Guest Post: Journals and Conferences

I don’t normally do this, and I don’t plan on repeating it, but this topic seemed interesting enough to warrant a guest post. The following is from Robert May.

Is it appropriate for a journal, as part of the keepers of the scholarly record, to publish articles that cite or discuss material that is not part of the publically accessible, permanent scholarly record?

My interest in opinions about this stems from a recent event in which I was involved. Let me recount.

In spring 2003 I commented on a paper presented at a conference. My remarks were given verbally with slides taken from written, prepared remarks. After the conference, the author and I engaged in an e-mail correspondence about the paper and my response, in the course of which the author suggested that we might submit our papers together to a certain journal. Shortly thereafter, the correspondence ended; I posted my response on my web-page and thought nothing more about it until a few weeks ago, when I received my latest issue of said journal containing the authorís paper. The text of the orally delivered version of the paper carries over in the main intact, containing one subtle but significant change from the original text in response to my comments, noted by the author. But more germanely, the published version has a new section, adding approximately 50% to the length of the paper, devoted exclusively to a critical response to my commentary. This was the first time I had seen this material, neither the author nor the journal having sent me a copy of the revised version of the paper.

Now I think most would agree that the author has at least displayed scholarly bad manners. But I am interested in the more general question of the appropriateness of a journal publishing in the first place a response to an unpublished work, which nevertheless does exist in some sense in the public record, having in this case been presented orally and also posted on the web. (The citation in the authorís paper is only to my oral commentary at the conference; the web version is not referenced.)

Legally, I have garnered from my university counsel that my response is copyrighted as my intellectual property, and the authorís use of my work falls within the fair use guidelines for copyrighted materials. I was also informed that the courts have been split over whether fair use applies only to published materials, or to unpublished materials as well.

But regardless of the exact legalities, I think there is an issue here that pertains to the customs of the scholarly community. Do we think citation of unpublished materials is appropriate, or should it be discouraged, and if so, how?

My own view is that the custom should be to preclude such use, unless done with permission of the author. My reason is that it is inherently unfair to the author of the unpublished material. The journal in question currently has a policy of allowing critical response to oral commentaries; suppose there were a commentary presented without any supporting written document. Then how would a reader of the published response know whether it is fair to what is being criticized, accurately representing the views that were expressed only orally? Is it fair to criticize when only one side of the story can be reliably accessed? Commentary at a conference has both parties on hand, in front of an audience. Shouldnít it be the same when the audience is the profession at large? Surely one of the primary purposes of the publically accessible, permanent scholarly record, of which journals are a primary component, is to provide to all interested scholars the materials needed to make such evaluations, and to assess the fairness of the response.

Journals, (and publishers) as main components of the scholarly record, should make it their responsibility to ensure that responses meet a standard of fairness, perhaps by having explicit publication policies that restrict responses to material primarily published in organs of the publically-accessible, permanent public record. Such policies would have to be sufficiently nuanced – for instance, should positive discussion of an unpublished paper be governed by the same covenants as negative discussion – but clearly the central issue in such policies will be their attitude towards electronic self-publishing. Should self-posted web-based materials be treated on a par with articles in journals? Certainly they donít for the purposes of our records for academic advancement.

I think the issues here are worth some discussion; the customs by which we comport ourselves as an academic community reflects the respect we have for the scholarly enterprise.

16 Replies to “Guest Post: Journals and Conferences”

  1. This is an interesting issue and one that comes up a fair bit in my experience. I am not familiar with the details of the case that Robert discusses, but I would venture to say that neither the author, nor the journal, violates principles of fairness in publishing articles discussing unpublished material presented at a public conference. One reason I say this is that presenting material at a public conference is way of putting material in the public record; indeed, it is a way of quasi-publishing it. In the natural sciences and social sciences it is common to cite conference presentations. But more importantly, it seems to me that there is no good reason to limit publication to discussions of materials that have been previously published. One reason why this is so is that sometimes the only way to bring unfamiliar or unpublished ideas to attention is by discussing them in print. For example, the younger Plato did philosophy a service by publishing on unpublished ideas of Socrates; and likewise, unpublished material by Wittgenstein and Husserl (to name only two more recent figures) is usefully discussed in print. Or to think of a different sort of case: suppose a graduate student hears Professor X give a paper at the APA. What reasons of fairness would prevent him/her from writing and seeking to publish a critical discussion of the presented material?

