A Norm for How Much Service Work You Should Take On

In a post about work-life balance at Crooked Timber, Ingrid Robeyns (Utrecht) writes: “it would help if we would all agree that we should do our fair share of the slack & service work, and what that would entail”.

The idea is that demands of disciplinary service work (refereeing papers, writing tenure and promotion assessments, serving on PhD-examination committees, assessing grant proposals, etc.) will be reduced if each of us contributed adequately. But how much is that?

Dr. Robeyns proposes the following heuristic: “Reciprocity + 1”.

She writes:

I think the only way to reduce workloads is that we all commit to the rule of “reciprocity + 1”. This means, you do as much of this work as you demand from the system (= our colleagues!), plus you add a little bit extra to what you do in order to give the system some oxygen. Many of these types of peer-assessment are generally not done by (very) junior scholars, yet junior scholars also take part in this system. Many PhD candidates submit papers to journals, yet many of them do not yet have the expertise to review papers themselves. So in order to add oil to these machineries, I think we need to be willing to review [the number of referee reports we have received as well as one for the editor’s work + 1 for each paper we submitted in order to add oxygen/oil to the system]. If you submit a paper and receive 2 reports, you should be willing to contribute 4 referee reports to the system. I am pretty sure most of us can (roughly) reconstruct such an overview/balance sheet for ourselves and then keep track towards the future. If you’ve received more from the system than what you’ve given, you have a strong reason not to decline when asked to review; when you’ve given more than what you’ve asked according to the “reciprocity +1” rule, you can decline without feeling guilty. This should be a norm we impose on ourselves, since otherwise we add to the workload of others by not doing our fair share (and to the workload of the editors who have to work endlessly to find reviewers). If we would all accept this rule, and stick to it, it should also reduce the turn-over time for journal submissions, which is another bonus effect.

Clearly, this might have as an effect that some people will discover that they should review more and will have less time to write papers; but that would be fine, since first of all one might think that there are already too many papers published, and secondly, these extra-papers would otherwise be written by freeriding on the work of others—and hence on taking from their leisure and family time.

Dr. Robeyns is aware that norms for individual decision-making are only part of a comprehensive approach to addressing work-life balance, and in her post takes up some institutional proposals, too. You can read the whole post here.

As for “Reciprocity + 1”: what do you think? Will it help? Is this your norm? Is there a better alternative? Discussion welcome.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Great for refereeing, but the bulk of our service work is committee work for University, College, and Department. So less useful as a rubric for “service” all told.

Maybe “Norm for how much refereeing…?”

Cecil Burrow
Reply to  M B
1 year ago

Agreed, especially considering that the value of many committees is negative.

1 year ago

I’m not sure about this: when you’ve given more than what you’ve asked according to the “reciprocity +1” rule, you can decline without feeling guilty.
I’ve probably refereed and written at least 10 times as many reports as I’ve ever received, but I have tenure and it isn’t clear to me that I shouldn’t feel guilty if I started declining everything. I could decline for the rest of my career and not violate her rule.

It is true that it has affected my research productivity but I also feel that there are so many junior and unemployed folks that I have a duty, as a beneficiary of this system, to keep refereeing. I’m sympathetic with her view that we should avoid over-work – which is why it has affected by research (rather than teaching or service, which are harder to reduce). Maybe if I thought my research was curing cancer or something I’d think otherwise.

Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

This sounds to me like a good rough rule of thumb. But I also think it makes sense for different people to play to their different comparative advantages. Some people should do more refereeing than this if it’s a thing they don’t mind as much as other people do and they are pretty good at it, and they might do less conference organizing and department chairing, while other people should do more conference organizing and less referring or whatever.

1 year ago

I think there is way too much meaningless departmental and university-wide service, e.g., silly ‘outcomes assessment’ initiatives, Potemkin-village-like self-studies for accreditation agencies, etc. This sort of busywork seems to be increasing exponentially, at least in teaching oriented schools like mine, and I have noticed how it is beginning to drain me of whatever mental bandwidth I still have left.

Elizabeth Finneron-Burns
Elizabeth Finneron-Burns
1 year ago

This is roughly what I already do. Probably not the “plus 1” part, but that’s only because I don’t get asked to review very often. I accept almost all review requests as it is for the same reciprocity reasons as in the post.

Bill Vanderburgh
1 year ago

Reciprocity +1 is an interesting proposal. Here’s another: Double the acceptance rate at the top 100 journals. Relative exclusivity would still be maintained, and to folks outside of Philosophy, a 10 or 20 or even 40% acceptance rate would still sound very low/special. And it would mean twice as many papers don’t need to be reviewed multiple times at multiple journals, thus saving a great deal of time for reviewers (and for editors chasing reviewers).

