What Can Journals, Publishers, and Authors Do Now to Improve the Publication Process in Philosophy?


A postdoctoral fellow at a prestigious university recently wrote in to share their story of a leading journal that took three months to desk-reject their submission. The experience, they wrote, was an example of “how dysfunctional publishing in philosophy journals can be.”

[Su Blackwell, “Nature in Britain”]

People have had plenty of bad experiences with philosophy journals. And there have been a number of suggestions about what to do about one of the common causes of many of these experiences: the high ratio of submissions to (desirable) publication space. Yet these suggestions are often for profession-wide changes to practices and institutions the adoption of which seem unlikely, or face collective action problems, or are rather indirect. As we sit around waiting for such big changes, perhaps it is worth asking what individual journals, editors, and publishers can do in the short term to improve the situation.

In asking this, I’m not asking for suggestions that just require more work from editors. Editors already work long and hard, and suggestions which imply they should work 18 hours a day are not reasonable. Indeed, we might ask not what our journal editors can do for us, but what can be done for our journal editors. Editors, feel free to pipe in here!

Here are a few possible suggestions:

  • Improve transparency where it is lacking, and be explicit so as to appropriately manage author expectations. “Warning: it may be three months before we decide that your paper isn’t worth refereeing” should be on the “information for authors” webpage of journals for which it is true.
  • Increase the number of associate editors, exerting pressure on publishers to fund this if need be, and delegate more tasks to them.
  • For the period between author submission of a manuscript and an editor’s (or associate editor’s) initiating consideration of whether it should be refereed, allow the manuscript to be submitted to other journals, explicitly declaring that during this period, the submitted manuscript is not actually “under consideration” at the journal, but simply “on a waitlist to be under consideration.” When it is about to be moved from the waitlist to “under consideration,” the author will be notified and must choose whether to continue with that process (and if so, withdraw the manuscript from other journals).

Some of these and other suggestions may bring only minor benefits, but that is okay. Together they may add up to something noticeably better. And besides, progress doesn’t require that we solve all of the problems entirely. So let’s hear your ideas.


Related: “Notably Good Experiences with Philosophy Journals

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Neil Levy
2 months ago

My impression is the real problem is that lots of people don’t referee, and lots of those who referee think it’s fine to ignore the paper for months (as a consequence, those referees who act responsibly are overwhelmed). There’s nothing editors can do about this, so far as I can see.

Perhaps the survey on refereeing will shed light on this, though I suspect there’ll be response bias in the results.Report

finch
finch
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 months ago

This case didn’t involve referees.Report

Neil Levy
Reply to  finch
2 months ago

One reason for a long desk rejection is that the editors failed to find referees. Another is that editors are slammed chasing referees.Report

Axel
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 months ago

Presumable, those papers that were rejected because of difficulties in securing referees and reports were also the ones that took longer to reject.Report

Joshua Mugg
Joshua Mugg
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 months ago

Levy’s second reason (“another is that editors are slammed chasing referees”) isn’t undercut by the informal surveying, and seems pretty plausible. Take off the load of chasing reviewers and editors have more time for desk rejections.Report

Philomanon
Philomanon
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 months ago

Editors at prestigious journals often want the positions they hold because—surprise—they are prestigious journals and *not* because they have the time, resources, innovative streak to uphold standards of what would constitute reasonable turnaround times. Editors who are ultimately accountable for deplorable editorial practice (eg a 3-month desk rejection) should face some kind of disciplinary action. Nothing serious, of course, but maybe: “You’re going to have to move on as it doesn’t seem like you can do this job, but thanks for trying.” And then letting someone else try! As we have it in philosophy, some editors sit on top journals for years and years (sometimes 10+ years) despite the woeful standards for which they are ultimately, as the chief decision-maker, accountable. It’s pretty inexcusable and reflects the absence of meaningful standards in our discipline when it comes to publishing. The main philosophical societies, and the comfortable, tenured folks who run them, need to get their acts together and establish standards. They are the only ones who can do anything about what’s going on. What we have is a crisis.Report

Neil Levy
Reply to  Philomanon
2 months ago

Can you think of a journal that fits that description? Serious question (for you and others). I’m assuming anonymous comments are permitted on this post.Report

quail
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 months ago

Perhaps, historically, Mind?Report

Joona Räsänen
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 months ago

I have read that Philosophy and Phenomenological Research and Nous only accept submissions during a limited number of months in a year. Arguably, because they cannot handle the huge number of submissions. So perhaps the editor(s) of these journals should be changed or the journals should get more editors?Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 months ago

I will admit to having been one of those editors when I was at the Journal of Philosophical Logic. I don’t exactly know what it was about the interaction of that online system, that set of submissions, and my habits and tendencies, but with that journal I ended up sitting on things for many months, even though I think I’ve been quite a bit better at Ergo and Episteme. Fortunately, the other editors at JPL finally removed me a year or two ago, and I think they’ve generally been doing a good job with the journal.

