A Message from Mind

Apropos our recent discussion of experiences with journals, the editor of Mind, Tom Baldwin, asked me to communicate the following message to our audience here.
From Tom Baldwin (editor, Mind)

As editor of Mind I have followed these postings with considerable dismay at the complaints about Mind’s performance. I should acknowledge at the start that things did go a bit wrong in 2006/7 when I had to complete some writing of my own in time for the 2008 RAE, and in the pressure of work I temporarily overlooked some submissions. Following that experience my editorial colleagues and I modified our system for processing submissions in 2007, and such mistakes are now much less likely to happen.

I will not attempt to explain in detail how we handle submissions to Mind (though there are no secrets about it). But, in brief, after a quick review of the prima facie suitability of the papers submitted (and most are suitable), we try to find external referees with appropriate expertise for them. That process takes time (a consideration which is not, so far as I can see, acknowledged in this series of comments). So even though we ask referees to report within two months, it is unusual for us to have a full set of reports available in less than three months, and it often takes longer. In thinking about this, it is important to recognise that, unlike many other journals, Mind does not impose a word limit, and some submissions are well over 10000 words; reading and commenting on these just does take a good deal of time. We do chase up referees whose reports are delayed; but in my experience it is very much more useful, both to the editors and ultimately to authors, to have a full report from an experienced referee, albeit a bit late, than a brief paragraph that comes in on time. I am currently considering the introduction of the quick ‘reject with no comment’ option for referees used by Nous. The advantage for authors of this option is that a (negative) verdict would come back to them promptly, hopefully within a month; the disadvantage is that the verdict would not be explained (at present most Mind authors receive substantive comments, often from two or more referees). The practical problem I foresee is that of deciding what to do where referees disagree (and they do often disagree). Nonetheless I would be interested to hear from contributors to this blog, – potential authors and referees alike – whether they would favour the introduction of this option.

I hope that these comments provide some reassurance concerning the commitment of Mind’s editorial team to dealing properly and promptly with submissions. Believe me, we do devote a great deal of time to it, including evenings and weekends (ask my wife about it!). There is still some space for papers submitted now to appear in 2010 and our procedures certainly allow for this possibility. When the data is available I will place some detailed information on the Mind website about the number of submissions to Mind and the acceptance rate during recent years.

For my part, I think Mind should go ahead and implement the ‘reject with no comment’ option (or maybe ‘reject with one sentence’).

What to do about referees disagreeing? Well, I always figured that it was nearly impossible to get a paper accepted at an elite journal unless both referees were enthusiastic about it (in cases where two referees are involved). Am I wrong about that? If I’m not wrong, then there’s no need to worry about the disagreement.

Here’s one way of implementing it. Initially ask one referee to inspect it and decide within a week whether the paper deserves a full review. Ask that ref to please review it if it does deserve it. If it doesn’t, then you have your verdict. If it does, then either trust the one ref, or if the journal thinks it’s important to get two reports, at that point ask another to give the paper a full review (with no ‘reject with no comment’ option).

Doing it that way would add at most a week to the whole process — the time given to the first ref to look it over initially. (This assumes the ref will do the job roughly within the time limit.) But it also promises to cut the review time by several months in many cases.

I also think a 10,000 word limit is more than generous, and definitely worth implementing if it makes the whole process smoother.

What do other people think?


A Message from Mind — 35 Comments

  1. Maybe I should amplify my remarks buried in the other thread, but my own experience has been that Mind is working much better than it was several years ago. The question of how to make it run even better is an important one, which I will return to in a moment.

    I am leery of the blind rejection option. I’ve seen too many instances where it has been abused. Also, perhaps I’m a cockeyed idealist, but I think that journals are primarily a means for a community to communicate with each other about new results and that we’re all in trouble if this function is eclipsed by the social signaling role that prestigious journal publications play. If you buy this view of things then referee reports are very important to maintaining the health of an academic community. There is quite a lot of information exchanged in this practice, beyond the reasons for one’s *advice* to the editor on the merits of a manuscript, and trust is built over time on the practice. (In other words, I’d say: Stay the course with 2 to 3 reviews.)

    Returning to how to improve: A colleague of mine jokes that it takes n months + 3 days to referee a paper, and I think there is some truth to that. Perhaps we shouldn’t be given more than a 4 week deadline to write a report and, as a community, expect to be pestered by editors after a month has passed. A journal editor can only do so much if his referees take forever to get their assignments in.

