Andersen
5 years ago

To be clear, I’m talking about incompetence at the level of the journal. I am saying that the journal, the institution, was incompetent for not knowing to check for junk mail. This incompetence is illustrated by the hiring of someone without the property training and not providing it. Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
Reply to  Postdoc
5 years ago

I mean ‘proper training’ not ‘property training.’

Report

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Postdoc
5 years ago

I’m only going to press this one more time, but they were forced to rely on a student assistant who had to navigate a new program. Maybe the editor should have stepped in and figured out to check the junk mail filter, but that’s time that has to come from somewhere. Meanwhile, when you have students, you can’t assume that they have the skillset, you may not get the one you want (or have the opportunity to assess their computer skills), and you’ll probably have to train a new one every semester. “Offering the proper training” is yet another burden on the editor. Finally, there’s a reason there’s spam filters: there’s a high volume of junk mail. I don’t know about their system, but Thunderbird’s is pretty random, and claims to do some machine learning. Such systems are notoriously opaque, and in any case, slogging through the spam is another time suck. An under-resourced journal (which this clearly seems to be) is going to have a hard time doing these things, no matter how much they would be done in a more perfect world of adequate resources.. Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  Postdoc
5 years ago

The introduction of Clutter was instituted at my school first, and then we were told it was instituted later. It is not the same as not checking one’s junk mail! We’ve all had junk mail as long as we’ve had email. I’m sure the Metaphilosophy student assistant was aware of junk mail. But if Armen’s school did the same as mine, then I bet he had the same experience with Clutter as a quietly instituted new folder, and one wouldn’t necessarily know that it’s there and sweeping emails out of the way automatically.

Clutter’s aggressive, too. Presumably it learns from my deletions what counts as Clutter, but I never wanted something this keen to draw inferences from what I delete.Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
Reply to  Kate Norlock
5 years ago

You get notices that emails are being put into clutter. If you’re paying attention, you’ll see them. So, yea I just can’t be particularly forgiving. I don’t blame the student. I’m not in the position to do that. I do blame the journal though. They should be able to get office email to work properly and understand its features. They should instruct their assistants. In the private sector, these claims would not be contentious. It’s only in the academic sector, where for some reason we excuse bad service, that it’s considered contentious. Academics are willing to put up with a lot more than non-academics. I don’t see why. People really should call this what it is, ‘incompetence,’ and stop making excuses for them.

Metaphilosophy needs to get its act together or they need to suspend submissions until things can be sorted out. Report

Greg
Greg
Reply to  Postdoc
5 years ago

“for some reason we excuse bad service” — because most editors are doing this additional work for free; that seems like a pretty good reason to me.Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
Reply to  Greg
5 years ago

The premise ‘if one is working for free, one is not responsible for doing a poor job’ is clearly false. This is especially obvious when the work is done of one’s own volition and the poor quality of the work has an effect on other people. Both of which are true in this case. Report

Greg
Greg
Reply to  Postdoc
5 years ago

I agree that if one is working for free, then one is responsible if they do a poor job. And now that I think about your original formulation a little more closely, I actually *don’t* think “we excuse bad service” literally: philosophers complain about and condemn journal editors and referees ALL the time. So we are not excusing their imperfections, insofar as we are not saying something like “Oh, that’s 100% OK that the journal took 18 months to reply to my submission.”

The bit of your post that I should have quoted/ replied to was this: “Academics are willing to put up with a lot more than non-academics. I don’t see why.” *That’s* the bit where editors and referees doing a bunch of work for free on top of their paid jobs seems relevant. We put up with it (to the extent we do — again, complaints are ubiquitous) because there aren’t really a whole lot of carrots or sticks available. There is not really much competition for editor jobs (Marsoobian in OP: “I have in the past made an attempt to find a better “home” for the journal but negotiations failed”), and none for referee ‘jobs’. And (almost?) no libraries are going to discontinue their subscription to (e.g.) Metaphilosophy because its authors are not getting timely responses.

In short: the incentive structures of academic journals would have to change significantly for the community to do much about inefficiently-run journals. So we are ‘putting up’ with it, because we can’t do much about it.Report

ejrd
ejrd
5 years ago

I’m having essentially the same problem with the exact same journal. It has put me off from future submissions especially since that timeline is basically suicide for anyone on the tenure clock or anyone who is looking to get a tenure-track job. Even if there is plenty of fault to go around, there are steps that metaphilosophy and other journals facing similar situations, can take to help mitigate the problem. For example:

Why not stop taking new submissions until you clear your backlog?

Why not consider making those who submit to the journal (or at least all authors who have been published by the journal) to agree to review at least two articles for it?

