Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Why publish journal articles?

There has been much attention on journals and journal practices recently on the Leiter Reports, as well as elsewhere. The Association of Philosophy Journal Editors (APJE) has been relaunched by Carol Gould and me. Additionally, the APA has a subcommittee looking into journal practices at present as well.

Journal articles are highly important for academic careers. There are many reasons given for perhaps the more obvious benefits:

1. Journal articles as a seal of approval.
Journal articles are a seal of approval (of sorts). When a journal accepts an article for publication, it is giving its support to the essay's "publishability" (is this a word? Well, it is now!). This stamp of approval says to the wider community that an essay has a particular importance as judged by the journal and its associates.

Not all seals of approval are the same. One example is that not all journals run the same review process. Thus, journal x may be double-blind while journal y is triple-blind. Or journal x may use one referee while journal y will use two or three referees. There are also differences in persons used. Some journals may have a more prestigious list of editorial board members and referees to use in assessing essays than another. Therefore, even if two journals had the same formal procedures for assessing essay submissions, papers would be assessed by academics with very different backgrounds.

A further comment is worth noting. Many critical of journal practices have focussed their attention almost entirely to the mechanics of review: what procedure is followed, how long reviews take, etc. These are highly important issues, but far from the only central concerns. Others include how referees are selected and who these referees are. A further concern is the standard that referees employ in assessing submissions. Thus, the same referee might recommend different decisions for different journals. This is not always problematic. It may be that paper x submitted to journals y and z falls outside the remit of journal y but not journal z: there is then nothing specifically problematic about a referee recommending rejection for one journal and acceptance at another for the same paper on such grounds. Things are different where the remit of the journal is not at issue, but judgements about the necessary standards of publishable quality are an issue. The blog Ethics Etc had an interesting poll where many colleagues said that they would employ different standards.

In the end, getting published in a journal is a seal of approval by a certain team -- journals should be seem as a collective project involving editors, editorial boards, referees, and authors -- although there may sometimes be questions about the relative value of one seal approval versus another.

2. Journal articles as an academic job qualification.
In large part due to the fact that journal articles are understood as a seal of approval, journal articles also are often tickets to academic jobs as they are seen as academic job qualifications. Let me elaborate. Candidate x may be qualified for an academic job without articles. However, earning tenure regularly involves satisfying some standard of research productivity which, in turn, regularly involves demonstration of publications.

Furthermore, journal articles may be helpful to those candidates who come from more modest academic training grounds. Perhaps their department was not in a top ten list, but nevertheless the quality of research is quite high by candidate x as in the evidence of an article in journal y. The journal article as seal of approval can also play an additional role as providing further job qualifications both to acquire a new position and to earn promotions.


While many focus on the related (1) and (2) points above, I believe that there is a third element often overlooked:

3. Journal articles as academic brand awareness.
(I can already see readers cringe at my use of business-speak....I share your pain!) The article as seal of approval is a leading reason behind the importance of publishing in academic journals. However, I believe that there is something more to be said about this importance often overlooked, namely, articles are an excellent medium to communicate ideas. Suppose there are journals x, y and z. Some libraries may get all three; some libraries will have some combination of them; some libraries will only subscribe to one of them. Publishing in more than one journal is not simply a sign that you have earned several seals of approval by different journal communities, but an opportunity to reach a wider audience. This should give many reason to publish in more than one journal: it offers a better opportunity to communicate your ideas to more people. This is not to say that academics should publish the same thing again and again. However, often one's work explores new issues in a field where one has engaged in previous research on different issues. A person's work is often composed of papers that together make up a larger project on a set of issues, questions or concerns. Publishing in multiple venues may offer better brand awareness about your research project than if you stuck with a single venue.


The above are some reflections on academic publishing. What have I missed?

UPDATE: Many thanks to Brian Leiter for kindly noting this post on the Leiter Reports!

16 comments:

Anonymous said...
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George Wrisley said...

