Asking Authors about Interpretations of & Objections to Their Work


“Time and again, papers identify a lack of clarity, an ambiguity or a contradiction in the work of others. They then go on to try to clear up the alleged mess. But if something really is puzzling in the work of a colleague, why not just ask them about it first?”

That’s Julian Baggini, academic director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, writing at Times Higher Ed. Dr. Baggini does a lot of public-facing writing, and when doing so, he says, “I wouldn’t dream of discussing someone’s work at length without speaking to them first. I read up on what people say and then interview them, putting my questions, objections and clarification requests to them directly.”

He suggests we do this more for academic work, too, for a few reasons:

First, it minimises the risk of getting the author wrong. Second, it gives them the opportunity to clear up anything that might be unclear or widely misunderstood. So my piece can not only set out an objection but accurately describe how the thinker responds. Third, if I have any thoughts about how to take these ideas further, I can test them out on the person best placed to judge whether my approach is fruitful. All this increases the chances that what I write gets to the heart of the matter.

Dr. Baggini doesn’t mention this but if such conversations reduce the need for extensive “ground clearing” then academic articles might improve their readability and value-to-page ratio. (As an aside, perhaps we can adopt value-to-page ratio—VPR—as a common way of talking about articles, with the hope that doing so encourages people to aim in their writing for a high VPR?)

Baggini notes some objections to the idea of directly contacting scholars one is writing about and citing the conversations. Some of these speak to how demanding the practice might be, both on the writers and the scholars they are writing about (particularly for very well-known scholars). And indeed, it won’t be feasible all the time for all of the questions one might have. But perhaps it can be useful enough, enough of the time.

Another objection concerns maintaining verifiable citation practices. In response, Baggini suggests that “As long as the interviewer gives the interviewee the right to check any quotes used, what is said in the resulting paper is as fully and properly on the record as any other published words.”

What do you think? And to what extent are academic editors and publishers open to this?


guest
20 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kevin DeLapp
Kevin DeLapp
5 months ago

I really like the idea of this, especially if it would have the “ground clearing” effects that Justin mentions. Three worries, though. First, the practice might simply reinforce existing inequalities in the profession. Famous philosophers who maybe can’t reply to all queries might therefore prioritize replying to those by other famous philosophers or to folks they already know. A philosopher not already a part of such networks might be at a further disadvantage. Second, I’m uneasy about seeing more citations in papers such as “as so-and-so told me through personal communication.” Not only is there the worry that Baggini noted, about how a third party is to follow up on such citations, but there’s again the worry that this could be used to prestige-signal. Like, “Look, I know famous philosopher X!” or “I managed to get famous philosopher X to respond to me!” Finally, and maybe more philosophically, the idea that an author’s intentions are separate from, and even to be privileged over, the actual words they ended up publishing, such that one might want to follow up with them in order to get what they “really meant,” seems to beg a lot of questions against semantic externalism, doesn’t it?Report

TT
TT
5 months ago

As a grad student, I reached out to two authors about a key claim in their co-authored work. I just didn’t understand it. I never received a response. So, they got the usual treatment when I published the paper. Perhaps a formal question process would help with these kinds of cases.Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
5 months ago

I like it, too. With regards to my own writing, I always think it’s weird when someone publishes a reply or criticism or something, when I’ve never heard of this person, the person has never reached out or asked me to read a draft, and so on. You might as well start with the author, rather than some journal editor, right? As a graduate student above says, too, it’s maybe a particularly fertile opportunity for students, because they can make connections with faculty, get eyes on their papers and ideas, and so on. I think this should happen much more than it actually does.Report

Grad student who should be writing
Grad student who should be writing
5 months ago

In general, I agree with this. I think it optimizes charity and careful analysis of others’ work. But there are two reasons why is think the obligation defeasible. First, for younger scholars, as other have identified, it’s hard to get authors to actually respond. I have tried this every time I have engaged critically with someone’s work. Oftentimes I get either (1) a response promising to follow up that is never actually followed by a follow-up, or (2) a response thanking me for my care but telling me to just go with whatever I think they said. People, for whatever reason, are just not playing the game. This leaves me in a weird spot. Arguably I have discharged much of my charitable responsibility but I didn’t actually get any new insight or exchange ideas. So what was the point beyond formality? And second, of particular concern to marginalized groups in philosophy, not all scholars have a reputation of being friendly. I can think of several big names in my field that I know to be just plain unpleasant. I could try to engage them, but that might end the same way as my first point AND include a hefty dose of irritation and stress. For my part, I would reach out anyway because the naive youngster in me still believes that no one gets to gate keep ideas, even if they made them. But I can’t fault a woman of color in the patriarchy-fest that is our field for not wanting to email a notorious sexist. Report

