Service to the discipline is a crucial part of our professional lives. The Blog of the APA encourages members to propose or contribute posts about any aspect of service activities, including, but not limited to: journal refereeing and editing, conference organizing, maintaining scholarly resources, administrative roles in scholarly societies, advising, and mentoring. If you would like to propose or submit a contribution, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.
by Kathryn J. Norlock
Look at all those philosophical journals, gosh. There are hundreds.With so many journals producing thousands of articles each year, surely there is room enough for the publications of philosophers, but you wouldn’t know it from our high rejection rates (Philosophy averages a 92% rejection rate compared to psychology’s 78%, according to Lee and Schunn 2010). Anglophone philosophy journals remain so dedicated to peer review and super-selectivity that many philosophers do a great deal of refereeing with an eye to justification for rejection of a submission.
As more than one online commenter has noted, the result is the occasional peer-review that can be summarized as follows: “I can imagine objections to points or arguments in this essay. Therefore, I recommend rejection.” Thankfully, not all referees do this—if they did, almost nothing would be published in the field. Philosophers have good imaginations, and we can object to all but the most spare of logical proofs. Not all objections are grounds for rejection.
In a better world, no peer review would take the above form. I look in the mirror, and think that referee reports like these may be the faults of the journal editors who could do more to prevent them. Most of us in journal editing are not overwhelmed with eager referees who would love to do more service. Sometimes we take what we can get after five or fifteen or twenty-five requests to referee are declined. But we should more often state, in instructions to referees, “Please remember that not all objections are grounds for rejection.” Not every referee needs the reminder, but referees can include the inexperienced, the uncertain, and even the wicked.
Well, I doubt a reminder can stop the wicked. But for those merely new to refereeing or uncertain in their intuitions, here are some questions to help sort your objections:
- Is the author correct, on balance, about the general state of the literature with respect to their chosen topic? Perhaps they didn’t cite you and/or your favorite author, your advisor, or your loved one. Irks, right? I’ve gotten papers in my specialty that don’t cite me, and here’s my first reaction every time: HMPH! This is an understandable response. However, it is an indicator, and only an indicator, that the author did not make exactly the contribution to the subfield that they think they did. A paper that is correct, on balance, about their description of the landscape from a distance might be improved by citing you or any neglected others. It doesn’t need to be rejected.
- Assuming the author does (1) all right, then does the submission serve up a clear contribution that matters to future readers in the area of inquiry, and preferably on a silver platter, with multiple courses and hopefully a dessert? If the essay makes a clear contribution, you should be able to restate it easily in your response to the editor. If you cannot, if the author said there would be a platter and never brought it out, or kept tossing morsels at you but never identified the meal they were supposed to amount to, this is a fair reason to reject a paper. However, most papers do not exhaust all possibilities, so “I want more” is not an objection that always entails a rejection. Ask yourself if you want more because the author didn’t establish the author’s own claims and the relationship of their chosen supports to existing literature—reason for rejection—or if it’s really that you’d like to write a response to this paper when it comes out. If the latter, then you probably disagree with the content rather than find the development to be insufficient.
- Serious question: Do you find yourself writing objections to adverbs? An author that lays on the adverbs can make me cross. I get completely suspicious when authors totally overstate their cases that they are the only authors who notice a past publication is absolutely wrong. You Are My Nemesis, I find myself thinking. And then I must remind myself that over a decade ago, Dale Jacquette pointed out that “an author is not a referee’s adversary, even when the two sharply disagree philosophically.” So I take a deep breath, and do the following: I ask myself if the paper would be publishable were the adverbs removed. If so, then again, the objection does not justify rejection. The author may not even realize how overused were the adverbs. Advise revising.
- Is your objection to a submission more attentive to a problem in its structure, that is, the inferences, logic, or organization of ideas, or is it more focused on the content of an idea? Sadly, most of the rejections I have recommended were based on the former, and even more sadly for me, most of the rejections that I’ve received to my own work were based on the former. The former is a good reason to reject even a promising paper which bodes well for a future contribution. A publishable paper is not just intriguing in its ideas; it should be compelling in its procedure and persuasively arranged. But the objections that revolve more around the content of an idea come much closer to being reasons for supporting revision or publication, so that you can argue against the ideas in a fair and public way.
I’m in good company with others who have written on refereeing, and I haven’t tried to summarize all the excellent observations that already exist. Do add your own thoughts about considerations that help others sort objections from rejections.
If you would like to submit a contribution, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.