In the following guest post,* Eric Schwitzgebel, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, shares his “possibly quirky advice” about publishing in philosophy journals.
A version of the post first appeared at The Splintered Mind.
How to Publish a Journal Article in Philosophy: Advice for Graduate Students and New Assistant Professors
by Eric Schwitzgebel
My possibly quirky advice. General thoughts first. Nitty-gritty details second. Disagreement and correction welcome.
Should You Try to Publish as a Graduate Student?
Yes, if you are seeking a job where hiring will be determined primarily on research promise, and if you can do so without excessively hindering progress toward your degree.
A couple of years ago, I was on a search committee for a new tenure-track Assistant Professor at U.C. Riverside, in epistemology, philosophy of action, philosophy of language, and/or philosophy of mind. We received about 200 applications. How do you, as an applicant, stand out in such a crowded field? I noticed three main ways:
- Something about your dissertation abstract or the first few pages of your writing sample strikes a committee member as extremely interesting — interesting enough for them to want to read your whole writing sample despite having a pile of 200 in their box. Of course, what any particular philosopher finds interesting varies enormously, so this is basically impossible to predict.
- Your file has a truly glowing letter of recommendation from someone whose judgment a committee member trusts.
- You have two or more publications either in well-regarded general philosophy journals (approx. 1-20 on this list) or in the best-regarded specialty journals in your subfield. (Publications in less elite venues probably won’t count much toward making you stand out.)
A couple of good publications, then, is one path toward getting you a closer look.
- Publication is neither necessary (see routes 1 and 2) nor sufficient (if the committee doesn’t care for what they see after looking more closely).
- If you spend a year postponing work on your dissertation to polish up an article for publication, that’s probably too much of a delay. The main thing is to complete a terrific dissertation.
- If you’re aiming for schools that hire primarily based on teaching, effort spent on polishing publications rather than on improving your teaching profile (e.g., by teaching more courses and teaching them better) might be counterproductive.
- Some people have argued that academic philosophy would be better off if graduate students weren’t permitted to publish and maybe if people published fewer philosophy articles in general. I disagree. But even if you agree with the general principle, it would be an excess of virtue to take a lonely purist stand by declining to submit your publishable work.
What Should Be Your First Publication?
Generally speaking, you’ll want your first publication to be on something so narrow that you are among the five top experts in the world on that topic.
Think about it this way: The readers of elite philosophy journals aren’t so interested in hearing about free will or the mind-body problem from the 437th most-informed person in the world on these topics. If you haven’t really mastered the huge literature on these topics, it will show. With some rare exceptions, as a graduate student or newly-minted assistant prof, publishing an ambitious, broad-ranging paper on a well-trodden subject is probably beyond your reach.
But there are interesting topics on which you can quickly become among the world’s leading experts. You want to find something that will interest scholars in your subfield but small enough that you can read the entire literature on that topic. Read that entire literature. You’ll find you have a perspective that is in some important respect different from others’. Your article, then, articulates that perspective, fully informed by the relevant literature, with which you contrast yourself.
Some examples from early in my career:
a. the apparent inaccuracy of people’s introspective reports about their experience of echolocation (i.e., hearing sounds reflected off silent objects and walls);
b. ambiguities in the use of the term “representation” by developmental psychologists in the (then new) literature on children’s understanding of false belief;
c. attempts by Anglophone interpreters of Zhuangzi to make sense of the seeming contradictions in his claims about skepticism.
These topics were each narrow enough to thoroughly research in a semester’s time (given the tools and background knowledge I already had). Since then, (b) has grown too large but (a) and (c) are probably still about the right size.
The topic should be narrow enough that you really do know it better than almost anyone else in the world and yet interesting enough for someone in your subfield to see how it might illuminate bigger issues. In your introduction and conclusion, you highlight those bigger framing issues (without overcommitting on them).
The Tripod Theory of Building Expertise
Now if you’re going to have a research career in philosophy, eventually you’re going to want to publish more ambitiously, on broader topics — at least by the time you’re approaching tenure. Here’s what I recommend: Publish three papers on narrow but related topics. These serve as a tripod establishing your expertise in the broader subarea to which they belong. Once you have this tripod, reach for more general theories and more ambitious claims.
