Goodin on Journals, Editors, and Publishers


“It is a classic collective action problem. In that Tragedy of the Commons, the role of the editor is to be The Enforcer, against both self-serving authors in the blogsphere and self-serving commercial publishers in the share market.”

That’s Bob Goodin (ANU) in an interview with the Swedish journal Politisk Filosofi about his current work, his editorship of the Journal of Political Philosophy (JPP), and the publishing landscape in philosophy.

(Readers may recall that Wiley, the publisher of JPP, removed Goodin from his role as editor earlier this year. See these posts for details.)

That passage comes after he has discussed some changes to the business models of the publishers of academic journals.

He says:

The profits of commercial publishers are increasingly a function of ridiculously large Open Access fees, whether paid by the author, the grant-giver or (nowadays most typically) the author’s home institution or national government through ‘Read and Publish Transformative Agreements’. The way to maximize those profits is to maximize the number of articles a journal publishes—and to do so without regard to quality. (As I have said, given bundling [of journal subscriptions] and [library] consortia, no [individual] library can unsubscribe to an individual journal of diminishing quality anyway, so a journal’s quality is no longer a commercial concern to publishers seeking to maximize profits.)

In that New World of journal publishing, publishers are incentivized to pressure editors to increase, sometimes radically, the numbers of articles published. They may pompously pretend that doing so is in the interest of ‘good science’, given the greatly increased number of papers being written every year. But that argument assumes that all of that new stuff is of the same average quality as the old—which a publisher has no way of knowing, and which in my experience as JPP’s editor is radically untrue. JPP experienced multiple doublings of its submissions over my time as editor. But the number of ‘really good’ submissions always remained almost literally constant, in absolute terms; the extra submissions virtually all fell in the unpublishable tail of the distribution. I say that as an editor famous for publishing good first pieces from unknown authors just starting their careers, and as someone whose journal publishes more articles from non-Anglophone authors than any comparator. So I say that not out of Ivy League snootiness. (Indeed, I consistently reject more of their articles than I publish.) It is a quality assessment, pure and simple.

The push for journals to publish more articles comes not just from publishers, he notes, but from authors, too:

Blogsphere is full of bleating that journals should increase the number of articles being accepted, on the grounds that ‘my article was no worse than the worst article appearing there that year’. In most cases that is simply untrue. (I do freely admit, however, that in some years JPP published an article or two that we would not have done had we not been contractually obliged to publish a certain number of articles per year.) But suppose the claim were true, and just do the maths. Publishing more articles that are equally bad as the worst articles published would automatically reduce the average quality of articles in the journal—that is an unavoidable fact of simple arithmetic. Of course, each author of an almost-as-good article has an interest in their own article being accepted—but only theirs. If every almost-as-good article were published, the value of publishing in the venue would nosedive, to the chagrin of all authors publishing there.

Hence, the line from the start of the post: “It is a classic collective action problem. In that Tragedy of the Commons, the role of the editor is to be The Enforcer, against both self-serving authors in the blogsphere and self-serving commercial publishers in the share market.”

Goodin also emphasizes the curatorial role of editors. In the era of the internet,

‘making things generally available’ is not the exclusive prerogative of journals anymore. Given that fact, however, what is the value added by a journal? 

Surely it lies simply in telling you what, among all the myriad things available out there in cyberspace, you should bother reading. And if that is the primary function of a journal, it is crucial that the guidance it provides be more rather than less selective. Selective journals serve an attention-guiding service: they say ‘these are the things that you really need to read’ (certainly if you are interested in the particular topic, but even if you just want a good overview of general developments in your field).

If journals succumb to the pressures to publish more, different modes of curation may gain prominence:

I used to joke with my minders at Blackwell, back when JPP was published by them, ‘What is JPP but “Bob’s picks”?’ The subtext: if the publisher got too intrusive, I could always just resign and invite people to send me urls of their recently posted unpublished papers; and I would then curate a list of ‘Bob’s picks’ and post links to what I regarded as the best among them. It was a joke back then (although one that the people at Blackwell, far more cluey than their successors, had the sense to take seriously). That, or something like it, may be the way forward if we want to preserve the quality-control function that highly selective academic journals have historically performed for the scholarly community.