    Discussing unpublished material has its own pitfalls. For example, it makes it more difficult for others to evaluate the accuracy of the representation of those ideas. In addition, it may be difficult to assess whether the publishing author is giving proper credit. But these problems go to epistemic issues, as it were, rather than issues about fairness.

    Journals might be adivsed, where possible, to let those being criticized comment in advance on or write replies to their critics. That might frequently make for better debates. But it strikes me that an author who has presented material in public has no right to vet or veto or be consulted on subsequent discussions of the presented ideas. If the ideas merit discussion, then there’s every good reason to suppose that the offended author will find a chance to reply.

    One final comment about the idea that it is is unfair to an author to have not yet published material discussed because it is one-sided. Journals, and editors and referees, need to make case-by-case judgments about the trustworthiness of authors. If you trust an author, and if the discussion is worthwhile, there is no need to hold back on publishing.

    Web publishing is different, I think, and raises separate issues. For example, I sometimes attach a note to papers I put on my web site asking people not to quote or reproduce the work. Could I reasonable request that they not discuss my work? Wouldn’t that be like posting it with the request that it not be read?

    The third case — where what is at stake is work that has not been made public in any form — is the stickiest. Suppose X shows Y a paper and Y then publishes a discussion of it without permission. I don’t know whether that is unfair, or whether journals should have a rule against it. But it strikes me as a violation of trust.

  2. I think that once a paper is posted on the web it’s fair game, at least if it’s not tagged with “Do not quote or cite”. Web posting is a form of publication, after all. A number of my papers have been published only on my website, and have been cited in journals over the years. I’m perfectly happy when that happens, and if anything would be disappointed if someone were not to discuss such a paper since it’s only published on the web (though it’s reasonable enough for someone to be reluctant to discuss the details of a paper that isn’t permanently archived and could be changed at the drop of a hat). I’d say that if someone doesn’t want a website-published paper to be discussed, they really need to tag it with an explicit notice to that effect. Though even then, there is a fine line: maybe one can reasonably request that others not explicitly discuss the paper, but one can’t reasonably request that others not be influenced by the paper!

  3. I do not think that live presentation counts as publication in the relevant sense. For one thing, the journal would not have an adequate opportunity to referee a response to live comments, since the first responsibility of a referee would be to judge whether the author accurately characterized the comments to which he was responding. Readers would also be denied an opportunity to judge that question for themselves.

    Those problems would be somewhat mitigated by the appearance of the commentary on the web — but only if the author cited the web-posted version by its URL and download date. And a lot would depend on how the commentary was posted. Does the commentator post finished work on his website indefinitely, or does he post only work in progress, so long as it is in progress?

    In any case, my suggestion is that one question for the journal should be posed in terms of its refereeing practices. Were they able to referee the paper in the light of some independent record of what the commentator actually said?

  4. Not on the ethics or legality of publishing responses to as yet unpublished works, but on the advisability of it, for the author or the publisher of the response:

    When people put papers on-line, they’re often looking for comments that will help them to improve the paper before they publish it. If you notice some problem or weakness or way to respond to such a paper, there’s a chance others will have noticed it as well and told the author of the original piece, who may then revise the paper in light of the comments. That could really pull the rug out from under your reponse, and could leave you & the journal that published your response looking a little silly.

  5. Perhaps an analogy to citing informal correspondence or conversations would be useful. If a paper is to be published in a journal, it is at a minimum good form to contact the person being quoted and notify the person that you plan to use a quotation, and perhaps share what you plan to say about that quotation. This would give the source a chance to confirm and possibly clarify in case the comments were just offhand remarks or just sets of initial or general impressions.

    Given the specificity and precision required for this kind of writing, it seems unfair to cite less formal commentary in a refereed journal without giving the author a chance to formalize a response. The fact that the author changed something between the oral and written version is perfect evidence that these sorts of responses are not really intended to be set in stone and formally refuted.

    Sadly, I think this incident is part of this petty “gotcha!” mentality that seems so popular these days in all kinds of discourse.

    I “publish” all sorts of things on websites that I would not consider polished enough to stand up to peer review. Like this comment, for instance…

  6. In some disciplines (eg, computer science), conferences require written paper submissions, which are refereed prior to the conference, and then (if accepted) published in the proceedings. So some forms of public, oral presentation are in fact forms of written publication.

    I think the question here really is one about the role of writing in our culture. For 300 years or so years, we have privileged the written over the spoken in most domains (and the formal over the informal, the quantitative over the qualitative, the mathematical over the non-mathematical, the textual over the graphical, etc). It was not ever thus, as was shown by the protests at Cambridge when the University switched from oral to written examinations for the mathematics tripos in the 18th century. AJ Ayer is supposed to have said once that philosophers DO philosophy when engaged in oral debate; if so, then writing philosophy papers is either an ancillary activity to that end (eg, as a record of a debate) or a means to it.

