Thursday, May 24, 2012

People like us

There are interesting discussions going on at Brian Leiter's blog here and here. In the latter, John Protevi recommends that philosophy job candidates have a sober, simple, clean website, and adds: "The style of a website is like the style of clothes worn to an interview; it shows something about the style of the person in social interaction." I agree with his advice about having a website like that, but I was also struck by how explicit he is about the importance of coming across as, for want of a better word, normal. He's not wrong, but the sociology is interesting to me, especially in light of the other thread about advice for graduate students on publishing.

Ben Hale asks "doesn’t it only make sense to reward the strong publications but not to punish the weak publications?" I would say Yes, but he feels the need to ask the question because others on the thread, including Brian Leiter himself, have referred to publications in some journals as being minuses or stains on one's CV. I find this incredible (and unpleasant). Even Ben Hale seems to concede too much when he writes:
Assume the Gourmet Report and imagine the following:
1) NYU: A sparkling young NYU PhD comes out onto the market with top letters from all the important players. Her pedigree and recommendations are stunning but her CV is empty.
2) Oxford: A similarly sparkling young Oxford PhD comes out onto the market with top letters from all the important players. Her pedigree and recommendations are equally stunning, but she has one publication in the _Journal of Value Inquiry_. (Apologies to JVI. It was mentioned above, so I’m just using it to make the case.)
Arguably, there may be a reason to discount the one with the publication: The Oxford student is evidently not as good as she appears on paper. A middling publication is evidence enough that a candidate is middling, where no publication demonstrates nothing about a candidate, so the candidate’s quality is left up to the letters and the pedigree, which are stunning. The NYU student, on the other hand, hasn't yet proven her mettle. She is _only as good as_ she appears on paper. If publication history is a better proxy of someone's potential than letters and pedigree, then publications trump all and Oxford loses to NYU.
Weird, but fair enough. 
Really? Fair enough? If publications trump all then why does the candidate with one publication lose to the one with no publications? What if the paper she published in the Journal of Value Inquiry was not her best work? What if someone advised her to publish there, or invited her to submit it there? Does it really make sense to hold it against her that she took this advice, or that she chose to publish something (perhaps several years ago) that was not as good as the work she is now capable of producing? The only way I can see it making sense for NYU to beat Oxford in this example is if we are snobs and want nothing to do with people who publish in journals like that, or who get advice to publish in journals like that, advice that, apparently, is contrary to what is given out at the top-ranked departments. It looks like an unhealthy concern with pedigree. I'm genuinely curious as to whether I'm missing something here, but I don't want to post this over at Brian Leiter's blog because it might seem to be attacking him (and "escalating").

The usual argument seems to be that publishing in humble journals shows poor judgment or else is evidence of an inability to publish in top journals. But given the job market it does not show poor judgment. It might reflect a lack of confidence in one's ability to land a top job, but that lack of confidence might be a thing of the past and, besides, need not be a bad thing. As far as evidence of ability goes, I don't see that relatively moderate achievement (so far) is worse than no achievement (so far) at all. If there's something about probabilities that I'm missing, I'd like to know it. 

Reading between the lines a little bit, by which I mean taking people at their initial word and ignoring what they say when they seem to backtrack, my inference is that departments that regard themselves as "top" really will hold non-stellar publications against applicants whereas it might be precisely such publications that you need to get a job anywhere else (because you need some publications and because stellar publications (where what is or is not stellar depends solely on the reputation of the journal it's in, not the quality of the paper itself) might make you look unsuited to life in a lowly department). So we have something like the 1% versus the 99% divide, given how few jobs there are at top departments. Job candidates have to decide which they are and submit to journals accordingly. Or submit to the stellar journals and then see whether they can make it into the top 1%, although that's a risky strategy. I find this very depressing to think about (perhaps because I have published in the Journal of Value Inquiry, but I hope that isn't it).

It would surely be a good thing if no publications were ever held against candidates (with the only exceptions being based on the content of the paper itself, and here I have in mind things like defenses of racism, not merely weak arguments from which the author might have since moved on). Top departments should not be snobs and lesser departments should realize just how much of a buyer's market it is.  