The whole interview, which includes some interesting points regarding the creation and early success of JPP, among other things, is here.

(Thanks to Joona Räsänen and Björn Lundgren for the pointer.)

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SCM
SCM
7 months ago

The resolution in the petition still stands. FWIW, I have not heard of any developments that make me optimistic that Wiley will comply with the terms of the resolution (although that does not mean that there have been no developments). If an agreement is not reached with the JPP editorial committee, the boycott will take effect from the beginning of 2024.

We now have 1049 poitical philosophers signed up. Obviously, the more the merrier, especially as we get closer to the end of the year. The current number is so overwhelming, however, that it will be simply impossible for Wiley to continue publishing the JPP as anything more than a shell of its former self.

Once again, I’ll emphasise that the resolution does not assume any particular position on the merits of increased article publication, the quality of the editorial review process at JPP since its inception, the economics of academic publishing in general, or the danger posed by savage throngs of Canberra drop bears for that matter. The principle is simply one of maintaining the independence of an academic journal’s editorial committee.

BCB
BCB
7 months ago

One small thing to add to these (imo excellent) remarks, which I think often gets missed in these discussions: increasing the number of papers that top journals publish will not increase the number of papers that people read. So, making journals less selective would reduce the role that journal prestige plays in getting people to read what you write, and correspondingly increase the role of other factors.

However, I take it that, whatever problems our current peer review practices have, these other factors are even more arbitrary and less egalitarian: they mostly have to do with how well-established and well-networked the author is. So, reducing selectivity (as e.g. Eric Schleisser proposes: https://digressionsimpressions.substack.com/p/on-jpp-wiley-prestige-production) would benefit people who (like Schleisser) are already well-established and well-networked, and especially people (also like Schleisser) have institutional incentives to maximize the sheer number of “good-enough” publications they produce. But it would hurt people—notably contingent faculty and graduates of departments outside the top ten—for whom getting published in a top journal may be one of their few ways of getting noticed.

Björn Lundgren
Björn Lundgren
Reply to  BCB
7 months ago

If you read the whole interview, Goodin discusses JPPs performance relative whether someone is well-established or from a major Institution.

Daniel Nagase
Daniel Nagase
Reply to  BCB
7 months ago

Is there any evidence for this? I mean, I remember a couple of years ago someone (Carolyn Dicey Jennings, maybe?) studied the pattern of hiring at the Leiter universities and found that the best predictor for being hired by the top 25 was… having studied at a top 25 university. So, if you want to get into that club, your best chance was to have already belonged to it at some point. And if you don’t want to get in, then a publication in a top journal isn’t that relevant?

I worry that this idea that you can be hired (or “noticed”) at the top if you have many good publications is starting to sound like the old “if you work hard enough” mantra, in that it may be true of a few very lucky individuals, but that, overall, it just masks the underlying reality that the system is *not* meritocratic and just increases the rat-race among those at the bottom.

Platypus
Reply to  Daniel Nagase
7 months ago

“the best predictor for being hired by the top 25 was… having studied at a top 25 university.”

That’s not strong evidence for prestige bias, since it’s consistent with the hypothesis that top programs generally try to hire the best candidates they can find, who generally come out of the best departments.

Prestige probably does help a bit, but it’s overrated, in my experience. A Leiterific candidate won’t get a job if they can’t write and can’t teach. But if you’ve got a great teaching record and top publications, you’ll get a serious look no matter what program you’re from.

Daniel Nagase
Daniel Nagase
Reply to  Platypus
7 months ago

But that does not engage with what I said. What I asked was for *specific evidence* that top departments will reliably hire someone with top publications but who came from non-top departments. From what I recall, the evidence was in the opposite direction, but I’m willing to be shown wrong here.

From the UK
From the UK
Reply to  Daniel Nagase
7 months ago

At a fairly top-tier British university, we made 3 hires last year. We didn’t really look at where the applicants got their PhDs; we looked at their publications and whether their research was engaging and would fit well with the department.
But maybe the US is worse in this respect.