    This argument takes particular force in disciplines where the non-written component is seen as more important, for example, in music, art or in computer science. Arguably, computer scientists DO computer science when they program, not when they write academic papers about programming.

  7. It seems to me that conference presentations and web publication are two very different things. Web publication itself isn’t a single thing, even, as AJ in effect said. One might put all kinds of different things on one’s web site. Some of them are forthcoming papers and, presumably, can be taken as canonical. Some of them are early drafts and may explicitly be noted as such. And some of them may be what I’ve seen called “occasional remarks”: comments on presentations by others and so forth. It doesn’t seem appropriate to treat all of these the same way.

    What is clearly a finished paper is, to my mind, mostly fair game, especially if the paper has already had some influence. The best example would be “Demonstratives”, draft #2, but another (rather less impressive) example would be a paper of mine, “Frege and Semantics”, which has been forthcoming for nearly a decade now and has been widely cited. It’s basically published. Still, common courtesy would counsel contacting the author and letting him or her know one is citing an unpublished paper.

    Occasional remarks, whether web-published or simply delivered at a conference, ought to be treated with special care. Oftentimes, one is simply trying to highlight what one found interesting or puzzling about someone’s paper, and one’s own remarks may not have received the same level of attention as an actual paper. Obviously, if one were to find something in someone’s comments interesting and wanted to discuss it, there’s no reason one ought not to do so, and one should then give credit. But there are different ways of doing so.

    Suppose I give a paper at a conference and Smartdude comments on it. It would be one thing, in a later draft, to mention a possible objection, credit Smartdude as having raised it, and then to discuss it, if I’d found it interesting. But it would be inappropriate for me to respond to that objection by saying that Smartdude had completely misunderstood my view. Rather, the right way to proceed would be to say something like: “One might think my view was vulnerable to the following objection. Etc etc. The objection signals a need for some clarification. Etc etc. Footnote: Thanks to Smartdude for making me aware of the need to clarify my view at this point.” That’s simply the charitable way to proceed.

    Surely, however, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to spend ten pages refuting Smartdude’s comments point by point. And that, I take it, is what happened in this case: “…[T]he published version”, says May, “has a new section, adding approximately 50% to the length of the paper, devoted exclusively to a critical response to my commentary”. That seems very bad form, and I myself find it very puzzling that any journal would allow that sort of thing. How could a referee have assured him- or herself that the author was being fair to May?

  8. On the web-publishing concern: Putting out on the web is publishing. I know linguistic analysis is no longer fashionable, but ‘publish’ means ‘to prepare for public distribution, to bring to public attention.’ I guess I don’t see the point of someone putting materials on the web with ‘do not quote or cite.’ If you want others to accurately describe your work, then you can’t reasonably expect them not to quote or cite it. If the point is that others won’t discuss your work at all, then why is it on the web? If the worry is that the work will be taken as a final draft, and hence representatative of the author’s considered view(s), then direct people to cite it as “DRAFT: (title).” If you don’t want it available to the world at large, then e-mail it to those who might want it, password protect it, etc. instead.

    I agree with those who view oral comments and presentations as open for subsequent published discussion. I don’t see that an oral commentator has any basis to say that oral comments cannot be cited or discussed. The issue here is not ‘public’, but ‘record,’ i.e., getting the commentator’s remarks right. A journal of any reputable quality should be reluctant to publish a paper with significant portions that rely on ideas not found printed anywhere (web or traditional), so I think it a matter of scholarly obligation that the journal take efforts to make sure that the unpublished but ‘public’ comments are accurately represented. Also, journals could have letters to the editor sections that enable scholars with this sort of grievance to make their points. And the author should contact the commentator as a matter of professional courtesy.