But there was a long period when I wanted not to be in that role, but felt bad about quitting (because it would seem to put more work on the others – even though in practice they already had to do that extra work), and it was also socially difficult for the others to ask me to step down.

Some sort of more frequent and impersonal process where editors’ metrics are checked might be helpful to get around the awkwardness on all sides, though it probably would need to be paired with a general increase in the number of editors at many journals to ensure that journals don’t end up short-staffed when a couple people are removed.Report

Cockatiel
Cockatiel
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 months ago

Very much: Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy .. despite the very public shaming at the Endoxa blog.Report

Frustrated
Frustrated
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 months ago

I waited two months for a desk rejection at the Journal of Social Philosophy. I was appalled.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 months ago

Amen to this. Referees, waiting two months to start reading a paper and writing a report doesn’t make it take less time. Whether it takes you 2 or 10 hours to referee a paper, you should only accept the invitation to referee if you are willing and able to submit a report well within the deadline — and I mean, on the side of within a few days after agreeing rather than a just shy of (much less past) the deadline. It’s also okay to spend less time on any given paper, focusing on what really matters rather than writing ten pages of objections (unless your objections are very good and you can write those ten pages quickly).Report

Matt L
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
2 months ago

I referee a fair amount, and almost always finish by early in the deadlines I’m given, but sometimes the requests come in waves, or busy times, and I tell the editors that I won’t finish until close to the deadline (or maybe even that I’d need a bit more time) if I’m going to accept. In every case when I’ve done this, the editors have said that they would still rather have me agree than to look for someone else. Now, there have been cases where I could have refereed more quickly, and no doubt that’s true of others, too. But I’m pretty skeptical of the claim that suggesting that people should not accept unless they can referee w/in a few days is likely to speed things up over all.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Matt L
2 months ago

I know, I’ve been in the same situation. You’re probably right that that’s what editors prefer. But it’s on the referees to act promptly when they can. My comments should be rephrased to apply only to those referees who submit later when they could submit sooner, and read as upholding a norm we should strive for even if, in practice, we may fall short.Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Matt L
2 months ago

As the comments here attest, many philosophers qualified to referee are not being asked to because many journal editors tend to select referees from a small pool of philosophers at elite institutions or philosophers in their social network. So, rather than accepting many assignments at once and then taking right up until the deadline to complete reports, I suggest that you decline further requests when you can’t complete them within a week and then politely suggest that the journal editors use this tool if they are having difficulties finding referees. I’m sure that the many philosophers who are rarely called on to referee could then step in and produce a report much more quickly in such circumstances.

(By the way, if you’re wondering, I have completed 90% of my referee reports within 48 hours of receiving the request and it is a great annoyance to me that many of the referees who review my work take months to submit their reports).Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  JTD
2 months ago

Exactly. There’s no scarcity of referees per se. There’s an inefficient market matching referees and editors.

A striking but perhaps unsurprising feature of these conversations is how comfortable philosophers are with the status quo, and will appeal to it in order to justify it. Same point applies to turnaround times: we didn’t move from six to three months as a norm by just consenting to the status quo.

Since the spirit of the OP is to help editors improve the situation maybe it’d be nice if people didn’t use this opportunity to shh shh new ideas.Report

good one
good one
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
2 months ago

There’s no scarcity of referees per se. There’s an inefficient market matching referees and editors.”

Exactly. I never got requests to review for *the* major specialist journal in my area until I and the EIC became hallmates. And even then, I rarely get requests to review for his journal. A professional organization gave me an award for my work as a referee, so I don’t think my skills as a referee are to blame here…Report

Joona Räsänen
2 months ago

Journals should publish more papers. Do we really think only 2.5 % of the manuscripts submitted to the top journals are worth publishing? Journals should not be archives where you submit a paper once you have managed to prove something, they should be places to discuss new and interesting ideas.

