Friday, November 20, 2020

What Should Editors Ask of Referees?

I've previously discussed how frustrating confused referee reports can be for the author, and how the system might actually be made more efficient by allowing authors to (briefly!) respond to these reports before a verdict is reached.  But I think there's a more systematic problem, in that too many referees (seemingly) base their verdicts on bad criteria, such as whether they can think of an objection to the paper. (One otherwise-brilliant philosopher once told me that he has a deliberate policy of rejecting any paper that he disagrees with!  Few would explicitly endorse this, I imagine, but many more may follow a similar rule de facto.)  So I've been wondering what steps a journal editor could feasibly take to try to counteract this.  In particular, are there particular questions that it would be worth asking referees to explicitly address in their report, that would better reveal the truth about a paper's merits?

I'd be curious to hear what others come up with.  But here's an initial stab at what I think a report should ideally address:

(1a) What (if anything) is interesting and original about this paper?

(1b) On a scale of 1 - 10, rate how interesting you expect this paper should be to those familiar with the existing literature on the topic.

(2) Are there any egregious errors or oversights that would need to be addressed before the paper was potentially publishable?

(3a) How cogent are the paper's central arguments?

(3b) Do you expect most other experts would share your verdict, or is there significant room for reasonable disagreement?

(3c) On a scale of 1 - 10, rate how insightful or illuminating you expect the average reader of the journal would find this paper.

* * *

My own view is that (with some wonderful exceptions) referee reports in philosophy tend to systematically overweight (often idiosyncratic) judgments about whether the argument is successful (3a).  But obviously, the mere fact that somebody could object to an argument is not sufficient grounds for establishing that the argument should not be made or published.  There are a couple of important reasons for this.

Most obviously, somebody could (and typically does) object to even the best arguments.  Perhaps the referee believes that their objection is insuperable, but they are often mistaken in this belief.  But suppose, for sake of argument, that the referee has correctly identified a decisive objection to the paper's main argument.  Does that suffice to show that the paper shouldn't be published?  Here I'm still inclined to think not.  Even "bad" / unsuccessful arguments can be immensely philosophically interesting -- just think of the ontological argument!  We shouldn't believe unsuccessful arguments, but they are often well worth considering -- and this latter is the better criterion for guiding publication decisions, in my view.

Of course, many unsuccessful arguments are not so valuable. But it's important to recognize that the central problem with such an argument is not merely that it fails to establish the truth of its conclusion, but that it isn't (much) worth considering or engaging with.  We may also note that many sound arguments share this unfortunate trait.  So the philosophical value of an argument actually has very little to do with its ultimate logical cogency.  (Though an interesting argument presumably must at least seem cogent.)

It'd be helpful if more referees appreciated this point.  Perhaps something like my above directed questions could help with that.  But I welcome other suggestions!  What do you think?

2 comments:

  1. Great post. Strongly agree that refs tend to overrate whether the paper's argument is "successful."

    I'm reminded of Bosanquet's review of Moore's dissertation; Moore was applying to a fellowship at Trinity College. The great Bosanquet (who??) complained that Moore was defending the existence of mind-independent objects, a dogma already refuted by the German Idealists. Bosanquet wrote:

    "if [this] had been sent to me for review by ‘Mind’…I should have treated it respectfully as a brilliant essay by a very able writer, but should have endeavoured to point out that its positive stand-point and consequently its treatment of the subject were hopelessly inadequate.”

    As it turns out, a version of the paper did make it into Mind -- as "The Nature of Judgement."

    (Source: the intro of Hurka's amazing British Ethical Theorists.)

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