    Finally, I am optimistic about things improving. (Again with the idealism!) So, rather than reading the previous thread and becoming depressed, perhaps one could see some shared expectations in our community, some broad agreement that things should be better, and news from other fields that, yes, things *can* be better. That’s not nothing. And to add to this, a key step to seeing real improvement will be to do your part when called on to referee.

  2. Seems to me it’s the editor’s job to step in and adjudicate among conflicting readers’ reports. That’s the job, isn’t it?

  3. Like Turri, I would favor introducing the “reject with no comment within a week” (or with a quick comment) option. If the referees disagree, it’s up to the editor to either reject or look more deeply into the matter, perhaps by asking the referees for more details or asking for a third opinion. If the “reject with no comment” are truly sent within a week or so, little time would be lost. I would also give referees only one month for the full review, and send them a reminder after the month has passed. It doesn’t matter if the paper is over 10000 words. It really doesn’t take that much longer to read.

  4. Yes, please do introduce the option of rejecting without comments. As a reviewer, I’ve wasted far too much time giving detailed comments on papers that were clearly not up to the standard for publication. And if my work is going to be rejected, I’d much rather hear quickly than wait several months for detailed comments unless the paper is being seriously considered for publication. With tenure looming on the horizon, it’s just not worth the wait…

    My sense is that most people rely on giving talks, meeting with colleagues, etc. for getting feedback on their work. I’m not sure why the journals should be expected to take on this responsibility. Of course, it’s in the interests of the journals to give feedback on papers that they’re considering seriously for publication, but I don’t see why this should apply across the board.

  5. I see both the advantages and the worries about the “reject with no comment” proposal. But would it be possible to give authors a choice about whether this would be an option for their paper? That is, it seems like when an author submits something electronically, there could be a box that they could check saying that they would like their reviewers to be given a “reject with no comment” option. That way, each author could decide for herself whether she wants to take the risk of a long wait with the chance for extended comments or get a quick decision with no comments so she can submit it elsewhere. Under some circumstances people might really prefer a quick decision (say because they are under tenure pressure), while under other circumstances they might be willing to wait. Why not let the author decide? What do others think?

  6. About Declan’s thoughts on the “reject without comments” option; perhaps there could be some way given for authors to signal whether they want long comments in case of rejection? As it is the referee (ideally) doesn’t know whether the author is about to go up for tenure or just got it, or in general whether they’d rather do extensive revisions or turn the paper around quickly to another journal. If the author were allowed to signal that, it might save referees the time spent writing extensive comments that won’t actually do much good, while allowing for extensive comments when the author can afford to wait a little extra.

  7. My line, when editing Analysis, was that it isn’t the primary business of referees to give “tutorial” reports for authors: their basic role is to give quick advice to editors. By all means give full responses to be conveyed to the author when these are aimed at making a good, basically publishable paper, even better. But that’s only needed for a small proportion of submissions: for the rest, a telegraphic response from a trusted referee to the editor is all that is needed, and a “thanks but no thanks” all the author should expect.

    A bit brutal, perhaps, but kept Analysis ticking over pretty speedily (for which authors were grateful) — a practice followed by my successor.

  8. Ah, great minds think alike! I didn’t mean to ignore you, Susanne, it’s just that I hadn’t seen your comments when I hit “post.” As you can tell, I agree.

  9. I think that the extent to which you should follow the Nous/PPR model may be determined by where the hold-ups are. I’m guessing that the editorial process breaks into three stages:

    initial vetting: determine whether the paper deserves a full review

    review: referees give their opinion on whether the paper should be published.

    Post-Review: editors make a decision based on editor reports and, perhaps, their own reading of the paper.

    At some journals, the pre-vetting stage seems to slow down the process. Some editors, it seems, receive too many submissions to pre-vet within, say, a month. The PPR/Nous model seems less likely to be slowed down here, because the work is spread out among more people and referees are asked to do the initial vetting in two weeks (I think).

    The PPR/Nous model doesn’t seem to help the refereeing stage all that much. If you did the initial vetting and agree to referee the paper, then perhaps you have an incentive to do the review of the paper while it is fresh on your mind. As far as I know, it doesn’t otherwise speed up the referee process. I’m under the impression that the quick reject with no comments option is used primarily for the pre-vetting of papers, not for the full reviews.