Journals should use only one reviewer per paper. Referees will often just disagree with each other anyway. This will fasten the process and likely lead to more interesting papers being published.

Editors should say to reviewers what exactly they want from a referee report. For instance, do the editors of a particular journal think rejection is justified when the reviewer simply thinks the author is wrong?

Publishers should pay the reviewers and the editors for their work (journal editor should perhaps be a full-time job). This is not going to happen as long as people, who have other things to do, review and edit for free – when and if they happen to have some spare time.

Journals should publish accepted papers online as soon as they are accepted (I recently received an email from a journal saying it takes currently 18 months for an accepted paper to be published online). I only decline reviewer invitations when I know the journal does not publish accepted papers online soon.Report

EFB
EFB
Reply to  Joona Räsänen
2 months ago

Agree with publishing more papers. It is frustrating when you receive positive reports but get rejected because the paper just isn’t one of the top 12 that year (or whatever). It also wastes time because the author then submits it to another journal, more referees need to read it, etc. etc.Report

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
Reply to  Joona Räsänen
2 months ago

Just to add to your point about editors being explicit about their expectations towards the reviewers: It seems to me that reviewers often think that their job is to find objections to a paper, and if they can find any, they recommend the paper should be rejected.

But any piece of philosophy can be objected to on some grounds and if there’s a strict word limit, as there almost always is, the process becomes ridiculous.Report

East Coast assistant
East Coast assistant
Reply to  Joona Räsänen
2 months ago

I do not think that journals should be publishing more papers. Virtually all of the papers I receive to referee either are unpublishable or require serious work to be worth publishing. They make obvious mistakes about the existing literature, they recreate a well-known wheel (there is so much of this!), they do not recognize the low-hanging objections, etc. So I don’t reject these papers because I disagree with them. Rather, I reject them because there are significant and obvious problems with them that would frustrate a reader short on time. Publishing more mid-quality work just wastes more reader time.

Instead, I suspect that the solution involves:

  • Making it more transparent what would be published where.
  • Creating more places (online & in-person) where authors can workshop papers so that papers submitted for publication are ready for referee eyes.

Report

EFB
EFB
2 months ago

I have also received a desk reject with no comments after 3 months at a prestigious journal. It was quite frustrating to say the least. I think journals should publish information about their acceptance rates and average time to first decision so that authors, especially early-career people, can make informed choices about their submissions.Report

LCF
LCF
Reply to  EFB
2 months ago

A paper is currently sitting with editors for more than 3 months without being sent out to the referees. An explanation for this that I got is that the editor chief has other professional duties… I also had the same thought as the “postdoctoral fellow at a prestigious university”Report

Platypus
2 months ago

Unless you’re desperate, don’t spam the journals. Send out fewer things with greater polish and depth.

The cost to you is minimal—it might even be better for your career. The benefits, meanwhile, are massive. Editors have more time, and referees aren’t so burdened.

The fact is: 5 meh publications < 1 great writing sample. You need a minimum for tenure, but beyond that, don’t spam journals just to get the extra line on your CV. Polishing is praxis.Report

ERW
ERW
Reply to  Platypus
2 months ago

I agree in principle, but in practice a junior philosopher who pumps out five mediocre articles and gets them published somewhere respectable fares better than one with a single polished publication.

On the hiring committees I’ve been on, people rarely read most or any of the applicants’ publications. The writing sample is important, but all they need is one competent writing sample.Report

Platypus
Reply to  ERW
2 months ago

I don’t agree with this advice—at least, not for research job-seekers.

In the final stages, committees will read other papers besides the sample. If they’re mediocre, that’s a liability. It’s not worth it. I’ve seen it sink candidates.

Better to put your best foot forward with a strong writing sample and quality publications—even if that means sacrificing quantity.

Quantity isn’t itself a problem, but a lot of “competent” papers < a few deep ones.Report

Joona Räsänen
Reply to  Platypus
2 months ago

But now you assume people (commitee members for example) agree on what is mediocre paper and what is brilliant. But I do not think they do. You could polish and polish your paper so that some people think it is brilliant – yet some think it is still crap. And you could put together a paper with very little effort and some think it is brilliant (yet, some others think it is crap). I mean the advice to publish only brilliant stuff would be great advice if philosophers agree on what is brilliant. But they don’t.Report

Platypus
Reply to  Joona Räsänen
2 months ago

I didn’t say “publish only brilliant stuff.” I said “prioritize quality over quantity.”

