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

The following is a guest post* by J. David Velleman, professor of philosophy at New York University. It discusses the problems that arise from graduate students publishing more and more, and presents a pair of suggestions for how to improve matters.

(Some of these ideas were discussed before at Daily Nous in the comments to a previous post. See, also, this rather different proposal.)

Professor Velleman notes that he is speaking here for himself, not in his official capacity as an editor at the journal, Philosophers’ Imprint.

[Will Staehle, “The Night Ocean” (manipulated detail)]

The Publication Emergency
by J. David Velleman

In the past several years, the convention in philosophy of waiting to publish until after the Ph.D. has broken down. Graduate students now believe that they must publish in order to get a job, and most of them are right.

This development is having many deleterious effects. The volume of submissions to journals has exploded. It is not uncommon for a journal to receive 500-600 submissions per year. The amount of attention that can be paid to each submission, the percentage of submissions that can be refereed, and the selectivity that editors can exercise in recruiting referees—all have declined proportionately. The need for an author to make an immediate impression on over-burdened editors, and the greatly diminished probability of success, have discouraged risk-taking in research and encouraged the production of formulaic papers on safe topics. As one colleague put it to me, the literature is becoming like AM radio (you had to be there for the heyday of FM.)

The likely secondary and tertiary effects of this trend are alarming. Graduate programs will need to favor applicants who show promise of being able to publish after only a few years of study, exacerbating the trend away from attracting undergraduates who have majored in other fields, especially in the humanities. Graduate students will spend time on navigating the publication maze instead of experimenting with a variety of sub-disciplines. Philosophers will become narrower and narrower—well qualified, perhaps, to run the narrowed publication maze but unequipped to open up new frontiers in the subject.

Today’s assistant professors are in an untenable position. Many earned their degrees before the flood of graduate-student publication began—hence without having published as students—but are now facing twice as much competition for journal space as their predecessors. And the younger assistant professors coming up behind them will have many more publications, preemptively raising the expectations for tenure and promotion.

I propose two policies to address these problems. First, philosophy journals should adopt a policy of refusing to publish work by graduate students. Second, philosophy departments should adopt a policy of discounting graduate student work in tenure and promotion reviews. These policies would be designed to halt the arms race in graduate-student publication.

One might argue that some work by graduate students is equally worthy of publication as the best work by faculty. My answer: if the work is that good today, it will be even better in a few years. The author—and the literature—will benefit from the delay.

One might worry that journals cannot weed out graduate-student work if they are to review submissions anonymously. My answer: the veil of anonymity is lifted before publication, and authors will know that they will be unmasked in the end, and their work rejected, before it sees the light of day.

One might argue that students have a right to be heard in the philosophical conversation. My answer: editors have a right, and indeed an obligation, to manage their journals in whatever way they judge to be of greatest service to the discipline. And publication is not a right.

One might argue that assistant professors should be evaluated for tenure on the basis of their complete corpus of published work. My answer: this policy is designed to discourage students from wasting their intellectual capital in premature publication. The can still be evaluated on the basis of their complete published corpus, provided only that they publish it at the right stage of their career.

One might worry that it would be impossible to gain widespread adherence to these policies. My answer: journal editors will jump at the chance to cut their volume of submissions and concentrate their efforts on work that is more mature. And departments will see the wisdom in judging a tenure candidate on what s/he has been able to publish while on the job, in their midst.

One might object that philosophy can benefit from publications by outsiders who have no Ph.D. in the subject. My answer: the proposed policy is not to require a Ph.D. in philosophy for publication; the policy would be to reject submissions by students who are in the process of earning that degree.

Finally, one my object that the very proposal of these policies is an insult to graduate students. My response: the proposal neither assumes nor implies anything about the quality of graduate students’ work.

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