  1. Yeah, I read all this stuff, too, and wonder why I do it. What I find annoying is that while I understand that some journals have a "top" status, there's a lot of interesting stuff in the "humble" journals, and everywhere I've recently placed an article is somewhere that I've also recently found good articles that helped me with one of my various projects. Maybe this means that the topics I'm interested in are not "top" projects? Whatever. (And I completely get your comment about JVI. But I think we should ask: can't we like JVI, publish there, and so forth, even if we recognize that the stuff in JVI is--sometimes--of a different stripe than the stuff in Ethics? And I don't think "of a different stripe" always means better...) So maybe what's going on is that the "top" candidates need to be doing stuff of the right "stripe," but that can also mean things like writing papers in line with current "hot" topics and so forth, and that can restrict one's options. None of this is to say that I secretly think that any of my recent papers was "good enough" for Ethics or PPR, etc. But I made a decision at some point with each paper that that wasn't the best goal for me. Which maybe has something to do with your 99%/1% point. I don't need to try to be part of the 1%. I'd certainly like at some point to place something in Ethics or PPR, but that's not a top priority for me right now (I want to do this book on patience, and maybe a more rigorous article will flow out of that...).

    Maybe what you're missing above is the implicit idea that if "Oxford" only has the JVI paper (again, apologies to JVI; I love you!) this either shows: (a) Oxford can't do better or (b) Oxford is wasting his or her time. (a) is presumptuous; and (b) seems like snobbery (at least given the other details of the case). But I guess the idea is that "Oxford" should be using his or her time to do the most glorious, "top-notch" work, because that's the kind of work that keeps a department's rankings and visibility high (and matters in places like the UK where funding is attached to research impact, measured by journal rankings, citations, etc. And the humbler journals typically don't help as much here).

  2. I think this point ought to be stressed here: "...where what is or is not stellar depends solely on the reputation of the journal it's in, not the quality of the paper itself."

    This is really the problem, imo, with the sort of stuff going on in the Leiter thread right now. Philosophy is now such a highly specialized discipline that the idea of "ranking" journals is almost nonsensical (except in the barest terms). Not only that, but the various specialties and sub-specialties are so politicized that rankings are hardly the point. As an example. Say you work on Levinas. Say also that you have a strong interest in Anglo-American philosophy and that you have a piece on Levinas's ethics that connects the two. Where can you submit this? Well, it for the most part can't go to any of the "top" ethics journals because they won't know or care about Levinas. It can go to (imo, great journals) like Inquiry or European Journal of Philosophy (or perhaps PPR--but who, that is on the job market, has time to wait for 1-2 years for a response?!), but already these are somehow not "top" journals according to mainstream thinking. You can send it to Continental Philosophy Review or Southern Journal of Philosophy--two top journal from a SPEP perspective, but they might not get read too carefully because of the Anglo-American angle.

    And that's just one example.

    I think the bottom line is that there are just too many candidates and too few jobs, and so search committees cannot sit around and read a candidate's papers and must rule out candidates using bean-counter methods. But a good argument ought to be made that even when using the latter, we need not exclude "lower-tier" publications because the entire idea of tiers rests on very shaky foundations.

    That, and there's nothing wrong with publishing in JVI or other reputable journals. In fact, we all might do better to read more widely (of course, we can--and have good reason to--draw the line at, say, undergraduate or graduate journals or journals that are self-published or non-peer-reviewed journals or whatever).

  3. Thanks, Matt and Martin. I think I agree with everything you say.

    Given my interests I don't read any journals in the sense of always reading everything a given journal publishes. The closest I get to that is with Philosophical Investigations, Philosophy, and the journal I tend to think of as "the top", The European Journal of Philosophy. Otherwise I read whatever I find interesting, wherever it might be from. If I go in with high (or low) expectations sometimes it's because I already have an opinion of the author, not because I think of the journal itself as good or bad (with the possible exception of EJP, although not everything they publish is all that great). I think this is because there's so little overlap between where I find things I think are good and places with good reputations, because I remember reading long ago that Isaiah Berlin published in obscure places (so how bad can it be?), and because of the point Martin makes about certain whole issues, and kinds of issues, being 'relegated' to less prestigious journals.