Committees often disagree about quality, true. There’s no way to guarantee that your paper will be beloved by all. But your odds improve if you polish your work in light of feedback from conferences and mentors. A slapdash paper is more likely to look shallow. People who tell you that you have to pump out as many papers as possible are setting you up for failure.

(Again, the caveat is that you do need some quantity for tenure—and ideally you’ll have one or two papers as you’re finishing your PhD. But beyond that, my honest view, in light of my experience in multiple departments, is that you’re better off spending six months on one paper than doing three in two months each.)Report

Platypus
Reply to  ERW
2 months ago

On the hiring committees I’ve been on, people rarely read most or any of the applicants’ publications.

I almost missed this, because it’s almost unbelievable.

A search committee where people don’t read any publications? What does your department hire based on? Vibes?Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Platypus
2 months ago

Most of a hiring committee is generally not going to be in the area of specialization of the candidate. For these committee members, it’s going to be much more helpful to read recommendation letters that explain and contextualize the work than to try to struggle with a paper outside your area. Even with the obvious conflicts of interest, you can often get better information by deferring to experts than by pretending to be one yourself.Report

Platypus
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
2 months ago

You can read the paper without pretending to be an expert, just as you can attend an ethics job talk without pretending you’re Judy Thomson.Report

Em.
Em.
2 months ago

JPhil is explicit about not sending along comments unless review takes more than six months. That doesn’t make it okay.Report

Last edited 2 months ago by Em.
good one
good one
Reply to  Em.
2 months ago

Also, they sometimes take longer than six months and do not provide comments.Report

E e
E e
2 months ago

I give it ~2 more hours until one of the Davids explains why all of the complaints and suggestions in this thread are unworkable, actually.Report

Barry Lam
2 months ago

Just because I’ve been talking about this for far too long, about 15 years now, I’ll just drop by to say that in my generation, 3 months for a desk reject is…..on the speedy side. When Lewis Powell started collecting data for this way back in the day, the norm was, wait 6-9 months for ANYTHING to happen.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Barry Lam
2 months ago

Norms change. Dream bigger!Report

Louis deRosset
Reply to  Barry Lam
2 months ago

Damn it Barry, I thought I was going to be the only one on this thread to dare to say `three months to a rejection sounds pretty good to me’. Anyway, I want to amplify the recommendations of East Coast assistant. Everyone needs people around them who read and constructively criticize line-by-line. We should create more institutions (presumably informal in most cases) that make more of that happen. And, though it takes lots of time, it’s fun.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
2 months ago

Increasing the number of associate editors is a good idea. I suspect Ergo’s having a very long list of specialized AEs partly explains their success and efficiency. And a little like the untapped pool of willing referees, there maybe an untapped pool of willing editors.Report

good one
good one
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
2 months ago

This is an excellent suggestion. We need to bring more people into the fold.Report

Emily
2 months ago

Phil Studies uses a software (I forget what it’s called) in which you can always see where your paper is in the process. Why doesn’t every journal use this?Report

a postdoc
2 months ago

The rate at which I’ve had submissions with (all, mostly) positive reports rejected has been much higher in the past two years than previously. I don’t know how representative my case is, but I suspect this sort of thing wastes a lot of reviewer labor that would be better used elsewhere. Some things that might help:

1. A norm of not rejecting papers with all positive reports and of not seeking additional reviewers for them.
2. A norm of encouraging positive reports to be transferred from some other journals and facilitating the transfer of such reports to other journals.
3. A journal whose submissions consist in papers rejected with positive reports from one of, say, 15 of the best philosophy journals along with those reports.
4. A submission bank of such papers and reports that authors can submit to and journals can accept from. Having a paper at it doesn’t count as having that paper under review for the purpose of submitting to journals.
5. Journals posting their total number of reviews and total number of reports (or their review-publication ratio). This would make it more transparent which journals are using referee labor efficiently and which not, allow that to be factored into judgments of journal quality, and incentivize efficient use of that labor.