Devin
Devin
5 months ago

I really like some things about this idea. However, I also feel that there’s a real value to the public back-and-forth where A publishes a paper responding to B, B responds by clarifying their position/noting mistakes in A’s interpretation, and so on that would be lost if we adopted this norm. It might not be the most efficient way to get to the heart of the matter, but often lots of other interesting points arise, and as a reader following that back-and-forth gives me a much fuller appreciation of what’s at issue.Report

Devin
Devin
5 months ago

To put the point more succinctly: as a reader, I’d much rather be in the room (so to speak) while the authors are hashing things out, than hear about the outcome afterwards.Report

Jared N. Colburn
Jared N. Colburn
5 months ago

This is a well intended but problematic idea. Here is why. Younger people need to publish in good journals to get a job. One of the most optimal strategies for doing this is picking holes in the arguments of big shots. Many of these holes exist only due to a bit of sloppiness. If big shot is given the chance to clarify sloppiness … there will be no more paper worth writing anymore! ergo that much tougher to get job. Thus: better to not give big shot the chance to clarify , just attack them blind — they are a big shot, they can take it Report

SCM
SCM
5 months ago

I don’t oppose emailing people to ask for clarification about certain points in their published work. But, that said, I also don’t like the idea that we should do this because the relevant argument or thesis is something that exists in the mind of the author and which is evidenced, more or less, by the published text. Rather, the relevant argument or thesis is something that is to be extrapolated from the published text, regardless of how that text might reflect the author’s mental state. The journal reviewers approve the argument-in-the-text, such as it is, not the argument-in-the-author’s-mind. Once published, the author might be better at explaining the argument than other people, being deeply familiar with it, but s/he is no more an authority to stipulate what exactly it is or what exactly it means than anyone else. This is part of what makes an academic discipline a democratic and public activity, rather than an esoteric initiation into the secret thoughts of the elite.Report

MH
MH
5 months ago

I would contact them if I were looking for clarity on some issue. But if I have an objection to their work that I think is a good one, then emailing the author in advance runs the risk of creating more work for yourself (and, I think, making the paper worse). In many cases, the author will attempt to explain away the objection (“Oh, I can see why you’d think that; but when I said such-and-such, I *really* meant so-and-so. I should have made that clearer.”) or diminish the importance of the criticism against their view (since cognitive dissonance often prevents us from admitting that we’ve left huge holes in our work). So, your target is now aware that you know of how they’d reply to your objection. In all likelihood, this paper will be sent to them for review, and you’re more likely to get rejected unless you revise the paper to address this informal reply. Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
5 months ago

I did this once. I spoke to the scholar. Their rephrasing of the argument was substantially/entirely different from what they had published. I was put in a bind…do I just ignore them and publish on the argument that’s actually published? Or is my critique of that now off-limits, because they’ve “clarified”/reformulated it to me? I can’t really publish a paper exclusively on an argument attributed to this person that was conveyed exclusively over video chat anyway, can I?

I ended up just publishing the critique of the argument that’s actually in the literature. My advisor, who knows the author, hinted that the author now thinks I’m an uncharitable (perhaps even dishonest) writer because I didn’t write about the argument they told me over video chat. I choose never to go through that again, so I’ll do the ground-clearing myself (verified, as always, via peer review). If authors don’t want the ground to be cleared without their input, they should clear up the argument before they publish it.