It may very well be rare, but one would hope that one's contribution in a published journal might be useful to others and perhaps count as some sort of "progress." So while approval, status, and self-promotion are all certainly motivating factors, there is also the possibility that one would be motivated out of the desire to help others and/or contribute something.

Neil said...

There are many reasons why I publish articles. But one important one (and the one of the only ones free of self-aggrandisement) is that were I not writing in attempt to get published I would be satisfied with shoddier thinking. Knowing that smart people are going to be reading it is highly motivating (it would be easy to fool oneself into thinking one was working just as hard on something for oneself, but for most of us it would not be true). I also expect to benefit from the comments of referees, and readers too. So publication - or at least trying for publication - is essential to my development as a thinker.

Fritz said...

This is a great discussion, and I applaud Thom for offering it! That said, I'm increasingly down on journal articles. Thom's (1) and (2) above speak to the merits of publishing for publishing's sake, but that's not why many/most of us want to publish in the first place. (3) is almost framed as an afterthought, but it's ostensibly the most important: to get our ideas into the intellectual marketplace. The problem with this, though, is that the vast majority of journal articles aren't read, aren't cited, and make, quite literally, no impact on the intellectual marketplace. Some of our work is read by small communities of topically-affiliated scholars, but so much of it goes nowhere. And this isn't sour grapes about my own writing--some of my essays are widely cited--but just an observation on the overall state of academic publishing. As Thom has posted recently, you can check citations (e.g., scholar.google.com), and it's stunning how few essays have no impact on the field.

For example, I just picked a random issue of JPhil--one of the top philosophy journals--May 2005. (When checking citations, best pick something at least a few years old so it has had a time to make an impact.) Two essays are there, which have been cited 4 and 0 times, respectively, since publication. So one of the essays had no influence on the literature, and the other had a minor one. This isn't good for one of the top journals!

Regardless, (1) and (2) just speak to filling our CVs with stuff for the the filling's sake, but the more noble reason to publish in journals is disarmed by its own lights (i.e., the ideas just don't matter that much, at least on average; I once read somewhere the median citation rate for a humanities essay was zero...). So there's some skepticism to temper Thom's optimism.

(Btw, none of this is to suggest that I don't respect and appreciate academic journals--including JMT--but is rather just to say that I wish they had more impact than they do.)

Neil said...

Fritz, it is worth noting that google scholar is not comprehensive. A quick check by me found another 3 citations for the first article, and 1 for the second. In any case, it is likely that a lot more people read the papers than cited them, and that the papers influenced their thinking. We are, most of us, underlaborers, but we too contribute to the sum of knowledge.

Fritz said...

@Neil, cool, thanks for adding that. I wonder, though, whether it really matters. So that brings the sum up to 7 citations for one JPhil article and 1 for the other? It's still hard to see how those articles are making any big impact, isn't it? I'm not saying we should all hope for Frankfurt-esque 1500+ citations, but it's still hard to reconcile the fact that most journal articles have hardly any citations with the optimistic contention that journal articles "really matter". Books (e.g., from major publishers) certainly seem to do more, but it's still amazing how many philosophers publish books (esp. with minor publishers) that very few people read (cf., Amazon book ratings in the 500,000+ range). To put it another way, a colleague once said that our profession encourages the publication of "voluminous mediocrity", which sounds about right, particularly outside research programs (i.e., where upward mobility and what you actually publish doesn't really even matter beyond being able to put things on your CV.)

Panu said...

"an excellent medium to communicate ideas"
- I only would like to add that if your driving motive is actually to communicate your ideas (rather than just getting some credit), it might be a good idea to publish them in a widely read journal (and this tends to conincide with being a top rank journal) - there are journals and there are journals...

charles.pigden said...