Other ideas:
6. Reviewers could receive other reviewer reports by default. (I’ve become better at reviewing by reading others’ reports, mostly ones I’ve received for my own submissions. I bet I’d have improved faster if I’d received more reports on other papers I reviewed.)
7. Journals that have trouble finding reviewers could ask authors during the submission process for non-obvious reviewer suggestions (subject to restrictions). Some journals already do this.
8. Journals could tell reviewers how long the paper their reviewing has been at the journal. This could mitigate slow refereeing that results from underestimating how long a paper has been at the journal and so how quickly the report needs to be done for the author to receive it in a reasonable timeframe.
9. Journals could instruct reviewers who recommend R&Rs to be explicit about the status of different concerns (requiring revisions vs. needing to be addressed but not necessarily requiring revisions vs. of TBD significance to the reviewer vs. a half-baked suggestion that the author should feel free to ignore…).Report

Nev R. Haddachance
2 months ago

I propose the following norm: A paper proposing a solution to a well-known problem should not be rejected by a single ref who is convinced (by a single paper over 5 years ago that has been cited only a few times) that the problem is a non-issue with no solution, especially when most of the literature on this problem still either proposes or at least supposes the existence of a solution, and much of it involves authors in top journals who are proficient and well-regarded philosophers. But if this must happen, then at least it should happen in less than 5 months and 3 weeks, one week before the promised response deadline.Report

Fritz Warfield
Fritz Warfield
2 months ago

I had a 12 year stretch in which I refereed 1000+ papers. Pretty much no one cared except for a couple of editors who knew I could quickly and competently review submissions on a wide range of topics.

I now decline almost all referee requests — I refereed only 3 papers in 2021. My thankless volunteer work continues but in areas of life far more important.

I have told editors and editorial offices of a few journals to not contact me for referee assignments. Almost without exception I am still contacted by the journals I have asked not to contact me.

Minor suggestions for journal offices and journal editors:

Do not treat unpaid referees as employees.

At least say “hello” one time, and ask about general willingness to referee for a journal, before sending specific referee work with a short deadline to a professional philosopher, especially if you are a complete stranger.

If your profits make it easy to do so (as with some journals for sure) then pay for referee work. If the finances of a journal do not allow for this (as with many journals, including some truly excellent ones) then explain and detail this at your journal website.Report

Dale Miller
2 months ago

I just stepped down as editor of Utilitas after six years. I’d like to think that during that period most authors felt like their papers were considered promptly. Finding reviewers can certainly be a challenge, and there were a few people who baffled me over the years by steadfastly refusing every request, even when the papers were right up their proverbial alley. Perhaps a utilitarian once ran over someone they loved in a trolley or something. A few reviewers were also sometimes very late every time. But it seems to me that at least part of the problem is that the culture of the discipline results from the sheer volume of papers that are being submitted. As editor, I saw some people submitting paper after paper, each of which was at best just barely worth sending to reviewers. I understand the pressures that lead people to do this, in terms of the need to start publishing as a grad student in order to get a job and then the need (at most schools) to have a certain number of publications for tenure. I also understand the pressures faced by departments themselves in this regard. Even if my department tried to say that three decent articles is enough for tenure, for instance, it’s unlikely that candidates who had only done this much would be successful at the higher levels of review. Still, I’m not sure that there is any real solution to some of the current problems around publishing that doesn’t involve reducing the number of submissions going into the pipeline, or at least keeping it from continuing to climb.Report

Lu Chen
2 months ago

I empathize with the frustrated authors and referees in this thread. To echo the comment about untapped pools, I would like to share my experience as a referee. I am currently two years into my tenure clock, but I have received a total of only maybe 6-7 referee requests, and *exactly one* during the last one year. In submitting reports, I have always met the deadline of one month or so—although I admit the guilt of not doing it as swiftly as I can, knowing the disciplinary norm. (The papers I refereed are mostly not very good, and I did feel a bit of wasting time commenting on them, but I still tried to do it amiably and helpfully—which prolonged the time I spent on it. I haven’t received any paper so far that I could heartily recommend for publication, which may not be surprising given the low number of papers I received in total.) Of course, I am happy with the little work I need to do so that I can focus on more productive things, but I certainly also don’t mind receiving more requests and writing more reports (and let me read some good ones too!).Report

good one
good one
Reply to  Lu Chen
2 months ago

Yes, there seems to be a large untapped pool of junior scholars who are rarely asked to participate in the process. I think Phil Cocoon had a thread on this maybe half a year back. There may also be an untapped pool of mid-career folks who are never asked to serve as associate editor. Journals should seriously consider adding more AEs to the team. This will not only take the load off the EIC and other AEs, but also address the ‘untapped pool of referees’ problem. More AEs mean AEs are more likely to be assigned papers within their narrow area of expertise and thus are more likely to know junior folks or those at less prestigious Universities.Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  good one
2 months ago