Again, from my own career: My paper on our introspective ignorance of the experience of echolocation ((a) above) was followed by a paper on our introspective ignorance of our experience of coloration in dreams and a paper on the weak relationship between people’s introspective self-reports of imagery experience and their actually measured imagery skills. Each is a small topic, but combined they suggested a generalization: People aren’t especially accurate introspectors of features of their stream of conscious experience (contra philosophical orthodoxy at the time). (N.B.: In psychology, critiques of introspection generally focused on introspection of causes of our behavior, not introspection of the stream of ongoing inner experience.) My work on this topic culminated in an broad, ambitious, skeptical paper in Philosophical Review in 2008. These articles then were further revised into a book.
Simultaneously, I built a tripod of expertise on belief: first, a detailed (but unpublished) criticism of Donald Davidson’s arguments that believing requires having language, relying on a “dispositional” approach to belief; second, a dispositionalist model of gradual belief change in children’s understanding of object permanence and false belief; third, a discussion of how dispositional approaches to belief neatly handle vagueness in belief attribution in “in-between” cases of kind-of-believing. These culminated in a general paper on the nature of belief, from a dispositionalist perspective.
Imagine a ship landing on an alien planet: It sets down some tiny feet of narrow expertise. If the feet are a little separated but not too far apart, three are enough to support a stable platform — a generalization across the broader region that they touch (e.g., empirical evidence suggests that we are bad introspectors of the stream of experience; or dispositionalism elegantly handles various puzzles about belief). From this platform, you hopefully have a new, good viewing angle, grounded in your unique expertise, on a large issue nearby (e.g., the epistemology of introspection, the nature of belief).
Writing the Paper
A typical journal article is about 8000 words long. Much longer, and reviewers start to tire and you bump up against journals’ word limits. Much shorter, and you’re not talking about a typical full-length journal article (although some journals specialize in shorter articles).
Write a great paper! Revise it many times. I recommend retyping the whole thing from beginning to end at least once, to give yourself a chance to actively rethink every word. I recommend writing it at different lengths: a short conference version that forces you to focus efficiently on the heart of the matter, a long dissertation-chapter version that forces you to give an accurate blow-by-blow accounting of others’ views and what is right and wrong in them. Actively expanding and contracting like this can really help you corral and discipline your thoughts.
Cite heavily, especially near the beginning of the paper. Not all philosophers do this (and I don’t always do it myself, I confess). But there are several reasons.
First, other scholars should be cited. Their work and their influence on you should be recognized. This is good for them, and it’s good for the field, and it’s good for your reader. If you cite only a few people, it will probably be the same few big names everyone else cites, burying others’ contributions and amplifying the winner-take-all dynamics in philosophy.
Second, it establishes your credibility. It helps show that you know the topic. Your great command of the topic shows in other ways too! But the reader and the journal’s reviewers (who advise the editor on whether to accept your article) will feel reassured if they can say to themselves, “Yes, the author has read all the good recent literature on this topic. They cite all the right stuff.”
Third, one of the ways that journals select reviewers is by looking at your reference list. Your citations are, in a way, implicit recommendations of other experts in the field who might find your topic interesting. Even if you disagree with them, as long as you treat them fairly and respectfully, reviewers are generally happy to see themselves cited in the papers they are reviewing. Citing helps you build a pool of potential reviewers who might be positively disposed toward your topic and article.
Your introduction and conclusion help the reader see why your topic should be of broad interest among those in your subfield. The body of your paper lays out the narrow problem and your insightful answer. Keep focused on that narrow problem.
If the topic is narrow enough that your friends can’t imagine how you could write 8000 words about it, while you are expert enough that it’s hard to imagine how you could do it justice in only 8000 words, that’s a good sign.
Choosing a Journal
You needn’t write with a particular target journal in mind. Just write a terrific philosophy article. (Lots of professors have circulating draft papers on their websites. Typically, these are in something pretty close to the form of what they submit to journals. Use these as models of the general form.)
In choosing a journal, you probably want to keep in mind three considerations:
i. Prestige of the journal, either in general or in your subfield.
ii. Response time of the journal (some data are available here) and possibly other editorial practices you care about, such as open access or anonymous reviewing.
iii. Fit between the interests of the journal’s readers and your article.
(Wow, I’m really digging threes today!)
On iii, it can help to note where recent work on the topic has been published. You also want to consider whether your topic is more likely to be appreciated in a specialist’s journal.
