What journals do 
There's an interesting roundtable discussion in Theoria about journal publishing. The editors of several journals discuss the role that journals play in professional philosophy, including the evaluation of philosophers and funding decisions. They also discuss the possibilities of open access publishing.

Social responsibility of editors


Late in the discussion, someone from the audience asks "Why should the editor of a philosophical journal think so much about how the academic system appoints people to their jobs?" The alternative, one of the panelists suggests, is to just "produce good journals."

Sven Ove Hansson resists this suggestion, saying that "journals are part of, and very much integrated in, the academic system." And he's right. Whether journal editors face up to it or not, what and who gets published has real consequences for what and who gets attention and funding. There are institutional consequences of running a journal one way rather than another; that is to say, running a journal has political consequences. So editting a journal is (among other things) a political act.

More than that, there no such thing as a good journal simpliciter. What it is to be a good journal depends on how the journal will be used. The standards for how things should be written, how much citation is required, and so on all depend on the audience. For a journal with no intended audience at all, there is no difference between a good journal and a bad journal. To consider the most extreme possibility, imagine philosophers who toil to produce a journal which is immediately dropped into a black hole.*

So part of an editor's responsibility is to consider who the audience of the journal is and how they are going to use it. Given the academic system, evaluators and administrators are among the audience and the appointment and promotions system is part of how it is used. So producing good journals requires thinking about the academic systems in which the journals exist.

In the first place, journals are aimed at scholars interested in advancing the discussion about such-and-so. So, to more charitably read the original question, one can worry that editors are concerned too much about the academic system. The political reality means that editors should think a lot about it, though.

Open access


The fact that journal articles are part of an ongoing discussion underscores the value of open access publishing. Simply put, a more accesible article is more likely to be available and be read in places where it can make a difference. To their credit, most of the editors in the roundtable voice support for open access. Theoria itself is an OA journal.

One strange dissent is from Vincent Hendricks. Discussing the case in his own country, he says:
[The Danes] are introducing an interesting angle on open access. The idea is to have all Danish research articles included in a database, which is basically an open access database belonging to the state. Since the money for the research is paid by the state, everybody should have access to the database. Of course, there is a potential clash here between the state on one hand and, say, the journals on the other. There's no way Springer is going to publish papers that have already been published on a state-controlled website. If researchers have to put up their publications on a state-owned database, then nobody is going to publish their papers anyway. I doubt that those who decided this have any idea what they are getting their hands into.

I call this 'strange' because it describes open access in some bizarro universe. There are already funding agencies that require open access publishing (e.g. the Wellcome Trust circa 2004) and it's not a novel Danish innovation. Contra Hendricks' insistence, a requirement to put papers in a central database is compatible with later publishing in a journal. In physics, almost every new paper is placed in a public archive (the arXiv) even when it later appears in a traditional journal. Somehow physics journals survive at publishers including Springer.

The most charitable interpretation is that Hendricks just doesn't know any of this. He coedits Synthese, a philosophy journal, so perhaps developments in physics and biomedicine just haven't shown up on his radar. Yet, for reasons I suggested above, part of his responsibility as editor is to think about the broader context.**

The less charitable interpretation is that he does know about the developments in physics and biomedicine but conveniently overlooks them. Commercial publishers do this when they argue that open access would destroy academic publishing. Paranoia about open access is probably the narrative encouraged by Springer itself.*** Even though Springer could survive in an open access world, there is more money to be made if they can go on exploiting free labour and a captive market.


* I am here setting aside any value that writing the journal might have for the writers and editors themselves. Although they may derive some benefit from the process, it's incidental to academic publishing.
** Hendricks would disagree with the argument above, I think. He says in response to the question from the floor: "We have to produce good journals. That's all I really have to say about that."
*** There is some reason to suspect that the editors of Synthese are corporate toadies. I don't want this to be another post about the Synthese debacle, though... oops.

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Unprofessional, unresponsive, and unacceptable [or] Synthese, again and still 
*sigh* The editors responded to the Synthese petition. It happened almost two weeks ago, while I was in Toronto talking about anglerfish.

The editors' reply was posted to the domain syntpetition.info. The domain was created just for this purpose, and it hosts only a low-res jpg scan of a letter in which the editors pooh pooh the entire affair. Wesley Elsberry has transcribed the response in actual text.

When I first read the reply, I wondered whether it actually was from the editors at all. Given subsequent non-denial, it seems that it is. However, I find the format of the response to be... well... unprofessional. 470ish sign a petition in protest, but the editors do the digital equivalent of mumbling their response before sprinting out the back door. They went out of their way to make the response indirect and inaccessible.

The way that the response was delivered compounds their original offenses. If they weren't out of line before, they are now. Even if the hundreds of signatories were entirely off base, the response ought to have been direct rather than maddeningly roundabout.