I think you have a mistaken conception of how likely it is that anyone is willing to add journal-editor to their service duties.Report

good one
good one
Reply to  Kate Norlock
2 months ago

Perhaps! But even if I am overestimating how willing many are to act as AE, there are nonetheless a number of philosophers (especially more junior/mid-career folks) willing to serve as AE. Consider, for instance, how Ergo was able to recruit 80(!!!) AEs. The system would benefit if these folks were offered a seat at the table 🙂Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Kate Norlock
2 months ago

I am.Report

Matt McAdam
2 months ago

I’m curious, what’s the basis for saying 3 months for a desk rejection is “ an example of “how dysfunctional publishing in philosophy journals can be”” or “deplorable editorial practice”?Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Matt McAdam
2 months ago

I’m not an editor, but as a referee I have occasionally recommended rejection for a paper that I thought should have been desk rejected rather than sent out for review. In all these cases it has taken me between 10 and 20 minutes to reach this verdict. And my experience excludes the very easy cases, such as when, by merely reading the abstract, an editor can see that a paper is not a good fit for their journal. So I presume that desk rejects are taking an editor somewhere between a couple of minutes and 30mins per paper.

Doesn’t it seem unreasonable to wait 3 months for someone to spend 2-30 minutes assessing your paper for desk rejection? Ergo, who follow a one week policy for the preliminary review stage where the paper can be desk rejected, certainly make it look unreasonable.Report

Michel
Reply to  Matt McAdam
2 months ago

(1) Experience with other journals, (2) Experience refereeing, and (3) reports/experience from other disciplines?Report

Murali
Reply to  Matt McAdam
25 days ago

Medical journals can review and even accept articles in a matter of weeks.Report

Jacob McNulty
2 months ago

A random half-baked thought: The journal system is like liberal-capitalism. It promises us fair-competition, the elimination of old hierarchies and innovation that will benefit everybody. But it also condemns us all to huge amounts of meaningless work in the service of (mostly) mediocre output.. We can no more fix the journal system than we can liberal-capitalism, since the solutions are either regressive or implausibly utopian. We are stuck.Report

Jean Pierre Legros
2 months ago

Your article is simplistic or the title is too general: there are a large number of causes for the malfunctioning of the publication process in philosophy. For example, the fact that the number of articles published is important for the career of an academic, while it is the publication of an article central to her thought that counts for a non-academic. Consequence: many conventional articles are published instead of others more innovative for the discipline. The subject is more complex than a processing time between supplier and customer.Report

Grad Student
2 months ago

Two suggestions:

  1. Unless proof of sufficient and high-quality refereeing becomes part of the tenure and promotion process, it will never be taken sufficiently seriously and it will always be difficult to find reviewers.
  2. In the sciences, all the top-tier journals have some lower-tiers journals that are still quite prestigious. E.g., Nature magazine has under it Nature Communications, Nature Ecology and Evolution and other highly respected journals under it, Cell has Molecular Cell and others, etc. It is very customary that the author of a very-good-but-not-good-enough-for-Nature paper gets an offer to publish the paper immediately in a less-but-still-highly-respected sub-journal. Why can’t we have Nous: epistemology, Nous: Metaphysics, etc. for papers on those topics that are very good but not good enough for the primary Nous? It will probably save a lot of efforts from authors and journals.

Report

Chris
Reply to  Grad Student
2 months ago

Yes! Both excellent suggestions. On (1), refereeing papers is largely the wild west. I’m doubtful that there are any agreed upon standards. Often conflicting reports between Reviewer 1 and Reviewer 2 are the result of a difference in the reviewers’ outlook on reviewing.

On (2), this would clearly address those cases were a paper receives two positive reviews but still gets rejected because of “lack of space”. And surely top-tier journals have large enough stables of editors and associate editors to run a secondary journal.Report

Kate Norlock
2 months ago

This is an interesting thread to read. I edit a small, open-access, feminist journal so I don’t have great insight on what paywalled prestige-journal editors can do, and of course it’s those paywalled prestige houses that are the ones the non- and not-yet tenured want to see improve their practices. In light of the OP the desk-rejection speed is one thing to focus on. Ergo is a great model and I am contemplating ways to get a lot of journal editors to take a pledge to desk-reject within two weeks of submission. Someone has to get the word about the pledge to the editors. But FPQ would take it, and it would improve our practices if we did. It’s worth thinking about how to start such a drive, and who could do it.