On i vs ii: Here you need to think about how much time you have to see the paper through to publication. If you’re near the job market or tenure, you might want to focus on journals with quicker response times and less selective journals that are more likely to say yes. You might not want to wait a year for Journal of Philosophy to very likely tell you no. I recommend creating a list of six journals — one aspirational journal that’s a bit of a reach (if you have enough time), three good journals that you think are realistic, and two fall-back journals you’d still be happy to publish in. When that rejection comes, it’s easier to cope if your backup plan is already set. Acceptance rates in the most elite philosophy journals are small, and bear in mind that you’re competing with eminent scholars as well as graduate students and assistant professors.
I usually figure on about two years between when I first submit a paper and when it is finally accepted for publication somewhere.
Submit to only one journal at a time. This is standard in the field, and editors and reviewers will be seriously annoyed if they discover you’re not heeding this advice.
Preparing Your Manuscript
Once you’ve chosen your journal, prepare your manuscript for submission to that journal by creating an anonymized version in a boring font with abstract, keywords, and word count, and any other advice that the journal lists on its webpage under its guide for authors. (One exception: You needn’t spend all day formatting the references in the required way. As long as the references are consistently formatted, no one really cares at the submission stage.)
Boring font: Unless there’s some reason to do otherwise, I recommend Times New Roman 12, double spaced.
Anonymized: Remove the title page and your name. Remove revealing self-references, if any, such as “as I argued in Wong (2018)”. You can either cut the reference, cite it in the third person (“as Wong (2018) argued”), or cite it anonymously “as I argued in [Author’s Article 1]”. Remove other compromises to anonymity, such as acknowledgements.
First page: Title, then abstract (look at the recent issues to see how long abstracts tend to run), then maybe five keywords (these don’t matter much, but look at a recent issue for examples), and word count including notes and references (rounding to the nearest hundred is fine).
Second page: Title again, then start your paper.
Have page numbers and a shortened version of the title in the header or footer.
If your article has notes, I recommend formatting them as footnotes rather than endnotes for the purposes of review, even if the journal uses endnotes for published articles. It doesn’t matter much, but most reviewers like it better and it makes your scholarly credibility just a little more salient up front.
All of the above, of course, would be overridden by contrary instructions on the journal’s website.
If you’re attaching to an email or submitting through a portal that asks for a cover letter, the cover letter need not be anything long or fancy. Something like:
Dear Prof. Lewis:
Attached please find “A Tactile Refutation of Duomorphholismicism” (about 8000 words), intended as a new submission to Holomorphicism Studies Bulletin. The article has been prepared for anonymous review and is not under consideration for publication elsewhere.
Your article will probably either be desk rejected by the editor or sent out to reviewers.
Desk rejection is a relatively quick decision (within a few weeks) that the article is outside of the scope of the journal, or doesn’t meet the journal’s standards or requirements, or is unlikely to be of sufficient interest to the journal’s readers.
If your article isn’t desk rejected, it will be sent to one or two, or sometimes more, reviewers. Reviewers are chosen by the editor based on some combination of (1) does the editor know of the person as a good scholar working in the field, (2) is the person reasonably likely to say yes, (3) has the person written decent referee reports in the past, and (4) if 1-3 don’t bring anyone immediately to mind, the editor might skim the references to see if any names pop out as potential reviewers. Reviewers receive an email typically containing the title and abstract of the paper and asking if they are willing to review the paper for the journal. If the reviewer doesn’t reply with a yes or a no within a few days, they will probably get a nudge. If the reviewer declines, they will typically be asked if they could suggest a few names of other potential reviewers. Refereeing is thankless work, and it can take a lot of time to do it well, and it doesn’t benefit the reviewer professionally very much — so sometimes it can take several weeks for editors to find suitable reviewers.
In philosophy, reviewers will usually be given at least two months to return a referee report (a few journals try to be faster). The referee report will have a recommendation of “accept”, “revise and resubmit”, or “reject” —sometimes with finer-grained distinctions between accept and R&R such as “accept with revisions” or “minor revisions”. It is rare to get a straight acceptance in your first round of submission. What you’re shooting for is R&R.
After the reviewers complete their reports (sometimes requiring several rounds of nudging by the editor), the editor will make a decision. For the most selective journals, split decisions typically but not always go against the author (e.g., if Reviewer 1 says R&R and Reviewer 2 says reject, the editor is likely to reject). It’s generally considered good practice for journals to share anonymized referee reports with the author, but not all journals do so.
