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Friday, July 27, 2007

Peer-Review in Decline

"The well-known people are going to cut back on their publishing in top journals because they don’t need the peer review anymore. They can get attention to their work without it"

Via Adventures in Ethics and Science and Semantics, etc. I just learned about this article from Inside Higher Ed, which discusses the recent decline in publications in peer-reviewed journals by authors from top economics departments. Elizabeth Redden, the article's author, suggests that the reason for the decline is that better publication venues are available to top economists: home-pages, on-line data-bases, blogs, to mention just a few. Bypassing peer-review is a quicker way to recognition than waiting for slow referees and journal backlogs. According to Redden it sometimes takes 3 years for an article to make it into print in a peer-reviewed journal.

I am not sure whether there is a similar decline in publications in peer-reviewed philosophy journals by top philosophers. It certainly seems that high-powered philosophers often choose to publish their work in non-peer-reviewed places. In philosophy, however, publication on home-pages, blogs and on-line data-bases does not seem to have had any effect on how many peer-reviewed articles are published. Non-peer-reviewed volumes, guest-edited journal issues, and conference proceedings are the main competition.

Well-known philosophers are more frequently invited to contribute to non-peer-reviewed volumes than less well-known people, and if one no longer needs to prove oneself in the field, it is probably tempting to bypass refereeing and journal backlogs entirely. As Ellison, the author of "Is Peer-Review in Decline?", says to Redding, "The well-known people are going to cut back on their publishing in top journals because they don’t need the peer review anymore. They can get attention to their work without it". While Ellison is primarily interested in the status-quo in economics, his point extends to philosophy.

One might, however, fear that an absence of top philosophers in refereed journals will set the tone in the profession. If top-people do not publish in peer-reviewed journals, peer-reviewed articles might be perceived as second-rate. On the anecdotal side, a friend of mine who wanted to shift horses mid-career once asked a top philosopher in his new field which journals were most prestigious. Surprisingly the answer he received was "None. Don't publish in journals. If you are good enough, you will be invited to publish your work elsewhere". This, certainly, is an unfortunate attitude. Peer-reviewing is, after all, the most objective way of determining what should appear in print.

Moreover, as Adventures in Ethics and Science points out, building one's reputation is not the only reason for publishing. Hopefully the communication of knowledge is still an honorable aim. And journal publication is one of the very best ways of communicating knowledge. While very few journal articles are read by more than a few people, they are visible and easily accessible. Articles in book volumes and conference proceedings are much harder to find, unless you simply buy the book or the proceedings. When the book goes out of print after a few years it can be almost impossible to find. Webpage publication, of course, can to some extent make up for the public inaccessibility of one's work. Still, lots and lots of non-refereed publications simply are not publicly available. You cannot go to JStor or some other publicly available datebase to download a book contribution.

So if one aims at communicating knowledge and having one's work read in 10+ years, it seems worthwhile to send at least some of it to journals. Of course, the ideal situation would be one where all work was available online on open access but peer-reviewed sites. This way we could avoid journal backlogs, difficulties tracking down non-peer-reviewed articles and the high cost of subscriptions. The only time that would pass between submission and publication would be the time it would take the referees to finish their job and the editors to make a final decision. For now, however, peer-reviewed journal publication still seems a worthwhile enterprise.


Clayton said...

I think Lewis had the right attitude. No matter who you are, even if you're David Lewis, try to get your stuff through the blind review process. That being said, I'd be more than happy if people at the top (middle, and bottom) took a breather and stopped submitting until I could land the stuff I have out.

Brit Brogaard said...

That definitely seems like the right attitude. Hope you land the papers you have out!

Jender said...

This is definitely a big issue in feminist philosophy, though it may be less voluntary there. It's so hard to get published in mainstream peer-reviewed journals that feminist analytic philosophers often wind up publishing just in invited places. (There's some discussion of this in the 'journals' category on the feminist philosophers blog, as well as in an earlier discussion on lemmings.) But I'm not so sure about their being more prestige to invited papers. They're certainly prestigious if they're in well-known invitation-only journals, but otherwise I think people aren't quite sure what to make of them.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I think your point about accessibility is a nice one and a definite counterpressure. My main aim in publishing (being already tenured!) is in having researchers in the area read the article. It's great to have it in anthology alongside big names -- that definitely attracts people -- but placing the article in a journal that can be read without a separate trip to the library is nice too. As a reader, if I'm on the cusp between thinking that an article is worth looking at and thinking it might not be, often the difference between my reading it and not is whether I can do so without leaving my desk!

Brit Brogaard said...

Jender, I think you're right that there is not always more prestige to invited papers. But a lot of hot names seem to prefer contributing to invite-only volumes. Of course, in feminist philosophy one problem is that it is very hard to get one's paper into a mainstream journal (something we need to change). But in other areas it is not impossible, especially not for experienced people. So one wonders why these people prefer to contribute to invite-only volumes. Perhaps there are other factors. As Eric mentions, it is nice to have one's article appear alongside big names, and for big names, perhaps invite-only volumes are just more convenient. If one has just finished a paper, it is indeed tempting to send it to an invite-only volume. And often the editor is a friend, and it might be difficult to turn them down.

However, like Eric I read more articles that are publicly available. Sometimes I go to the library but if I am not sure whether or not an article would be worth the trip I usually don't make the trip.