In my admittedly limited experience, when we editors are taking longer than authors can stand it is usually because other things (our full-time jobs, our medical situations, our endless service duties, our family/life/sleep obligations) are overwhelming. So I appreciate the suggestions that we should add editors to editorial teams – and at my journal we are about to do exactly that – but I think it’s important to mention that the post/pandemic is a volunteerism-desert. It’s a struggle in 2022 to keep organizations, journals, and conferences operational. The thing everyone can do right now is volunteer. The pay idea is nice but since the OP asks for suggestions in reality, this is the one I’ve got: Offer to do more work for free, because that is what “add more editors” is asking for right now.
I’m trying to avoid big blue-sky ideas in light of the post, but I can’t resist adding that as a discipline, we ought to band together and reject the emphasis on peer-reviewed journal articles as the only thing in the world that matters. We’re doing this to ourselves.Report

Antony Eagle
2 months ago

I’m new to the role of editor, but a couple of things are already clear to me that relate to points made in this thread.

First, people are complaining that they aren’t being asked to referee, but they are often not easy to find. At AJP we definitely try to call upon a wide pool of referees, partly because we desk reject less than some other venues. We for example call on the same referees at most twice per year, and we go through at least 500 distinct referees annually. So we frequently use our database of referees to search for those who haven’t refereed for the journal much or recently. But we rely on authors to create useful profiles. For example, if we get a submission on epistemic responsibility, I cannot search the database for ‘epistemology’: there are more than 500 people in our database who list that as a keyword. So I will search for the narrower keyword, or I rely on what I know of the field. Even the most diligent editor can’t know everyone, so we rely extensively on people keeping their records up to date. We have thousands of records in our database, so it’s not feasible either for the editorial office to maintain that without help from the referees themselves. So please, everyone, keep your records up to date and be as detailed as you can be in your choice of keywords – don’t just use your AOS/AOC, but topics please! (Also true for your PhilPeople profiles.)

Second, editors and YEs don’t generally get recompensed in any substantial way, so the editorial work goes on top of our other responsibilities. I get a little bit of teaching relief, but not nearly sufficient to cover the time required. At AJP I am lucky to have an outstanding team of volunteer AEs that help me cover topics I know less about, but there are very few institutions that support that aspect of editorial work adequately, so we really are reliant on volunteers here. And given that, it is not reasonable to expect editors and AEs to work as if they are not volunteers. AJP for example shuts to new submissions over the (Southern Hemisphere) summer, both to give the editorial office a chance to catch up on anything that has fallen behind, but also to give the volunteers and workers for the journal a summer break. Many ideas that people have for ‘fixing’ the journal system will involve violations of minimum employment standards in many countries. (Maybe not the US, admittedly.) And that kind of thing also explains these sorts of delays that the original post complained about. Suppose an editor/AE, or a family member gets sick; once recovered, they need to catch up on their paid responsibilities (the kind of thing they need to do to keep their job); they finally get back to journal work, and suggest desk rejection. Doesn’t seem unreasonable to me for a volunteer editor to act like this. Make the role more demanding and we just get fewer people willing to act as editors, which is not going to help the situation.

Third, on the perennial call for journals to publish more. Accepted papers require lots of work from the editorial office; editors read accepted papers much more closely than the typical rejected paper, and often give feedback and editorial advice. There is also the non-trivial work of copyediting and proofreading. All that work costs money. So more accepted papers increases the real costs of running a journal substantially. There are alternatives to this, of course (philosophy arXiv with post-publication peer review, perhaps). But those alternatives are more radical than seems to be countenanced by those who propose that journals simply increase their page count.Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Antony Eagle
2 months ago

Many ideas that people have for ‘fixing’ the journal system will involve violations of minimum employment standards in many countries… Make the role more demanding and we just get fewer people willing to act as editors, which is not going to help the situation.

I don’t think this is a fair account of what anyone is saying here. I haven’t heard anyone say “the problem is that these volunteer editors are not working hard enough”. Rather they are saying “the problem is that there are too few editors at most journals and hence, given what can be expected of a volunteer editor, thing move very slowly.” Furthermore, many have pointed out that some combination of (1) elitism in the profession, and (2) failing to look beyond one’s philosophical “social circles” means that many accomplished scholars who are willing to serve as referees and editors are systematically excluded. See the comments section here for many anecdotal reports of this experience. The common denominator among those reporting this seems to be not being at a Leiterific institution (although many are apparently at R1 or equivalent) and being outside of the Anglosphere (to be fair to the AJP they seem to do ok on the latter).Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Antony Eagle
2 months ago

Just want to be on the record on two things.