On top of all that, the content of the response is... well... unresponsive. They say that the disclaimer is or at least might have been a response to messages they received which they "take seriously as legal threats." This is just the worry - that they knuckled under to legal threats from creationists.

The letter goes on to say that the threats were not from "Christian philosophers." This careful wording allows that the threats were from other creationists; i.e., Christian non-philosophers. The dodginess almost even suggests that it was so.

It is possible, of course, that the evaluation of the legal situation was made by Springer's corporate lawyers rather than by the editors themselves. If so, they acting the part of coroporate toadies - worse, bad corporate toadies. If you aren't going to talk about it, a clear public statement of no comment would be both more honest and legally more secure. A grainy scan of an evasive letter posted at an obscure novel domain is a disasterous half-measure.


Also: There's been coverage of the Synthese debacle in the NY Times and the Guardian. Although the URL shifted, John Wilkins is still keeping up an aggregate of related links.

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The trends on Kant futures 
Last week we had the final class meeting for my 17th+18th Century Philosophy course. As I've discussed before, I ask them pick the philosopher they found best in terms of content, the most rewarding to think about; also, I ask them to pick the one that they found to be worst or least rewarding.

I also ask them which of the texts they found the most readable or fun to read; similarly, the least. These are questions about style and presentation, rather than content.

I instruct students to note their selections. Then I take a show of hands, and we discuss the results.

Now that I have the old blog post in front of me, I can chart some trends. Here are the results from this year's class, along with the difference from the results last time:
            yay     boo
Descartes 0 -4 6 +1
Locke 4 -1 1 -1
Berkeley 6 +3 13 +3
Hume 6 -1 0 -3
Kant 9 +5 0 -1

And for texts:
                          yay    boo
Descartes' Meditations 7 x 1 +1
Locke's Essay (selections) 6 +2 3 +3
Berkeley's Principles 2 -3 5 +4
Hume's Enquiry 9 +3 2 +1
Kant's Critique (abridged) 0 x 14 -9

Some observations:

Kant fared better than last time. He had more fans philosophically, and fewer detractors stylistically. Last time, almost everyone had him tagged for worst writer. The semester was two meetings shorter this time than last, and we spent one day fewer on Kant. A cynical hypothesis is that, in the bustle of end term, fewer people actually tried to read Kant this time. Students who haven't tried reading it are less likely to hate Kant's prose.

Berkeley was even more polarizing than before (on the side of content) but much less liked (on the side of style). I have no snarky explanation for this fact.

Perhaps the best remark from the discussion: If you confuse enough people, someone's going kill you.

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Petition repetition [or] Synthesiana ad infinitum 
It seems that April has become Blog About the Synthese Debacle month here. The debacle, a recap: There was a recent guest-edited issue of Synthese. The usual editors added a disclaimer to the printed version of the issue, distancing themselves from it and saying that some of the papers in it were insulting rubbish.

There are now three different on-line petitions, all directed at the editors of Synthese: Eric Schliesser has started two petitions.

Schliesser's first petition calls for the editors to allow Barbara Forrest the write a response to Francis Beckwith's response to her original paper. Her paper, recall, is the one that led the editors to apologize for the guest-edited issue of their own journal in the first place. In Beckwith's reply, he uses the editors' disclaimer as evidence that the original paper was incompetent!

Schliesser's second petition calls for the editors to explain how and why they allowed Beckwith to publish such a brazen reply.

The third petition, organized by Brian Leiter, demands that the editors retract the the disclaimer and apologize. Ingo Brigandt and Mohan Matthen provide strong arguments for signing it.

I have signed all three, although I worry that the grand buffet of petitions will dilute the appropriate outrage. One might object to Schliesser's first petition for procedural reasons, on the grounds that allowing Forrest a reponse would be the wrong form of redress, even if one thought that the editors well and truly cocked this up. Yet a weak showing for that petition might be taken as somehow vindicating the editors and Beckwith's response. Bleah.

I am still prepared to give mitigated support to a boycott of the journal, so petitions now are weak sauce. I'll sign them, though, and so should you.*


* Obviously, you shouldn't just sign them because I said you should. Follow some links. Read up on it. Then sign.

Update, 3May


Leiter's petition, which I think was the most important, has now closed. It will be delivered to the editors with roughly 470 signatures. Leiter provides a summary of signatories and comments.

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Analysis of the Synthese affair 
I was going to provide links to further discussion of the Synthese boycott, but John Wilkins is johnny-on-the-spot. Here's the omnibus entry at his blog:

Round-up of Synthesiana at Evolving Thoughts

Update



The editors have now offered a response which fails to address the real issue.

Mark Lance and Eric Schliesser enumerate its shortcomings.

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