    As far as I know, the Nous/PPR model doesn’t speed up the post-review process.

    If the initial vetting stage is slow, then following the Nous/PPR model may speed things up. If the main problem is the refereeing stage, then I suggest that referees generally be asked to perform the review in one month. Referees might be given 6 weeks (or two months) when the paper exceeds the 10,000 word barrier. Of course, some system also must be in place to remind referees of the deadline (or its being missed) and then move to a different referee when the report is, say, a month late.

    I worry that a quick reject option at the refereeing stage will be abused from time to time. But perhaps this potential is outweighed by quick decisions. I like the idea of being able to choose the quick-reject option as others have suggested, as long as it doesn’t introduce too many administrative hassles.

    I think it is good for the profession to have journals with a variety of editorial procedures–as long as those procedures are efficient and rarely make the process last longer than 5 months or so. I like having places like PPR/Nous that will give me quick decisions. But I would not like it if every journal were like this. Sometimes I am willing to wait longer for a decision if it means getting referee reports.

    I appreciate Mind’s willingness to respond to concerns.

  10. Turri: Couldn’t disagree with you more about the 10K word limit. There are already plenty of high-profile refereed fora for mid-length papers; your suggestion would be a significant advance toward a stylistic monoculture. The narrowing of the ideas that could be adequately explored hardly justifies any gains in speed. (Anyway, papers that deserve rejection tend to go off the rails early on, so hard to see how this would diminish the frequency of worst-case scenarios.)

    Declan: True that conferences and the posse are a good source of feedback but the end product is the paper; a referee’s report can get into points of detail that elude audiences, take a long view in a way distinctively assisted by solitary contemplation, and express points with a permanency and precious unavailable in speech; anonymity can also facilitate a valuable frankness; asking friends to read stuff brings in social issues that submitting it does not. Reports can also stir the pot by contributing unfamiliar points of view, and bring otherwise inaccessible expertise to the less connected.

  11. There is quite a bit of variation in philosophy: topics, methods, and, yes, abilities. That goes for authors and referees. And there is some error that comes with this variation. So, it strikes me that decisions in this environment should be more transparent rather than less. A referee gives a reason to an editor already; put those reasons in a form that can be shared with the author.

    My view is informed by comparing the publishing cultures of computer science and philosophy. No one in computer science would think that referee comments substitute for discussion at a conference, nor does anyone think of referee comments as a tutorial. Rather, an editor or program committee chair wants to hear a short description of the paper and some reason behind the reviewer’s recommendation. Dismissive remarks aren’t reasons and are filtered out as noise. The substance of the report gives the editor a sense of what is going on with the paper; it gives the author a sense of whether the referee understood the paper; and it puts some of the referee’s skin in the game, which helps reduce the rate of sloppy reviewing.

  12. Chris: I think the PPR/Nous model does speed up the refereeing stage. Once you’ve done the initial vet, you’ve done a lot of the work for the full review — you probably have a decent idea of whether you want to accept it, or at least which parts you want to think about it more. And then there’s the fact that you’ve promised to review it pretty soon. So in my experience having done the pre-vet gets me to do the review faster (except that sometimes I do the pre-vet and know I have too much on my plate to do the full review; I don’t know what happens to it then).

    I vaguely remember that some journals make it more convenient than others to look over the paper when you’re thinking about whether to review it, but I can’t remember any details so won’t try to name names. Anyone else have thoughts on that?

    Benj: I agree entirely about long papers. (Philosophers’ Imprint does long papers too, and has reasonable review times, so I don’t think paper length is the holdup anyway. But if it were there could be some sort of explicit statement that longer papers may not be reviewed as quickly, which shouldn’t affect the midsize papers.)

  13. Many thanks to Tom Baldwin for the frank and helpful response.

    Benj: I don’t think Declan’s point was that referees’ comments could not be very helpful, only that the main purpose of the refereeing process is to evaluate the paper, not to help the author improve their paper.

    And I could not agree with you less about long papers. Most philosophy papers these days are way too long. Even the best papers normally have only a few points in them and there are very few that would not benefit by a bit of cutting. The odd thing is, this never seems to be true of one’s own pioneering works….

    So if I were in charge I’d have a 10K word limit and a reject without comment option.

