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August 04, 2008


Tim Crane

Hi Nigel

Interesting post, thanks. I agree with you that we should not fetishise peer reviewing as the 'gold standard'. There are, and have been, some excellent philosophy journals which are not run on an anonymous peer review basis. And reviewers can be as bad as you say.

However, the idea of yet more 'accountability' makes my heart sink...

The British Academy actually published a quite interesting report on the merits of peer reviewing last year:


Getting rid of paper journals is obviously the way to go, for many reasons; getting rid of journal publishers making huge profits out of universities is even better (see the discussion a few years ago on Leiter's blog: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2006/09/time_to_end_for.html).

But this would not necessarily getting rid of journals as such -- journals do provide *some* kind of quality filter of all the stuff that is out there; and also, some kind of guide for the perplexed -- imagine trying to start finding out what one should read by using Google alone.

To my mind, the ideal would be to have open access (free) online journals edited by people who know what they are talking about. Something like peer review would have to be involved too, I think. Universities could then spend some of the money they are now spending on over-priced journals on running these online facilities.

This wouldn't solve the problem of over-production which you mention, of course. I'd like to introduce a scheme in which academics were given research grants on the condition that they did NOT publish anything in (say) ten years. If they did publish something in that period, they would have to pay a portion of the grant back (a kind of 'set aside' subsidy).

all the best

Nigel Warburton

Thanks for this Tim.

Really interesting response. Thanks for the links too. I'm amazed at how readily academics have signed away their copyright (electronic rights bundled in often) to publishers who don't pay anything for it, and who 'generously' receive camera ready copy subsidised by universities and then sell back the journals at hugely inflated prices. The claim that the publishers add kudos or act as filters is implausible in philosophy: most of the filtering and kudos is added long before it gets to the publisher. In my experience journal publishers in philosophy rarely have much say about what goes in a journal and the selection criteria for inclusion. Now some publishers are even looking to charge for access to their digital vaults of the goodies they've collected for nothing over the years...Post the digital revolution academics have the means to publish and distribute electronic journals at virtually no production costs: so what is the added value a journal publisher now gives? It isn't obvious in our subject.

You're right that if Google were the only filter for quality in a free market of ideas we would be in trouble. But already there are many informal filters. For instance, were you to put up a webpage of recommended reading on consciousness, people who recognise your authority in this area would use your reading list as a filter. Look at how Arts and Letters Daily (www.aldaily.com) works - many people use it as a filter for quality now.

Best wishes,
Nigel (aka Virtual Philosopher)

Thom Brooks

I agree with Tim that the British Academy report on peer review is interesting -- and I think spot on. One recommendation in the report that may interest you if you have not yet read it is that there should be some kind of training in reviewing for graduate students. An excellent report I highly recommend.

Otherwise, I do think -- at the very least -- that the better journals more often than not perform quite well at gaining the good (and free) advice of top persons in the field. Many journals also publish lists of referees for a year, including Ethics, Journal of Moral Philosophy and many others. Such lists with lists of editorial board members (who often do more work than many colleagues are led to believe) do demonstrate the quality of the review at work.

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