Remember this? https://dailynous.com/2018/05/24/insanely-low-acceptance-rates-philosophy-journals/

Charles Pigden
1 year ago

On the refereeing thing, if we followed the OP’s suggestion of reciprocity plus one I suspect that the refereeing system grind to a halt. Here’s my critique of a similar suggestion made by Caterina Dutihl Novaes on New Apps in 2014. What Catarina was suggesting was a similar principle: that if you are a fairly established member of the profession (e.g. not a graduate student, adjunct etc.), and you submit X articles in a year, you should do 3X referee reports: 2X to cover for your own submissions (each submission generating two referees’ reports) , and an extra X for the surplus of people not in a position to act as a referee themselves. ‘Does that sound reasonable?’ she asks. Well in one way it does and in another it doesn’t. It would be a reasonable refereeing workload for an established member of the profession and if that were all that they were expected to do they would probably do it promptly. The problem is that things are currently arranged the system would collapse if academically successful philosophers did not do a great deal more than that. And it is *because* they often get asked to do a lot more than that, that refereeing burn-out sets in, that the as-yet unrefereed papers pile up and that the reports when they appear are often snarky, superficial and dismissive.
First point to note. The top fifty journals have rejection rates varying between 80 and 95%. This means that the vast majority of PUBLISHED papers are rejected the first, the second and even the third time around. This suggests that the average PUBLISHED paper has generated at least six referee’s reports and that there are probably quite a lot of papers that never see the light of print but which have generated many more.
Second point to note. You get asked to referee a paper under one or more of three related conditions: 

1) you have published something in the area that has garnered a couple of citations or has otherwise created a stir,
2) your own work is cited in the paper to be refereed,
3) you have an established reputation as a reliable referee.

You don’t have to have to have published all that much in a given area to meet conditions 1) & 2). For example, I have only one publication on truthmaker theory (a coauthored paper with my colleague Colin Cheyne), yet I am often asked to referee papers on truthmakers and negative facts. Obviously you don’t get to meet condition 3) unless you have already done a bit of refereeing, usually, though not necessarily, for the journal that makes the request.
Now imagine a successful philosopher, call her Sophie, all of whose papers get accepted the first or the second time round. Thus the average number of referee’s reports per published paper that SHE generates is three. Since speedy acceptance is at least roughly correlated with quality, her papers are generally good and are regularly cited in the area or areas in which she works. This means that she often meets conditions 1) & 2) above. Let’s imagine too that Sophie is a conscientious person eager, at least initially, to do her bit for the profession. So she soon acquires a reputation as a reliable referee. Pretty soon the referee requests come flooding in. She gets a lot more than the nine requests per published paper of her own that Caterina’s formula would suggest.
Now imagine a less successful philosopher, call him Jack. None of Jack’s papers are accepted the first or the second time around. The average number of referee’s reports per published paper that HE generates is nine. Furthermore, since tardy acceptance is at least roughly correlated with poor quality, his papers are pretty ho-hum and are NEVER cited in the area or areas in which he works. (Remember that four years after publication, the median number of citations per philosophy paper is ZERO – that is most papers are not cited AT ALL.) This means that Jack NEVER meets conditions 1) & 2) above. Because he never meets conditions 1) & 2) , he is unlikely to acquire a reputation as reliable referee even if he is a conscientious person with a knack for seeing what is good or bad in other people’s papers despite deficiencies of his own work. Is Jack really going to get the 27 refereeing requests per published paper of his own that he would need to complete in order to meet Caterina’s formula? Obviously not.
Thus the problem I suggest is this. For structural reasons, the burden of refereeing falls disproportionately on the more successful members of the profession who are the very ones who generate the lowest numbers of referee’s reports. If they confined themselves to reciprocity plus one, then the system would fall over very quickly. There just wouldn’t be enough willing and qualified referees (or willing and identifiable-as-qualified referees) to do the necessary work .

Hilary Kornblith
Reply to  Charles Pigden
1 year ago

The situation is actually even worse than this. Well-established philosophers like the imagined Sophie start getting invitations to publish their work which by-passes the need for refereeing. Pretty soon, Sophie gets more invitations than she can accept and she is no longer submitting papers that require refereeing. Reciprocity +1 would have her do virtually no refereeing work at all as a result of her success. In the current system, philosophers with Sophie’s level of achievement do a tremendous amount of refereeing, as well they should. We can’t afford to take them out of the system. Similar considerations apply to refereeing for tenure and promotion decisions.

Charles Pigden
Reply to  Hilary Kornblith
1 year ago

Just a very slight qualification to Hilary Kornblith’s post. There is often some kind of quality control check with invited papers whereby the special editor, volume editor or whoever passes the invited paper out to a referee or two to make sure it isn’t a dud. So an invited paper may generate up to two referee’s reports. But if we assume that about half Sophie’s output consists of invited papers, she will be generating an average of at most 2.25 referee’s reports per published paper. On the assumption that she publishes three papers per annum she will have generated an average of 6.75 referee reports each year. OP’s rule would have her doing an average 7.75 reports per year whilst Catarina’s more demanding rule would have her doing (if I have done my sums right) 11.25. If she is as successful as we have supposed then she is likely to be getting at least 20 referee requests per annum, probably rather more. And if she turns most of them down that’s just more work for the next fairly successful philosopher down the line.