  14. Benj,

    Is a 10K-word paper “mid-length”? Seems pretty long to me. I’d consider a 6K-word paper mid-length (and on the longer side thereof).

    I could see there being some correlation between style and length. But a 10K limit threatening “stylistic monoculture”? Surely an overstatement! Mind won’t become Analysis.

    Would a 10K-limit “[narrow] … the ideas that could be adequately explored”? In a single paper, sure. So would a 30K or 50K limit. But a 10K-limit wouldn’t stop anyone from adequately exploring ideas in, say, two papers (or a book). And nothing would stop editors from making exceptions in special cases.

    Details aside, nearly every paper I’ve ever read would have been better for having been shorter. Mine included. Limits have the salutary effect of motivating people to find ways of adequately exploring more with less. So my preference for limits transcends the debate over effective editing and refereeing.

    Anyway, despite all that, I can see the motivation for wanting venues that allow longer pieces, and maybe you and Matt are right.

  15. Hi John, looking over my CV, I guess by my standards 10K would qualify as “short”! Perils of being a fast typist, I suppose. Glad we might be on the same page here but I think I’ll belabor the point a bit.

    I like reading squibs and Analysis papers, and I certainly agree that almost all papers could use a bit of slimming (especially those written by fast typists). At the same time, my desert island papers tend to have three features which pretty much can’t be coinstantiated without weighing in at upwards of 10K: (i) synoptic-ness (ii) detail (iii) a fairly natural style.

    Without (iii), you lose readability. (As in most things, David Lewis is an exception, hitting the best style while being terse; still, there must be around 20 Lewis papers above 10K.)

    Without (ii), you lose usefulness to the audience: I usually find that when I am sinking my teeth into a paper it is crucially helpful to see exactly how the progression of argument functions. Of course detail can be distracting to an audience just trying to get the gist of the paper, but a well-written paper can be skimmed.

    Without (i), papers start to become trivial: people break ideas into “minimal publishable units”, and their big picture becomes hard to get a handle on; communities get caught up in minutiae, while outsiders appreciate the ingenuity but wonder about the point. As shortish papers become the norm, people are discouraged from swinging for the fences, and philosophy settles into a drearily data-driven normal science rut.

    Clearly pushing all readable detailed synoptic papers into books is not appropriate. Books are vastly more cumbersome for the author and editors, and more expensive for the audience. And many ideas live most comfortably in the area between 10K words and the 30K of a shortish book.

    Anyway, I think of Mind and the PR as standard-bearers for philosophical excellence; if either were to set a stringent length-limit, I think this would strongly discourage people from writing the kind of paper I like — which would be a Bad Thing.

  16. Crane: overlooked your comment somehow.

    Agree with you and Declan about the main point of refereeing, but wouldn’t want to take that as a reason to lessen up on standards. Do not doubt that most papers are too long these days (present company excepted of course), but feel also that the standard-bearers should preserve latitude to publish the best sort of paper, thereby moving us all to Do Better.

    Of course this Stakhanovism comes from someone at the end of his rather relaxing sabbatical …

  17. Benj!

    What has lessening standards got to do with it? Your standards can be as high as you like and you still needn’t provide detailed comments, if your aim is simply to evaluate the paper.

    Length, well, it’s hard, but I might even be tempted to cut your papers…

  18. Crane: wires crossed — thinking that while educating authors is not the principal function of refereeing, the auxiliary benefits from *writing reports* to a high standard are big, so we should keep doing it. (Not talking about high standards for *accepting papers*.)

    … my papers could use it! — and yet, of each sentence, *it* is essential to the paper’s aim …

  19. Greg,

    I long to share your idealism and optimism. I’m all for the community re-doubling its efforts for fast, fair and efficient blind refereeing.

    When you say, “an editor or program committee chair wants to hear a short description of the paper and some reason behind the reviewer’s recommendation,” I have two thoughts in response.

    First, shouldn’t the author’s abstract provide the editor with a good idea of what the paper is about? Why should the ref duplicate that effort? Second, a sentence or two could effectively communicate the ref’s reason, which could then “be shared with the author.”

    You also said that writing reports can give authors a sense that the ref understood the paper, and reduces the chances of sloppy refereeing. I’m still thinking about those considerations. As of now, though, I’m unconvinced that refs should be expected to give authors that sense (especially when the paper really is confusing). Whether writing the reports will reduce sloppiness — sounds plausible, but I wonder if there’s evidence for this.