Platypus
Reply to  Daniel Nagase
7 months ago

the evidence was in the opposite direction

That’s what I was pushing back on!

Depending on your priors, the evidence you cited might not actually point towards prestige bias (hiring fancy PhDs as such) rather than a selection/treatment effect (admitting good students and training them well). It depends on how likely the hypotheses are, and how strongly they support the evidence.

I myself think there’s probably some prestige bias, but I’m far more confident in selection and treatment effects. But those are just my priors. Yours might differ, in which case I think we just have a reasonable disagreement.

(In fairness, I probably shoudn’t have said “that’s not strong evidence.” I should have said “that isn’t by itself strong evidence,” or something similarly qualified.)

Last edited 7 months ago by Platypus
Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Daniel Nagase
7 months ago

I don’t understand how this engages with the point. The claim isn’t that there is no bias towards prestigious institutions within the top journals. It’s rather that the other signals that are used for hiring and promotion are even more biased than the top journals, so that reducing the signal power of top journal publications ends up emphasizing the even more biased factors at the expense of the less biased one.

Dennis
Dennis
Reply to  BCB
7 months ago

It’s „Schliesser“. Does not really affect the point you’re trying to make, but since you mention his name so very often and each time misspell it, i thought you might appreciate this for future reference.

IwanttopublishinJPP
IwanttopublishinJPP
7 months ago

I hesitate to even point to these things since I would like to publish in the Journal of Political Philosophy eventually, but since no one else has…. (1) He says that the Journal of Political Philosophy is basically “Bob’s Picks” and that “if the publisher got too intrusive, I could always just resign and invite people to send me urls of their recently posted unpublished papers; and I would then curate a list…” (2) He calls the expressed concerns of philosophers trying to make a career (and eat) about the difficulties of publishing, “bleatings.” (3) He believes that his own judgment is so inerrant that he can confidently assert that the number of articles that are worth publishing has not at all increased just because there are many, many more submissions.
I won’t comment. If these remarks don’t strike you as problematic, I have nothing to add. Except maybe, here’s hoping he tries (1) so we can see how that comes out.

Harry b
Reply to  IwanttopublishinJPP
7 months ago

I’ve done a lot of refereeing for jpp and for what it’s worth Bob draws on a wide network of expertise to make his “picks”. He is also extremely interventionist- I’ve seen papers (clearly by junior people/grad students) that he has shepherded from a good idea not well executed to really excellent papers. (Full disclosure: he did this to me very early in my career too, teaching at a top 25 but coming from a grad program that, at the time, would not have been top 40). Basically if he curated a list people would have reason to have a lot of confidence in it.

If he’s right about the way publishing is going, of course, entrepreneurial types like him will curate lists and those, rather than journal titles, will be the signals of quality.

M R. X. Dentith
M R. X. Dentith
Reply to  Harry b
7 months ago

It strikes me that this actually speaks against the idea that the number of publishable papers hasn’t increased as submission numbers went up. After all, on your account it seems he’s picking favourites, and then doing his utmost to ensure those eventually pass muster (which I’m not entirely agin; I’ve written reports where I say the core idea is great but the argument that gets us to the conclusion is weak; here’s three ways to fix it; major revise and resubmit). However, the strange thing is that he seems to think there is a set limit of such favourite papers…

harry b
harry b
Reply to  M R. X. Dentith
7 months ago

I took the idea to be that the number of publishable papers (including the number that, although not publishable when submitted, can be made so by the right kind of editorial intervention) hasn’t changed over time. You might think that number can be increased by more editorial time energy and effort. I think he’s assuming that is roughly fixed, or at least that the proposed increase in publication rates and decrease in editorial scrutiny won’t increase it.

Richard Baron
7 months ago

The bit on the Bob’s Picks list of links is interesting. It strikes me as a perfectly good model. Overlay journals, which work in that way, have been introduced elsewhere. Here is an example (mathematics rather than philosophy, and against the background of a well-established repository, the arXiv):
https://discreteanalysisjournal.com/for-authors