  9. If I have correctly identified the paper at issue here, then the following information may be relevant. The first footnote of the paper, flagged in the title, reads in part:

    “The present article was presented to … where Robert May was commentator. I am grateful to May and other discussants for their reactions … . I am also grateful to May for subsequent correspondence. I respond below to what I take to be his central criticisms. The reader is hereby cautioned, however, that I do not know the extent to which those criticisms represent his current thinking. …”

  10. I suppose my thinking on this matter is roughly as follows, and I’d be interested to know whether, and if so why, other disagree. Basically, it seems to me that there ought to be a default rule of “respond in kind”. If someone’s published a criticism of one’s paper in a journal, then it would be appropriate to publish one’s own reply in a journal. If someone’s only put something up on the web, then one’s rejoinder ought to be on the web. If the comments were merely oral, then one’s own reply should be distributed only to those who were at the conference. I mean to restrict this rule to “replies” to papers or comments, that is, “point by point” sorts of things. It’s another matter when one is taking off from something someone said, developing it, etc, even if one ultimately decides the view won’t work.

    Obviously, there will be exceptions. It will be up to referees and editors to decide what counts as one. They have ultimate responsibility here.

    And having read the article at issue, my own question is what the editors of the journal (or, for that matter, the referees) were thinking. Why didn’t the editors offer May the opportunity to have his comments printed along with the paper? If, in their judgement, his comments were sufficiently interesting or whatever to merit such a lengthy rejoinder, then they would presumably merit publication. And, as mentioned earlier, it’s far from clear how they could have assured themselves that discussion of his comments was fair or accurate.

    I’d place any blame in this case at their feet, not at the author’s.

  11. There are two distinct questions.

    1) Is it ever permissable to publish an article on work that has been presented at a meeting but is not yet published?

    2) Is it ever permissable for a journal to publish such an article without permission from the target author (or without allowing him/her the chance to reply, correct misrepresentations, etc)?

    And these two questions can be evaluated along two distinct dimensions: a) regarding fairness and scholarliness, and b) regarding courtesy.

    Where the first dimension is concerned, it seems to me it is possible to answer “yes” to both questions. If philosopher x makes good enough philosophical hay out of philosopher y’s unpublished discussion, then that would license publication, and if publication is licensed, then no permission is needed from the target author. There are various ways a referee might deem the hay not to be good enough, though. First, there might be a sense that one needs verification that x represents y correctly, Second, it might just be uninteresting in light of the lack of general familiarity with y’s work. But these are questions of judgment that go to quality very generally, and don’t have to do with fairness or scholarliness.

    Where the second dimension is concerned the matter is trickier. I don’t think it is courteous to do what Robert reports. I wouldn’t do it. So much for the first question. As for the second? I think that whether the journal should do it will depend on general considerations of quality.

    This is relevant to Richard’s question: How could the referees have assured themselves of the accuracy of the discussion? There’s no general answer to that question. Maybe they felt it was possible to see the contours of argument structure clearly enough to find the author trustworthy? Maybe they went to the target authors web site and did some investigation of their own? Maybe they were present at the original presentation? Maybe they thought the question of accuracy was subordinate to the intrinsic interest of the ideas?

  12. Robert: Quite right: he should have asked. And now that I look at the whole paper more closely, I see that the footnote I quoted is quite inadequate to the case. Sorry for butting in.

  13. Having read through most of the response text concerning this issue, I have noted that many responders have ignored or missed the detail concerning some portion of the unpublished works being discussed and/or criticized came from personal emails and not the publicly attended forum. The thoughts and ideas expressed in the open forum are fair game for the purpose of quotation and further discussion (including criticism in an article) because the validity of the ‘arguments’ for both sides can be independently verified; however, it seems highly inappropriate for the journal article author and the publisher of the journal to allow private, verbal comments or those delivered by email to be given unchecked credence in print, especially in something thought to be peer reviewed. Paula

  14. It seems to me that if (a) the published response is worth reading, and (b) the author of the original remarks or draft is contacted for permission, then this sort of article would be fine.

    The idea behind my first qualification is that I don’t see why journal readers should have to endure Prof. Smartgal’s refutation of Prof. Smartdude’s work-in-progress when the original work isn’t particularly good or filled-out. But when we’re talking about something that’s really philosophically exciting (like “Demonstratives” or the original “Psychosemantics”, obviously, though things below that level would also be included), I see no reason not to publish the paper so long as the person being discussed doesn’t have a major objection (say, s/he’s already thought of this worry and is incorporating it into a forthcoming draft, or feels s/he is being misrepresented — once again, this would make what was said in the response paper superfluous rather quickly).

  15. If Jo posts brilliant idea X on his site, or gives it at a conference, will he claim priority as the originator of X, or even allege that there’s been plagiarism, if Mary independently hits upon X and tries to publish it? My sense is that philosophers think Jo should get the credit for X. But if Jo is willing to accept the credit for his conference or on-line work, then he should be willing to accept the downside as well, which is that others ethically may cite and criticize his work.

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