    I've already agreed, but let me respond to a couple of points Matt makes.

    I think we should ask: can't we like JVI, publish there, and so forth, even if we recognize that the stuff in JVI is--sometimes--of a different stripe than the stuff in Ethics? And I don't think "of a different stripe" always means better...

    I completely agree. Anyone who has ever graded papers knows that some are better than others, but by the time you get to work good enough to be published in refereed journals the idea of a generalized ranking starts to at least approach absurdity. Too much depends on subject matter, stylistic preferences, personal connections, and other things that have nothing to do with quality for it to be very sensible to say that one journal simply is better or worse than another. It's like ranking bands--fun to do, maybe, but nothing like scientific. Yes, the Rolling Stones really were better than most other bands, but a) that's about the only objective fact I can think of that applies, and b) the idea that there's a point when it actually counts against you not to be ranked higher ("You were in a band I've never heard of? Then you can't be as good as someone in this new band that I've never heard anything by that people say is great") is appalling.

    I'd like to publish in Ethics someday too, but not for any good reason. Just to be able to say I did it, I suppose.

    I guess the idea is that "Oxford" should be using his or her time to do the most glorious, "top-notch" work, because that's the kind of work that keeps a department's rankings and visibility high

    Yes, I guess that is the idea, and I did overlook it. When there's money directly involved, as perhaps in the UK, then this makes sense. But in the UK lowly publications don't hurt--only your best four get submitted. And it's the concern with glory that bothers me, the idea that certain publications are worth either nothing or even less than nothing. I don't think any paper is worth nothing. And I certainly wouldn't judge something to be worthless based on where it's published.

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  5. Duncan - for someone like me, this is unbelievably unbelievable. I remember when I was an undergraduate and the Finnish political scientist Raimo Väyrynen (a sometime professor at Notre Dame) published an essay on American academic culture (in a special American philosophy issue of niin & näin, the periodical for which I translated your Heidegger/Wittgenstein/Nature paper in a remote past life). Väyrynen's was only a short introductory essay, but it was enough to put me off the topic for life. But this journal business really takes the biscuit. I was spontaneously reminded of a favourite one-liner from Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading: "The perception that the mind [...] can decay, and give off all the displeasing vapours of decomposition has unfortunately gone into desuetude."

    The only peer-reviewed publication in a journal that I've ever had myself was in a Wittgenstein issue of a journal edited in an Eastern European country which I'd never even heard of before they contacted me and solicited, not even an original contribution, but my permission for them to reprint a paper which had already appeared in a volume of conference proceedings. I was surprised when the issue arrived that it was a fat 500-page affair and contained a number of contributions, apparently solicited similarly, from a number of quite serious Wittgensteinians (including Matthew Pianalto) and that the advisory board included the likes of McDowell, Parfit, David Stern, Juliet Floyd, and Daniel Hutto. Still, quite the academic backwater, although not everyone appears unwilling to risk their reputation by association.

    As something of an in-joke, the press biography used by the publisher of my books characterises me as having "contributed to" <a long list of well-known magazines and newspapers in Finland> as well as this one hopelessly obscure journal. But then again, I never entertained plans for a paying job in academia.

    I remember reading long ago that Isaiah Berlin published in obscure places (so how bad can it be?)

    I remember reading long ago that Wittgenstein never published in any journals at all, so how bad can it be?

  6. Nice point!

    I had a very similar experience with an Eastern European journal (perhaps the same one), although I have yet to see it in print. It's actually one of my better known papers. Not that it's well known, but I know that some people have read it, which is something.

    My most embarrassing publication was in a journal that I believed was peer-reviewed (and perhaps it was) but that asked me to pay for a subscription after they had accepted my paper for publication. I didn't pay and they published the paper anyway, but since they seemed in genuine need of subscriptions I'm sure some authors agreed to help them out this way. Too close to vanity publishing for comfort. But a well known new Wittgensteinian was featured in the same issue, presumably having made the same mistake I did. And that's company I'm happy to be in. The journal was listed in an APA publication, which led me to trust it probably more than I should have.