Journals as Ratings Agencies

Starting in July, philosophy’s two most prestigious journals won’t reject submitted papers anymore. Instead they’ll “grade” every submission, assigning a rating on the familiar letter-grade scale (A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, etc.).

They will, in effect, become ratings agencies.

They’ll still publish papers. Those rated A- or higher can be published in the journal, if the authors want. Or they can seek another venue, if they think they can do better.

I just made that up. But imagine if it were true—especially if a bunch of journals did this. How would it change philosophy’s publication game?

Well we’d save a lot of wasted labour, for one thing. And we’d discourage frivolous submissions, for another.

The Bad

Under the current arrangement, the system is sagging low under the weight of premature, mediocre, even low-quality submissions. (I’d say it’s even creaking and cracking.) Editors scrounge miserably for referees, and referees frantically churn out reports and recommendations, mostly for naught.

In a typical case, the editor rejects the submission and the referees’ reports are filed away in a database, never to be read again. Maybe the author makes substantial revisions, but very likely they don’t—especially if the paper’s main idea is the real limiting factor. The process repeats at another journal, often at several more journals. And in the end all the philosophical public sees is: accepted at International Journal of Such & Such Studies.

Of all the people who’ve read and assessed the paper by that point, only two have their assessments directly broadcast to the public. And even then, only the “two thumbs more-or-less up” part of the signal gets out.

Yet five, eight, or even ten people have weighed in on the paper by then. They’ve thought about its strengths and weaknesses, and they’ve generated valuable insights and assessments that could save others time and trouble. Yet only the handling editors and the authors get the direct benefit of that labour.

The current system even encourages authors to waste editors’ and referees’ time. Unless they’re in a rush, authors can start at the top of the journal-prestige hierarchy and work their way down. You don’t even have to perfect your paper before starting this incredibly inefficient process. With so many journals to try, you’ll basically get unlimited kicks at the can. So you might as well let the referees do your homework for you.

(This doesn’t apply to all authors, obviously. Some work in areas that severely limit their can-kicking. And many are in a rush, to get jobs and tenure.)

The Good

But, if a paper were publicly assigned a grade every place it was submitted, authors might be more realistic in deciding where to submit. They might also wait until their paper is truly ready for public consumption before imposing on editors and referees.

Readers would also benefit from seeing a paper’s transcript. Not only could it inform their decision about whether to read the paper, it could aid their sense of how its contribution is received by peers and experts.

Referees would also have better incentives, to take on referee work and to be more diligent about it. They would know that their labour would have a greater impact, and that their assessment would have a more lasting effect.

Editors could even limit submissions based on their grade-history, e.g. “no submissions already graded by two other journals”, or “no submissions with an average grade less than a B”. (Ideally, different journals would have different policies here, to allow some variety.)

The Ugly

Of course, several high-profile journals would have to take the lead to make this kind of thing happen. And there would have to be strong norms within the discipline about publicizing grades: requiring they be listed alongside the paper on CVs and websites, for example

And there would be costs.

Everybody has their favourite story about the groundbreaking paper that got rejected five times, but was finally published in The Posh Journal of Philosophy Review, and has since been cited a gajillion times. Such papers could be weighed down by having their grade-transcripts publicized. (On the plus side, we could have a new genre of great paper: the cult classic!)

Also, some authors have to rely on referee feedback more than others, because of their limited philosophical networks. They’d likely find their papers with longer, more checkered grade-transcripts, exacerbating an existing injustice.

And, in the end, the present proposal might only be a band-aid. If there really is an oversubmission problem in academic philosophy (as I suspect there is), it’s probably caused by increased pressure to publish—because jobs are scarce, and administrators demand it, for example. Turning journals into ratings agencies wouldn’t relieve that pressure, even if it would help to manage some of its bad effects.

Decision: R&R

In the end, I’m undecided about this proposal. I think it has some very attractive features, but the costs give me pause (much the same as the alternatives I’m aware of, like Populus). I’m only certain that we can’t keep going as we have been; it won’t end well.