  20. Matt: I acknowledged in my earlier post that the Nous/PPR model speeds up the referee stage in the way you suggest. But, with that said, it is possible to overestimate the significance of this benefit. Suppose Ref 1 does the initial vetting in two weeks, agrees to do the full review and finishes it after 1 additional week. Remember, though, that there is another referee in the picture. If Ref 2 takes 6 weeks to do his review, a total of two months will have elapsed: two weeks for the initial vetting and 6 for both referees to do their full review. (Of course, this ignores the time it takes to find the second referee.) On average, the Nous/PPR model will get the referee stage done faster, but probably not much faster.

  21. John, you say: “Whether writing the reports will reduce sloppiness — sounds plausible, but I wonder if there’s evidence for this.” My personal experience provides evidence for this. Sometimes my initial impression of a paper (whether I am reviewing it or not) changes when I start writing out what I think is right/wrong with it. Usually, my final opinion doesn’t change all that much, but on a rare occasion it does. I’ve heard others make similar remarks.

    I think the potential inaccuracy of first impressions is dangerous mainly at the stage of full review. Suppose that some paper is deserving of publication. One’s first impression of this paper could be fairly accurate and still deem mistakenly that the paper is not publishable. But one’s first impression would have to be way off for one to deem mistakenly that the paper isn’t worthy of a full review–at least if referees really do use lower standards to determine whether a paper deserves a full review.

  22. Benj: I applaud your insistence on high standards, but perhaps there’s room for compromise – after all, only the chaff would be rejected without comments, while the wheat would receive detailed comments. (Obviously, lots of room for latitude here in drawing the boundaries.)

    I think Chris Tucker is right that rejecting without comments is at best only part of the solution, since those papers that receive detailed comments still need to be managed in a reasonably timely fashion. Very reassuring to hear that Mind is now moving in the right direction.

  23. Fwiw, I think that it’s good for refs to offer comments because as they work up the comments it might force them to think harder about the arguments in the paper that they might have initially thought well of/poorly of that they should have thought poorly of/well of but would do so only after careful reflection. It’s one of the main reasons I offer comments on every student paper. (I don’t do it because I’m under the illusion that they’ll all read them. I have hundreds of them in the trunk of my car.)

    As for editors rejecting without comments before sending out to referees, this might not be a bad idea if the review is blind. Which it typically isn’t (I think). I’ll stop beating the dead horse about blinding the editors.

  24. FWIW, I would think any hard and fast limit across all journals on the number of words per paper would be really bad. Any given journal might reasonably have a limit on words but if they all had the same limit some very good papers would not get published. So I’m at least a bit in agreement with Benj on that one. I think it would be a bad thing if our worries about the editorial practices of certain journals caused an over-reaction which made a certain sort of paper extinct.

    That thought also reinforces one of the strands in Chris Tucker’s comments – that a one size fits all solution might be an over-reaction. We really need to know why certain journals miss their deadlines before we can say what it would take to fix the problem. It may be that different answers are appropriate for different venues.

    On comments, in my experience of refereeing (and it is extensive), I have never felt it appropriate not to comment, even when journals have explicitly said that I need not comment. That might be a fact about me, but it also might reflect something about refereeing. I’ve changed my mind more than once in the course of justifying my view that a paper should or should not be published. Since I think that these changes were for the better, I think that writing comments makes for better decisions. And when multiple referees are involved and they disagree, I would guess that journal editors have an easier time when reasons are given.

    Finally, and this may be least important, in the real world that paper you hated will be sent out again. If it is possible to write a comment that might make it better that will at least make someone else’s refereeing experience a bit better. It isn’t really that much more work to write down what you think than it is to figure out what you think. In principle I agree there has to be a limit to this line of argument. In practice, journal editors have never sent me anything that was so bad that it was hopeless to say anything at all.

  25. One comment that’s out of sync and late.

    I edit the Journal of Philosophical Research. Admittedly a small operation compared to the likes of Mind. But we also consider submissions over 10,000 words: in the 2007 volume we had papers of 10,592; 13,615; 17,818; 11,893, 10,757; 11,818; 12,112; 14,368 & 14,247 words and in the 2008 volume we had papers of 17,919; 11,679 & 10,120 words. (So that is something like 1/3 of our published papers > 10,000 words.) The policy is to have two referees for each paper (but sometimes we fall short and sometimes we end up needing more). We stress getting substantial comments for all authors. Yet we averaged 60 days for decisions in 2007 and 64 days for decisions in 2008. So considering long papers is no reason for long decision times.