Why not, at minimum, have an automated reply system to at least inform authors that their work has been received or that their inquiries will, eventually, be responded to? Report

Helen
Helen
5 years ago

I am sorry to hear about the editors’ problems. I have a paper under review there now for about 8 months, it’s metaphilosophical, and I suspect not an easy fit for a journal elsewhere (this is the reason I am waiting to hear about the paper rather than retracting). Report

Metaphilosophy Reviewer
Metaphilosophy Reviewer
5 years ago

I have never submitted to Metaphilosophy, but I have served as a reviewer for them on a number of occasions. In my view, it is a mistake to see the problems at that journal as just one instance of a pervasive problem that can be found in philosophy journals more generally. It may indeed be the case that a lot of journals have difficulties getting back to authors in a timely manner, but Metaphilosophy is really in a class by itself. There is a very serious problem in the administration of that one journal, one that goes completely beyond anything one finds at other journals.Report

Metaphilosophy Author
Metaphilosophy Author
Reply to  Metaphilosophy Reviewer
5 years ago

Do elaborate! No need for sordid details but might be helpful to have a general sense of what you think could be improved from the reviewers perspective.Report

HFG
HFG
Reply to  Metaphilosophy Reviewer
5 years ago

I guess someone just got really mad or something. Report

Metaphilosophy Reviewer
Metaphilosophy Reviewer
Reply to  Metaphilosophy Reviewer
5 years ago

Metaphilosophy Author,

Thanks for asking. As all of the previous commenters have emphasized, the key problem is the absolutely absurd amount of time that elapses before the journal gets back to authors with a decision. In my experience, this problem was the result of a rather extraordinary delay between the time the author submitted and the time I received the manuscript to review.Report

Clement
Clement
5 years ago

I have a paper under review at Metaphilosophy. I just saw the 18-month wait described above and now I am freaking out! What should I do? Prof. Marsoobian, if you are reading this, please advise. Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  Clement
5 years ago

How long has it been under review Clement? If it’s been less than a month, I would consider retracting it and sending to other journals that publish metaphilosophy. If it has been less than two months I would start sending out e-mails asking about the status and timeline. If you don’t get any responses within a reasonable timeline then retract and submit elsewhere (and I mean if you don’t get *any* response at all–which may happen with this journal). Report

paolo
paolo
5 years ago

I am surprised that a department with such heavy teaching loads is housing a journal to begin with. In some sense, kudos to them! Naively, I thought that only low teaching load places house journals since it seems like a serious amount of work. I am actually impressed. From the description offered, it is difficult to judge anything – unless one is doing the work, it is basically impossible to appreciate the problems involved esp. vis-a-vis other demands on the people doing. Of course, 18 months or so is excessive and I hope the editors will solve it soon. And they should involve Wiley more since they get the cash it seems from it.Report

Natalie
Natalie
5 years ago

I’m really glad this conversation was started.

I submitted to Metaphilosophy in June 2015 and was told that the review process takes a long time, and they wouldn’t be able to publish before late-2015, and to let them know if I wanted to withdraw. (I did not). In November 2015 I emailed asking whether they had meant late 2016, and received no reply. Pretty sure I’ve emailed them at least once since (though can’t find the email now) and have definitely never received any replies. In a couple of weeks my paper will have been with them for a year.

I do acknowledge all the difficulties facing editors right now, and in particular the editors of this journal (thanks for getting this information!) but it seems to me that this episode has been handed particularly badly. However I’m grateful to Professor Marsoobian for now clearing this up. I guess I’ll follow up with them again, and hope to get a reply this time…Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  Natalie
5 years ago

Really, it’s the lack of replies that is the worst part of the process. It dehumanizes authors when they send a (completely legitimate, reasonable) inquiry and are met with silence. I can understand missing one e-mail, that is something that can happen to us all, but what seems clear from the original post and the many replies is that this failure of communication forms a pattern of pervasive lack of attention and care to the process of running a journal. Report

John Turri
Reply to  ejrd
5 years ago

“dehumanizes” –> “frustrates”?Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  John Turri
5 years ago

In this case I think both are true. It’s dehumanizing because your humanity and agency are going unrecognized and frustrating (at least according to one popular theory) because your goals are being intentionally blocked. Report

John Turri
Reply to  ejrd
5 years ago

I’m pretty sure that the Metaphilosophy team recognizes authors’ humanity and agency. Intentionally ignoring someone is rude and frustrating. But it strikes me as an extreme overstatement to describe it as “dehumanizing” in the present case.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  John Turri
5 years ago

Academics and aspiring academics operate within a social environment encourages us to identify ourselves deeply with our academic careers, and those careers depend on publications. Under those conditions, is it that surprising that a young academic would experience neglect and frustration in the publication process as a failure to demonstrate adequate recognition of their humanity and agency? Report

John Turri
Reply to  John Turri
5 years ago

Hi, Derek. No, it is not surprising that authors treated this way experience frustration. Some of the treatment described is rude, unprofessional, and intolerable, which naturally frustrates. But it is not an instance of dehumanization and it is strikes me as unhelpfully overwrought to characterize it in such terms.Report

Jason D'Cruz
5 years ago

I’m curious about how much a publisher like Wiley profits from a publication like Metaphilosophy, and how the problem of scant resources might be addressed by adjusting the business model. Amy insight appreciated.Report

shane wilkins
4 years ago

I didn’t see anybody mention this above, but it’s a friendly suggestion to prof. marsoobian and any other editors out there. There are free, open-source products available to help with the journal submission process. For instance: https://pkp.sfu.ca/ojs/

I would imagine that someone in the IT department at your school could help install and configure the software.

Report

Clement
Clement
4 years ago

“Editors of academic journals should be investigated for ‘professional negligence’ if peer review at their publications takes too long, says a leading critic of the scholarly publishing industry.”

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/02/09/paper-says-it-time-publishers-punish-tardy-journal-editorsReport