I think the central issue with the suggested approach is that people are shitty, so they will use their video chat not always to encourage or validate critique, but to talk their way around whatever objections you might have. They will also pretend that they’ve always grasped a crucial distinction that you, in your draft that you’ve been writing for months/years, are the first to articulate. And if you don’t address every single thing they throw at you, or note that they’ve always appreciated the distinction you’re making, you’re all of a sudden in a breach of ethics or charity. And goodness forbid they publish a response to your critique, using a paragraph or two to cast doubt on your integrity by telling the audience you willfully ignored an argument they made (on video chat, let’s not forget) that would’ve countered your critique. No thank you.Report

ehz
ehz
5 months ago

I don’t know if Dr. Baggini’s “why not just ask them about it first?” is just naive or perhaps intended as a broader criticism on academic culture, but let’s be real here: No one with a bit of experience is academic philosophy should be perplexed about this. Faced with an opportunity to publish vs an opportunity to satisfy a slight curiosity, it is extremely obvious which one you choose, at least for most folks who don’t already have secure and comfortable jobs.

I am reminded, by the way, of a comment by a grad student on this blog some time ago. The student who to some big shot prof about an objection they found to the the prof’s argument, the big shot prof said thank you very much and published a paper discussing the objection.Report

Lowlygrad
Lowlygrad
5 months ago

This seems to completely miss an important (the most important?) aspect of publication: the conversation is public.Report

fwg
fwg
5 months ago

There are several points to be considered:

First, it’s not really a contribution to serious and responsible philosophical research, if one picks up an occasional flaw that happened seemingly unintentionally to an author, big shot or not. In so far I disagree with Jared.

Secondly, it’s good style instead, to interpret an author’s work with best effort to interpret him consistently and wrt his expressed intentions, whereever reasonably possible

Third, but within these limits – in my opininion – from the viewpoint of scientific discourse it’s completely fair and undisputable in discussing research contributions to identify and elaborate on not only seeming strengths but also on seeming weaknesses.

Fourth, of course in many cases it’s desirable, to have an author’s intentions more elaborate and also his replies to critics. But this may be done also publicly, not restricted to private mailing. A well known early effort in this respect is the ‘library of living philosophers’, founded by Paul A. Schilpp. Report

David Thorstad
David Thorstad
5 months ago

I used to write to people a lot with questions about their work. I would do this not just for the purpose of writing a paper, but anytime their work was important to my thinking and there was something I didn’t understand the meaning of, or the motivations for. I usually got detailed and helpful responses. There’s a lot that doesn’t make it into the text of a paper.

I also find that such conversations can be useful for reducing hostility and disagreement. Most people are fairly reasonable once you talk to them.

I don’t know how I feel about a blanket expectation to contact people before discussing their work, and I haven’t always done this, but when I have it’s been helpful.

I do find it frustrating when significant interpretation is needed to understand a paper. Isn’t the point of good philosophical writing that the position and argument should be clear on the first read? Report

Junior Scholar
Junior Scholar
5 months ago

As others have commented, this proposal one the one hand might make academic philosophy a nicer, more connected, more collaborative place (which would be good things). On the other hand it seems to miss the point of academic philosophy in which the professional norms demand publication. If I publish argument x in a peer reviewed journal and someone contacts me about argument x and its flaws, they have potentially done considerable academic labor to help me improve my argument and given me reason to thing about writing a subsequent piece that further clarifies x and they have done the interpersonal labor of being charitable, kind, etc. But what do they get out of it other than being nice and helpful? I worry that this expects a lot of labor from the person with a critique without return on benefit for the kinds of the things the profession demands (publications). Clearly it is not mutually exclusive to either reach out personally or write the formal reply article, but as others have suggested, this can put the person writing the critique in all sorts of binds. If I explain the thinking behind my argument x that was evidently unclear in my published paper, is the person replying to it supposed to include this information in their reply? They aren’t a journalist trying to report some revealed facts through our interview process, they are a philosopher showing the flaws of an argument as argued. Perhaps they can say in a footnote something like “I have reason to believe the author may even agree with my critique, but as written the paper is vulnerable to it” to make reference to the conversation? It seems the back and forth conversation piece is what conferences are supposed to be about – dialogue about ideas before they go to print – and certainly connecting to people who work on things you work on whether or not you agree with them has professional benefits, but as a norm of engagement I am having trouble seeing benefits that outweigh the costs of this proposal that is framed as charitability but seems to involve some real burdens on those who might already be most burdened in the profession. Report