    Here is a positive suggestion (perhaps) that is a variation on the quick negative with no comments idea. Since one must often ask a number of people before one finds someone to agree to referee a paper and some people are very quick about submitting reports, the following is not infrequent: We get a report from one referee while we are still seeking a second. If the one report is strongly negative, there is very little chance the paper would be accepted. The second referee would have to be strongly positive and the two reports would have to be such that I decided to go to a third referee who also came back with a strongly positive report. Not impossible, but very rare. And a lot of time would be required to get to that positive outcome — or a two report negative outcome for that matter. So what I often do in such cases, for the sake of getting a quick decision to the author, is reject the paper on the basis of the one report, but explain the situation to the author. Depending on the paper and the report, I sometimes offer to go ahead and seek a 2nd referee if the author has doubts about the one referee report. This is not a policy that covers all papers, it happens often enough to make a difference. So I throw it out there as something I do. If anyone can thing of a serious problem with this approach, please let me know.

  26. Hi John,

    A quick reply (and apologies for that; what a hectic week!). To the question of why bother summarizing a paper that has an abstract: The idea is to summarize the paper in one’s own words rather than to re-write the abstract, which after all is the author’s understanding of the contents of the paper. A referee might say how the contribution fits into a literature or current discussion, for instance. Or frame its contents with a different emphasis. When I’ve been a PC or editor, I’ve really appreciated reviewers who do this: there is a lot of new information conveyed simply by writing something that shows that you’ve digested the paper. And I imagine that other editors like this as well, since they are swimming in manuscripts. My suggestion is simply to put this information in a form that the author can then benefit from, too.

    As to the second point, regarding signaling to an author whether a referee understood his paper: When there is misunderstanding, most likely that will mean that there is a problem with the paper. But sometimes, as most of us have probably experienced, the problem is with the referee. Dragging all of the communication into the light of day helps to catch those unfortunate cases.

    As for the causal claim about whether transparency will make for happier relations between authors and journals, that’s a good question. To try to answer: I believe that good governance matters. Not abstractly, but concretely; as a practical matter. And I think that at bottom the issues raised in these recent threads are about good governance. Some portion of the community isn’t happy with how its best journals are run. And they are complaining about it. Consider: even if journals adopt the quick reject option, which I do not support, I suspect that this public discussion will have played some part in that experiment. That is a good thing, right? I don’t know how to argue that transparency and accountability have many good effects: it is something that seems to jump out when I compare my (professional) split identity.

    To summarize: I try to draw a sharp distinction between people and propositions. My suggestions fall out of that distinction: Respect the people who try to write philosophy by reaching decisions in a transparent and accountable way; make judgments on whether the work contains a contribution; then write a sentence or some explaining why or why not, which can be shared to author and editor.

    I conjecture that everyone will be happier under this social compact.

  27. PS – The American Statistical Association organized a program pairing young researchers with old hands at writing research articles. Andrew Gelman (Columbia) participated in the program on the understanding that the writing samples and his comments would be posted at his terrific blog, here. Yes, it is statistics and the particular advice might not be applicable to philosophy. But the general approach to the material and the frame of mind is applicable.

  28. Mike,

    Those statistics on review times are impressive. Keep up the good work.

    I appreciate the policy you describe for handling a quick negative report from a referee. After thinking about it for awhile, I detect no problem with it.

  29. It was a breath of fresh air for me to read the message from Tom Baldwin expressing his concern for people’s difficulties w/Mind and to see his openness to hearing people’s opinions. There’ve been a number of posts over the years on this blog and Leiter’s (and probably others) with a lot of discussion on how journals should change and how editors need to get their act together and so on, but this is the first time I’ve seen the editor of a journal say, “okay, here I am, I’m listening.”

    In my opinion, all the suggestions/complaints on this blog and Leiter’s blog about how JPhil should improve its editorial procedure are worthless if JPhil’s not listening, heck, if they don’t even know the discussion’s taking place. It would just be us howling in the wind. More effective, I think, would be for people in positions of power who are friends with members of the JPhil editorial team to talk on the phone and have a friendly chat about these sorts of things, maybe direct them to this blog so they could have a chance to respond as Baldwin did.

