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Hands Off Peer Review for Philosophy Journals!

There might be, and I actually believe there actually are, multiple problems with the philosophical profession, but double blind peer review is certainly not the crucial problem that needs fixing.

a month ago

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Hands Off Peer Review for Philosophy Journals!

The one thing that remains, until now at least, relatively unscathed from the increasing politicisation of academic philosophy is the double (or sometimes triple) blind peer review for most established philosophy journals. This is different for books, which do not enjoy the privilege of double blind reviewing (authors do not know who the reviewers are, but in most cases the reviewers know the author). Because it is difficult, if not impossible, to anonymise a whole book—which is often based on material that is already known and/or has been published before—explicit bias in book reviewing processes, which unfortunately does sometimes happen, is unavoidable.

I am not saying that peer review for journals is without its problems; there should be more appreciation for certain styles of philosophising, a greater openness to the variety of topics that can be covered, more attention should be paid to non-English-language secondary literature in journal articles, and more reference to and discussion of important secondary literature outside the mainstream circle should be made. But these are problems for the scholarly community in general, not the journals per se. Another problem may be the sometimes less than stellar peer reviewing itself, that is, not so much the reviewing process as the quality of the reviewing in itself.

Notwithstanding these issues, there is one thing that should not be touched: the standard of the double (or sometimes triple) blind peer review itself. Nothing but the peer review, ideally done by two or more reviewers unknown to the anonymous author, should be the deciding factor in assessing the quality of a submitted paper, on the basis of which a decision is made as to whether to publish it, or to recommend a R&R, or to reject the paper. No matter how flawed the review might turn out to be, or how much the author might feel slighted or wronged, double (or sometimes triple) blind peer review is the only non-discriminatory guarantee that only the philosophical quality of the paper is assessed, not any random factor that has nothing to do with philosophical merit.

One may argue—and this has been argued—that there is potential implicit bias in any arbitrary reviewer’s assessment of any particular paper, which should be adjusted by whatever means possible, so that the reviewing process is seen as more just. Personally, I don’t see how it is possible that implicit bias greatly affects the quality of a reviewer’s assessment if the review is done properly according to scholarly standards, other than perhaps because of a certain predilection for a particular style of philosophy, a strong preference for a particular interpretation when it concerns a paper in the history of philosophy, or, more problematically, a tendency to influence an author’s preferences for certain secondary literature references. But however such adjustment is to be made in order to make the reviewing more balanced it should not affect the standard of double blind peer reviewing as such. Changes can, and when the occasion asks for it, should be made according to strict scholarly standards, taking into account ineradicable biases such as the aforementioned (reviewing is all too human, after all; we’re not computers, nor saints). Perhaps there could be a way in which the author could seek redress, though this might increase the burden that peer reviewing already is, so I am not in favour of it. There are plenty of alternative journals where one can resubmit—and if it turns out that multiple journals reject your paper, it might very well be that it isn’t very good. There is of course the real possibility that the quality of your paper is not seen—by multiple reviewers—because it may be too radical or too novel, and that is certainly a huge drawback of contemporary highly professionalised, conformist academic philosophy, but not a problem of peer review per se.

But it seems that the proposal recently made by Eric Schwitzgebel and Nicole Hassoun on the APA blog threatens the gold standard of double blind peer reviewing in the so-called “elite” philosophy journals. They point out the problematic “homogeneity” in mainstream Anglophone philosophy journals. Especially women and black people are underrepresented. I hadn’t noticed that many fewer women than men are represented in the journals that I frequently check (my specialism is Kant scholarship), but that is of course purely anecdotal and at any rate limited to one specialism. So I take it that the data they present are correct, which in itself could be seen as hugely problematic, or it is at least surprising given the much higher percentages for, e.g., women faculty in the US and the UK (not so much black philosophers, whose representation among faculty is very low). All sorts of factors are in play here and call for further study as to why this is the case (mutatis mutandis for black philosophers etc.). But whatever these factors are, how could these disappointing data be the effect, even if unwittingly, of the blind peer review as the gold standard for philosophy publishing as such?