Does anyone have any statistics on citation rates for journal articles in philosophy that are bit less impressionistic than Fritz's? What are the mean and median citation rates for articles after (say) five, ten and twenty years? Judging by my own experience I think it is necessary to take the long-term view where possible since with some of my twenty year old articles (I don't go back much beyond that!) over two thirds of the citations come from the second decade after publication. I asked these questions wrt a Leiter thread but nobody seemed to have any answers.

Neil said...

More data for you, Fritz. My last book is hovering around the 600,000 + range on Amazon. It has sold more than 500 copies. This doesn't strike me as 'very few' readers (especially since some of the buyers are libraries).

Fritz said...

There's this one:

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=405789

But I can't find the philosophy one I saw before.

@Neil, my understanding is that institutional purchases generally account for ~500 copies/title, depending on the publisher and pricing. I certainly think that most of those institutional copies are *not* read; they languish on the shelves. I should go pull some of the philosophy titles from my school's library and see how often--or if!--they've been checked out.

Neil said...

48 citations: someone is reading it (or pretending to). I really think you are too pessimistic, Fritz. There are many PhD students, after all, pursuing all kinds of arcane projects (and most dissertations don't get recorded by google).

CTS said...

Even if most philosophical work is not widely read, I do not think that entails the conclusion that most such work is 'mediocre.' Philosophy is not everyone's cup of tea, after all.

That said, I concur with Neil's point about keeping ourselves on our intellectual toes.

Jay said...

(4) *Publish for the fun of it.* Getting your ideas out, and entering the forum of professional dialog about deeply important and interesting issues can be enthralling, (or at least, fun, or at least may in some other way feel rewarding). (At least, I hope and expect it will be for me: I say this as a Ph.D. student who has not yet published!)


But an upshot of this discussion seems to be that philosophy (not to speak for other disciplines or for academia as a whole) could perhaps benefit from better public relations. There is probably some room for some more, innovative radio and TV shows and blogs which break down ideas fresh out of the ivory tower. (Radio shows like 'To the Best of Our Knowledge,' 'Speaking of Faith,' and 'Philosophy Talk' regularly interview academics and, more importantly, ask philosophical questions which are often worth addressing in peer-reviewed philosophical journals. They also seem to serve as indirect indicators of the "pulse" on what American laypeople are interested in intellectually.) There may also be room for attempts 'trade books' on certain recent philosophical discussions which are aimed at lay readers (parallel to what I understand Robert Wright's /The Moral Animal/ is for evolutionary psychology).

All that said, surely academic research should be at least as interested in setting agendas as in appealing to the interests of a wide audience who will read and/or cite you.

What better forum for stimulating public interest in reading actual journal articles (that people find for themselves, presumably with the help of university resources) than our own classrooms?

William Parkhurst said...

This article and many of the comments were extremely helpful to me, so thank you everyone. I'm currently researching the professional aspects of philosophy, which are quite veiled at the undergraduate level. Having recently earned my BA and now waiting for graduate applications to come back, I just wanted to mention that many articles are passed around by undergraduate and graduate students which do not get cited. In philosophy club as well as informal meetings we would talk about articles published in Jphil, Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, Nous and others. Half of my fellow students are not going on to graduate school where they will publish and cite but they were still exposed to it. That seems important to me at least.

Anonymous said...

Publishing journal articles as an academic job qualification is something I am having trouble accepting as a university instructor myself. Just because someone's article has received a seal of approval does not mean that by extension that person has received a seal of approval. Furthermore, at least in my case, publications are wholly irrelevant to my job as a communicative language instructor, and are an unnecessary distraction from my duties.

Thom Brooks said...

I'm not so sure. My post was directed primarily at colleagues working (or aspiring to work) at research institutions. Publications are essential for permanent posts at such places. But they are increasingly important for teaching-intensive institutions as well - and even for getting into grad school.

In my view, teaching is improved through being research active. Many can teach what others have said before, but we offer students something more distinctive and maybe even more valuable in teaching them our subject-matter from the front line at the frontiers of current debates.