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  31. I would like to make some suggestions to referees that would tend to speed up the refereeing process. First my qualifications. Like most of us, who are not fresh out of the doctoral box, I have been at both ends of the refereeing process. I’ve refereed for
    The Australasian Journal of Philosophy
    Philosophers’ Imprints
    Philosophy and Phenomenological Research
    Journal of Political Philosophy
    Philosophical Quarterly
    The Philosophy of the Social Sciences.
    Philosophy and Biology
    Hume Studies
    Philosophical Studies
    Journal of Philosophical Research
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science

    When it comes to being refereed, I’ve had a lucky publishing career, most of my papers having been published in the first or second journal that I have sent them to, usually without major revisions. But I have from time to time encountered pain-in-the–ass referees, and I think the profession would benefit and the refereeing process would be speeded up if referees tried NOT to be pains-in-the-ass. So here are some hints on how do it.

    1) Generally speaking, if you think a paper that you have been asked to referee is publishable but suffers from what you consider defects, don’t say ‘Revise and Resubmit’ or ‘Publish subject to certain revisions’. Say ‘This paper is good to go as it stands, though there are some points the author might like to consider’. Reserve ‘Publish subject to certain revisions’ for papers with a DEFINITE MISTAKE that can easily be corrected. Reserve ‘Revise and resubmit’ for papers which really are not up to snuff but contain a good idea of which something might be made. Why do I think that this would save time? Because people with good papers would not be having to wend their way between the contradictory requirements of diametrically opposed referees. The comments will be there should the author wish to make use of them, but s/he won’t have to explain to the editor at tortuous length why s/he paid attention to this comment but not to that. The risk is of course that more than usually arrogant or tenure-pressed authors won’t pay attention to the comments, and some papers will be published which would have been a lot better if the authors had conscientiously tried to improve them. But I think that this is a cost that the profession can bear.

    2) Try NOT to write comments of the following form:
    a) This paper is too long;
    b) The author doesn’t say enough about X
    At least you should only write comments of this form if you accompany them with helpful suggestions about which bits should be cut to accommodate the new material.

    3) Don’t make dopey hat-doffing suggestions. Occasionally I used to get comments complaining that my paper did not doff its hat to some philosophical bigwig of whom I had a poor opinion. The reason I did not was usually because I was applying the modified Thumper principle ‘If you can’t say nuthin’ nice about Professor Big don’t say nuthin’ at all – unless the chief object of the paper is to expose Professor Big’s errors.’ The fact that Professor Big has written something vaguely relevant does not mean that Professor Big’s name has to be ostentatiously dropped. ONLY demand a reference to a famous Name (or for that matter to a relatively obscure Name) under two conditions:

    a) If you think that that Name has put forward a GOOD argument, which poses a direct challenge to one of the author’s central claims.
    b) If Professor Big has partially anticipated the author’s opinions.

    4) My last suggestion (unlike the others) would slow things down but in this case, I think it would be worth it. Don’t tolerate obscure and pretentious writing. There are many famous philosophers who are, if truth be told, wretchedly incompetent writers, obscure, turgid and long-winded, with long involved sentences with multiply nested parentheses. Often they are also affected and pretentious. Some of them are good philosophers despite their bad writing, others obscure their intellectual deficiencies behind the defects of their style. If referees had been a bit tougher on this sort of thing of thing early on in their careers, we would all have been spared a lot of bad writing and a fair bit of bad philosophy. So if the paper is badly written say so and insist on revisions even if you think that the content is good. Here I think there are exceptions to principle 1) above.

    One final point that does not relate directly to this thread but does relate to a question discussed in earlier blogs: Where should young philosophers (or for that matter older philosophers) send their stuff if they want to get published quickly.? Twenty years ago I was given a piece of advice that has stood me stead ever since. Don’t send your papers to a journal you don’t like. Send it to journals that you do like. If the stuff they publish doesn’t appeal to you, there is a good chance that the stuff you want to publish won’t appeal to them. Conversely if you sympathize with the standards applied by some journal then you are probably trying to live up to them, whether consciously or not. And if you are trying to live up them, you are more likely to succeed.

  32. Pingback: Best Practices in Refereeing Journal Articles » Certain Doubts

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