If you are rejected with referee reports:
Remember your backup journal, already chosen in advance with this contingency in mind! Read the referee reports and think about what changes you might want to make in light of those referee reports. If the reports seem insightful, great! If the reviewers missed the point or seem totally uncharitable, maybe there are some clarifications you can make to prevent readers from making those same interpretative mistakes at the next journal.
Don’t linger too long, unless the referee report really causes you to see the issues in a new way, sending you back to the drawing board. In most cases, you want to sling a revised version of your paper to the next journal within a few weeks.
If you get an R&R:
Read the referee reports very carefully. Note every criticism they make and every change they suggest. Your revision should address every single one of these points. You can rephrase things to avoid the criticisms. You can mention and explicitly respond to the criticisms. If the reviewer recommends a structural change of some sort, consider making that structural change. In general, you should make every change the reviewers request, unless you think the change would make your paper worse. Depending on how purist you are, you might also consider making some changes that you feel make your paper just a little worse, e.g., clunkier, if you think they don’t compromise your core content. If you think a recommended change would make your paper worse, you need not make that change, but you should address it in a new cover letter.
You should aim to resubmit a revised version of your paper within a couple of months of receiving the referee reports. (If you send it the next day, everyone knows you didn’t seriously engage with the reviewers’ suggestions. If you send it ten months later, the reviewers might not remember the paper very well or might not still be available.)
Your new submission should contain a detailed cover letter addressing the reviewers’ suggestions, alongside the revised version of your paper. My impression is that at most journals a majority of papers that receive R&R are eventually accepted. Sometimes it requires more than one round of R&R, and rejection after R&R is definitely a live possibility. To be accepted, the reviewers and editor must come to feel that you have adequately addressed the reviewers’ concerns. The aim of the cover letter is to show how you have done so.
In my cover letters, I usually quote the reviewers’ letters word for word (block indented), inserting my replies (not indented). If they have praise, I insert responses like “I thank the reviewer for the kind remark about the potential importance of this work” (or whatever). For simple criticisms and corrections, you can insert responses like “Corrected. I appreciate the careful eye.” or “I now respond to this concern in a new paragraph on page 7 of the revised version of the manuscript.”
For more difficult issues, or where you disagree with the reviewer, you will want to explain more in your cover letter. It might seem to you that the reviewer is being stupid or uncharitable or missing obvious things. While this is possibly true, it is also possible that you are being defensive or your writing is unclear or you are not seeing weaknesses in your argument. You should try always try to keep a tone of politeness, gratitude, and respect — and if possible, think of misreadings as valuable feedback about issues on which you could have been clearer. I try to push back against reviewers’ suggestions only when I feel it’s important, and hopefully on at most one substantial issue per reviewer.
If there’s a strongly voiced objection based on a misreading, this should be handled delicately. First, revise the text so that it no longer invites that misreading. Be extra clear in the revised version of the text what you are not saying or committing to. Then in the cover letter, explain that you have clarified the text to avoid this interpretation of your position. But also answer to the objection that the reviewer raised, so they aren’t left feeling like you ducked the issue and they aren’t left curious. In this case, your response to the objection can be entirely in the cover letter and need not appear in the paper at all. (You might or might not agree that the objection would have been fatal to the position they had thought you were taking.)
Generally, the revised paper and the reply to reviewers will go back to the same reviewers. Typically, a reviewer will recommend acceptance after an R&R if they feel you have adequately engaged with and addressed their concerns (even if in the end they don’t agree), they will recommend rejection if they feel that you didn’t engage their concerns seriously or if your engagement reveals (in their judgment) that their original concerns really are fatal to the whole project, and they will recommend a second round of R&R if they feel you’ve made progress but one or two important issues still remain outstanding.
Some people add footnotes thanking anonymous reviewers. In my view it’s unnecessary. Everyone knows that virtually every article contains changes made in response to the criticisms of anonymous reviewers.
After It’s Accepted
- Celebrate! Yay!
- Put it on your c.v. as “forthcoming” in the journal that accepted it. Yay!
- Keep your eye out for page proofs. Some journals give you just a few days to implement corrections after receiving the proofs, and it’s not uncommon for there to be screwy copyediting mistakes that it would be embarrassing to see in print. You can also make minor wording changes and corrections during proofs. Journals discourage making big changes at this stage, such as inserting whole new paragraphs, though if it’s important you can try to make the case.