Nick
Nick
5 months ago

There’s two things I like about this idea. First, it promotes the idea that philosophy is a collaboration, that we can/should be talking to one another with an eye to figuring out what’s right on the issue in question; it’s not a debating society or (I think anyway) fundamentally adversarial. Second (and on a personal note), I have seen my views badly misunderstood or misrepresented a few times, from both junior and senior people. (Usually this happens not when there is a serious discussion of them, but when people look like they are trying to citation drop or pad their paper with a literature discussion – my guess is this encourages really hasty reading which lends itself to attributing a view to someone where it’s super clear they don’t hold the view if you had actually read their whole paper.)Report

joe
joe
5 months ago

I find this proposal very strange. On more theoretical grounds: 1) When I publish something, I generally did my best to explain whatever it is I am writing about. It’s not like I can explain it better – I did my best. So it’s not like I have this magical other explanation up my sleeve (I can simplify perhaps). 2) after some time, I do not fully remember why I wrote what I wrote in every section. In fact, I might come to understand the issues better or differently and even puzzle about some things I wrote ten years ago. 3) When I write something and publish it, I sent it off to the world – now it’s up to the world to read and wrestle with it (of course, more likely not to read, but I am talking about a principle). In some way, I closed a chapter in my thinking on that. I could go on, but besides many issues of this sort, there are practical issues – I cannot imagine responding and explaining what I already explained (and evaluating objections) to just about anybody who is engaged with it as they are writing something they might or might not publish. I can barely keep up with my students, my family, my own writing, and the few people that I know well and correspond with regularly. if there is some discipline-wide practice/expectation of this sort, it’s perhaps for people with no kids or family to take care of (or people with house-wives/husbands) and free to just engage in research (and more or less having nothing else on their agenda). Just imagine every grad student writing an objection to your view, emailing you. Even if it is just one per three grad departments in the the Anglophonne world, we get what, 50-60 people emailing you (most of which will presumably not end up even using it)? Obviously, i would have to do the same, so in addition, I have to email all the 20 people I object to in my paper? Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
5 months ago

I agree with SCM above: the proposal seems to presuppose, mistakenly in my view, that the central questions we’re writing about have their answers in the minds of the philosophers we’re reacting to. When I am engaging with Professor A’s argument against theory B, I’m doing so in the service of a question about B, not A. I don’t really care, qua contributor to the literature, what A meant by this particular remark in their paper — I care about what we should think about B. To get at that, I want the best or most interesting version of the argument, not the one the author happened to be thinking about.Report

Donald Davenport
Donald Davenport
5 months ago

Joe above says “I find this proposal very strange. On more theoretical grounds: 1) When I publish something, I generally did my best to explain whatever it is I am writing about. It’s not like I can explain it better – I did my best. So it’s not like I have this magical other explanation up my sleeve (I can simplify perhaps).” I find this remark baffling! Anytime I am asked to clarify something I’ve written in a published paper, I assume (almost always, rightly) that I could have explained it better. (Otherwise, why am I getting these questions?) And almost invariably it turns out I could have! I am after all not smarter than the people reading what I write; even if I might have tried hard *at the time* to explain something, questions about what I meant usually lead me to see a way to explain it better *later*. And this is my experience from pressing others as well to clarify: when I do, they almost invariably notice ways they could have been clearer; and that doesn’t mean they didn’t try very hard the first time. Unless Joe takes himself to be remarkable (which he may be?) in that when people are confused the problem is always them not him, I think we should be skeptical of his take on things. Report

Madeleine Ransom
Madeleine Ransom
5 months ago

When I was writing a paper last year for a journal symposium on Kendall Walton’s hugely influential 1970 paper “Categories of Art,” I got into a (good-natured and interesting) debate with another contributor over how to interpret Walton.

Well, when I asked Kendall himself what he meant, thinking this would clear things up, he told me half in jest “who knows what that guy was up to?” And in his published replies, Kendall refers to the author of the Categories in the third person, as Walton’70.

It’s worth noting that, since the publication of Categories of Art, different (and sometimes conflicting) interpretations of Walton’70s original arguments have led to interesting positions in aesthetics worthy of discussion and evaluation in their own right. Would we still arrive at ‘mistaken’ interpretations if the author were to clarify their explicit authorial intention?Report