Schwitzgebel and Hassoun believe that there should be more diversity in the pages of elite philosophy journals, more viewpoints from people outside the comfort zone of the white male privileged Ivy League philosopher. Sounds lofty, doesn’t it? Not just women and black philosophers should be represented more in the pages of the elite journals, but also philosophers with a “lower socio-economic status”, “disabled” philosophers, people with variant sexual preferences, people with a different religious viewpoint (different from which, btw?), people with a different political viewpoint (different from which, btw?), people not having the benefit of “prestige of home institution or institution of graduate study” (but this is surely not considered in blind peer review, or is it?), and philosophers who identify with “other aspects of race and ethnicity”.

And while we’re at it—and this is of course half-joking—why not include bald philosophers, or short philosophers (or philosophers with less than able-bodied caucasian length, such as Kant!)? And overweight philosophers certainly have a different perspective on the world than slim philosophers, so there might be an “epistemic reason” to include the “overweight” perspective as a weighting factor in decisions to publish, for, as Schwitzgebel and Hassoun claim, “Philosophy, as a discipline, profits from hearing voices from a variety of different backgrounds, with a variety of different cultural perspectives and life experiences.” So, I take it, that includes the perspective of some philosopher with the “overweight” life experience.

Apart from the potential condescension towards any people that identify with any of the aforementioned characteristics—the authors speak from the comfortable chair of their own privilege, being well-paid professional philosophers from well within the Anglophone elite philosophy comfort zone—how could paying heed to these factors play a role in getting more women, more black people, more people from various ethnic or socio-economic origins, people with various sexual preferences, etc., published in the elite philosophy journals? Would they have authors tick a box to that effect, so that peer reviewers can take into account the particular perspective from which the article is written? That would surely compromise the whole blind peer review process, as the review wouldn’t be strictly speaking blind: non-philosophical, politically weighty factors would thereby be given a weighting in what should be a strictly philosophical assessment. To avoid this, one could opt to have authors whose papers have already been accepted tick a box where their diverse perspective is accounted for, but this of course defeats the purpose of getting more people form diverse backgrounds into the journals, since in this case the paper in question was assessed on philosophical merit only; the added value would merely be statistical. Is there a middle way? I doubt there is one, and why should there be one?

Would any woman or black philosopher, let alone a philosopher from a lower socio-economic background or a disabled philosopher, or a philosopher from a linguistically non-Anglophone background, or an unaffiliated non-professional philosopher, find it a comfortable thought that their article was at least partly accepted for publication based on their less-than-privileged status, and not solely on the philosophical merit of their work? I for one wouldn’t, and lest there be questions about my own privileges—if I take the social pigeonholing and “identity” politics seriously at all—I’m eligible for four of the above-mentioned categories.

There might be, and I actually believe there actually are, multiple problems with the philosophical profession, but double blind peer review is certainly not the crucial problem that needs fixing. In fact, I believe that Schwitzgebel’s and Hassoun’s very proposal to tamper with it is a symptom of the actual major problem that academic philosophy faces: the further politicisation of academic philosophy by way of increasing and rampant professionalisation, which has nothing got to do with philosophy per se, but everything with the politics of philosophy as it is done today in institutions especially in the Anglophone world, but increasingly so in other parts of the world (e.g., my own country the Netherlands, and elsewhere).

Double blind peer review for publishing in journals is the last standing, non-politicised, neutral untampered pure criterion on the basis of which the sheer philosophical quality of a submission can be assessed, at least ideally. The fact that this standard doesn’t seem sacrosanct anymore—and Schwitzgebel and Hassoun are of course careful not to say as much, but it is the ultimate implied consequence of their reasoning—is a clear sign that the era of “totally administered” professional academic philosophy is nigh.  And as they say in Dutch, “geef mijn portie maar aan Fikkie” when that happens.

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Dennis Schulting

Published a month ago