(1) I don’t want people to work more than they already do. As JTD notes, the suggestions we’ve made go in the opposite direction: the more AEs and referees we get, the less work any given AE or referee will get, all else equal. What we’re suggesting, I think, is for the work to be more widely distributed. I fully subscribe to your points about unrewarded labor.

(2) I think it’s fair to say AJP is regularly cited here and elsewhere as an example of how to run a journal. I’ve only had positive experiences with it as a referee and as an unsuccessful author. Whatever secret sauce the editorial team has been using, it’s working.Report

Last edited 2 months ago by Nicolas Delon
Struggling
2 months ago

This doesn’t help with the speed issue, but there are two things which could help make the process less demoralizing (especially for early career folks):

  1. Editors, *please* don’t reject someone’s paper and then ask them to referee for you just a short time later. I know journal space and willing referees are scarce, but either I’m competent enough for your journal or I’m not. The message that I’m good enough to gate-keep for you but not to be part of the club is a difficult one, especially when it’s only been a week or two.
  2. We need some way to notify journal editors of incompetent referees and remove the consequences of their bad decisions. Rejection is a part of life, but I’ve received brutal rejections from people who clearly don’t know the literature or clearly haven’t read my paper. These referees are missing basic stuff, like widely accepted definitions (which they dislike because they find the definitions “odd”) or information that’s explicitly and obviously in-text.

Some journals say that they’re unable to enter into correspondence about decisions. Understandably, editors don’t want to engage in a Sisyphean task of continuing to adjudicate decisions! But without some way of notifying editors of these bad faith actors, referees who lack passing familiarity with the debates will continue to shape both discussions in the literature and philosophers’ careers. In other cases, I’ve notified editors of this kind of issue only to receive a response along the lines of “this is a problem but it’s very difficult to find referees”.Report

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
Reply to  Struggling
2 months ago

I disagree on the first point but agree on the second. I’ve been lucky with reviewers, I guess, and have never received an incompetent or inappropriate review. But I recently saw a completely inappropriate review of a (talented and already accomplished) junior colleague’s submission. Do the editors not read the reports??? The review was nasty and inappropriately personal. If it had been an in person conversation supervised by the editor, the editor would have intervened and would not have let another (very junior!) philosopher be spoken to this way.

This was at a top journal, btw.Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  Struggling
2 months ago

Just on the first point: I don’t know whose paper I’m rejecting. Editors at triply-anonymized journals do not know the authors of rejected papers, and that is a good thing. But we could work on the suggestion by adding a step such as advising the staff member that is emailing would-be referees not to use a referee suggestion if it is the name of someone recently rejected, I suppose. (In some subfields that rules out highly appropriate referees, though.)Report

Miroslav Imbrisevic
2 months ago

I recently read this: ‘The founding father of Warwick Law School, Geoffrey Wilson, often said that no proper scholar in the social sciences should publish before the age of 55 as they were not ready before then to contribute anything worthwhile!’ Perhaps there is a little truth to it – and it might even apply to philosophy?Report

SCOTT E FORSCHLER
2 months ago

While long delays in decisions can be frustrating, even more frustrating is when a submission gets a page-long response showing that the referee misread the paper. I don’t mean referees who had a very different view of the topic, or read the conclusion and arguments and disagreed, but looked at the black and white on the page which says ABC and respond with the comment that the author claims XYZ, when actually ABC is true, so “reject without possibility of resubmission.” Perhaps this is due to hasty reading, perhaps bias of some kind, but either way this is evidence that some referees simply can’t be trusted and should be replaced.

That said, I would like to volunteer my services as a referee to any journal needing one, especially in ethical theory or related topics (agency, practical reasoning). I’m an independent scholar with lots of time on my hands and can usually give quick turnarounds. I can’t promise to be perfect–maybe I’ll misread something too. But you won’t have to wait 6 months to find out. There may be no way to guarantee that referees don’t misread a submission. But more referees might give those who do give comments time to really read the submissions sympathetically, and editors more choices about which referees to use.Report