Here’s another twitter thread from a few days ago, offering some tentative suggestions for reforming bits of academia that are unquestionably broken. I didn’t get much feedback from my twitter audience, so I’m wondering if people here might be more inclined to offer some critical responses. I think it’s increasingly important not only to have these conversations, but to be seen having these conversations. Over to you.
Just over 7 years ago, I wrote half of an essay titled ‘The Systemic Problems of Contemporary Academia and their Solution’. It should be no surprise which half wasn’t finished. I eventually posted it on my blog (about 5 years ago).
I’ve also touched on these issues indirectly in my piece on Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, at least insofar as the relation between the academic ideal and the reality of academic institutions are a (if not the) central theme of the book.
The central claim of the ‘Problems’ piece was that the core problems of contemporary academia are caused by the way in which systems of assessment have become entangled with systems of distribution.
These epistemic tangles create the economic niches that bad actors like Elsevier can monopolize and then leverage to extract rent. However, as serious a problem as academic rentiers are, there are other problems produced by the same underlying issues.
To be completely explicit, I think that the externalities generated by such rentiers are on such a scale that they can probably only be compared with evils like war crimes and pollution. It’s possibly the single greatest disruption to the functioning of the general intellect.
Moving on from epistemic crimes against humanity, what I want to discuss today is the unwritten part of the essay: the speculative solutions that we as professional academics, and philosophers more specifically, might be able to enact, given sufficient will and co-ordination.
I have two such speculative solutions I would like to consider, and maybe get some feedback on: (1) a way of reforming the journal system, and (2) a way of solving some of the underlying co-ordination problems that perpetuate the problem.
Let’s take (1) first. If I had to point at the fields that are most successfully routing around the tangles I’ve described, I’d pick Mathematics, Physics, and Computer Science. Why? In a word ArXiv: arxiv.org
ArXiv severs the link between distribution and assessment from the side of distribution. It allows ideas to circulate and go through review and revision without the bottlenecks imposed by journals. This turns assessment into mere validation, and makes it more transparent too.
I cannot stress how FUCKING AMAZING this is. One of the reasons my research has veered into logic, mathematics, and computer science is that it’s simply much, much easier to search for and read the relevant articles. Sci-hub is similarly amazing, but it’s a patch on the problem.
For those who aren’t aware, ArXiv is technically what you’d call a pre-print server, and it’s not the only one going, just the most well established: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preprint
One index of the comparative health of Philosophy of Science as a subdiscipline is that it has a fairly well established pre-print server: philsci-archive.pitt.edu
It’s also worth pointing to PhilPapers (philpapers.org), though it is really more of an index of published work, and is only secondarily as distribution mechanism. The relevant social norms that have grown around things like ArXiv aren’t present there yet.
So, pre-print servers are one part of the solution, but they’re not the only part. We also need to sever the link between assessment and distribution from the side of assessment. We need to lean into the abstraction of research validation from research aggregation.
What would this look like? Here’s a suggestion. Abstract the social network structure of an editorial board and the experts they call on to do peer review from the actual process of editing. What we have here is a peer network sustained by mutual recognition of expertise.
There is no reason that such a network has to do anything more than provide a stamp of validation on a piece of research. Its authority ideally consists in nothing but the history of the work it is willing to stamp (presumably including the work of its constituents).
There is also no reason that the membership of this extended network should not be completely explicit. It should in principal be a completely transparent structure.
What about the importance of anonymity in peer review, I hear you ask?
Well, this anonymity causes its own fair share of problems. We even have a name for them: ‘reviewer two‘. Speak these words to any academic and they will frown, curse, and do the equivalent of making the sign of the cross to dispel the dark presence of reviewer two.
‘Reviewer two’ is our name for all the pedantic, incurious, and downright rude behaviours that anonymity can bring out in other academics, in much the way that online anonymity produces hair raising comment sections on every popular website.
Moreover, as we’re all aware, though anonymity on the part of the author can protect them from the horrors of implicit bias, anonymity on the part of the author is far more fragile and difficult than it is on the part of the reviewer.
There are various kinds of information that can make a paper impossible to anonymise: working in a small field, referring to your own previous work, characteristic writing style, etc.
This is not to say that anonymity is bad. It isn’t. But it is sometimes impossible, and there should be other ways of protecting the author against the ravages of the review process.
These ravages are real and spirit crushing. Everyone knows someone who has carefully crafted a paper only to wait a year to be casually told it needs certain changes, and then resubmitted only to wait and be told the opposite. Often this person is themselves.
People in these situations have no recourse. We are all subject to the ephemeral whims of reviewer two, until we achieve enough institutional/financial/social status that we no longer require validation.
While I’m on this topic, a brief tangent. Here is the best way of describing the role of publishing in professional philosophy that I have found. It is as if we never stopped writing essays in graduate school.
When one writes an essay as an (under)graduate, one knows that one is not principally intending to make a contribution to knowledge. It is not knowledge production, it is validation: are you worthy of carrying on in this process further?
‘Publish or perish‘ refers to a situation in which we pretend what we’re doing is knowledge production, while really we’re just trying to be validated, so we may carry on in the process, be it the TT in the US, or the otherwise baroque systems of career progression elsewhere.
How many published papers (even in reputable journals) get read an order of magnitude more than the number of reviewers who gave them a pass? Iterate this question for greater orders of magnitude. It’s bleak.
I have blog posts (not to say twitter threads) that will be read, engaged with, and otherwise more influential than papers I have published, not to say papers I have glanced at in well respected journals. It’s really bleak.
Okay, back to the proposed solution. After a lot of reflection, I think the best way to reform peer review is to make it adversarial in the same way that a trial is. What do I mean by this?
Imagine that any member of our peer network can select a paper from the pool of submissions (stored on a pre-print server) and become its champion. Either they think it already good enough, or they think they can give advice that would make it so.
That’s Reviewer 1. They’re like a public defender in a trial, and their identity is public. The network then needs to select a public prosecutor (Reviewer 2), whose identity is not public, but is known to Reviewer 1. This to some extent disincentivizes being a shit.
All of this is compatible with the anonymity of the author, but is not dependent on it. Moreover, I suspect that greater transparency in the content of the review process will help to counteract bias further.
Of course, none of this makes bias impossible, nor does it make nepotism impossible. But what it does do is to make the characteristic failures of social networks transparent qua failures of social networks.
What we want is a system in which the institutions responsible for validation are not TOO BIG TO FAIL. The major journals in every field have reached this point.
Hereditary institutions (e.g., monarchies, dynasties, and even research programs) have a nasty tendency to go sour as the leadership of one generation makes poor decisions about the leadership of the next generation, and so on. They need to be allowed to die when this happens.
So, that’s my basic proposal for (1): peer review as validation by a maximally transparent network of experts sustained by mutual recognition.
I’m going to go grab some food, and come back to talk about (2).
Okay, so (2) is so deceptively simple that I’m pretty sure a lot of other people have had the idea, but that there hasn’t been a critical mass to implement it. It is basically Fair Trade branding but for academic publishing.
At this point you might say: ‘But Pete, this already exists! Even governments have started to mandate that funded research is published in Open Access journals!’
What I’m talking about is more than Open Access. Let’s ask the important question: why, if most academics think that Open Access is not just technically but morally superior, does anyone bother publishing in non Open Access journals?
The answer is the bottom line. And the bottom line is getting paid and keeping a roof over your head. And the crucial factor in that is whether or not a hiring committee or a tenure committee thinks you’ve done enough to reproduce your lifestyle.
Even when we’re 100% behind the ideal of Fair Trade consumption, that ideal with whither before it gets even close to our ability to eat. The same applies to any ideals regarding academic research production.
What we need is for junior academics to be able to walk into job interviews and when asked ‘Why haven’t you published in our list of top journals (read: outsourced validation)?’ to respond ‘Because I’ve taken THE PLEDGE!’ and have that not only be an excuse, but a sign of virtue.
I think this is a case in which the individualism peculiar to academics can actually be a strength. Forgive me for using the phrase, but if nothing else, we’re generally much better at virtue signalling than actual virtue. This goes double for philosophers. Triple for ethicists.
But virtue signalling as fine as long as it drives positive social dynamics, and I suspect that being able to align yourself with a moral stance that also exempts you from onerous labour would be both popular and effective, if it can reach critical mass.
Just imagine being able to say: ‘Oh, alas, I would love to have published that paper I’ve been working on in Mind, but it goes against my deeply held ethical and professional beliefs. I would do it today, neigh, right this moment, if only my conscience could be assuaged!’
This is one case in which selfishness and conscience can be perfectly aligned, and those don’t come along often.
Less selfishly, imagine being able to say, without shame: ‘I actually thought it’d be better to write up this idea as a blog post and get some responses that would let it evolve quickly in context; and you know what, I was right!’
‘Look at the response! Even has joined in!’
Just imagine what that would feel like. Unsurprisingly, I spend a lot of time imagining this.
And that’s the final indication of what’s wrong that I want to talk about. The sheer artificiality of the forms that we as professional philosophers are not simply encouraged, but required to do our work in. And it isn’t simply that they make us less productive of good research.
They discourage us from doing effective public philosophy, or realising those social goods of which philosophy at its best is capable. Cf. C. Thi Nguyen’s piece in the Daily Nous for an elaboration of this point.
I am awed and humbled by the things that people are doing on YouTube under the heading ‘video essay‘. That a lot of them are refugees from academia trying to make a social contribution that would be tacitly forbidden in the ivory tower is nothing short of a moral outrage.
Anyway, this thread has gone on for long enough, and I should quit while I’m ahead. A final summary of my proposed solutions: (1) separate and explicit peer review networks, and (2) a viable pledge to publish through pre-print/open access/the above networks.
I’ll let one of the most interesting and influential philosophers of my generation (@ContraPoints) play me out:
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