Philosophical Review

Ever since I’ve had any involvement with the Philosophical Review, I’ve been struck by how many misapprehensions people around the field have had about it. So I thought it was worthwhile clearing some of those misapprehensions up. (This post has been prompted by some recent conversations with people who I was surprised to find sharing the misapprehensions.) I’m obviously no longer at Cornell, but I am rather fond of the Review, and I think in many ways it is much better run than is commonly thought.

I don’t think anything I’ll be saying here is secret, indeed much of it can be found on the Review‘s own webpages. But just to be safe, I’m going to gloss over some details about how things ran when I was at Cornell. In part that’s also because I don’t know how much has changed in the last 30 months, but in part it’s because I’m not an editor there any more, so I shouldn’t be revealing trade secrets!

The Review‘s refereeing is considerably blinder, in my experience, than most journals. Obviously external referees do not know the identity of the authors. But nor do the editors who are reading the paper at first, and making many of the decisions. I know many other journals have blind editing, but I know many do not. (Philosophy Compass doesn’t, for instance, though we have largely invited submissions, so it is a little less crucial.)

Now keeping the authors’ identities from the editors did lead to some complications. It meant we occasionally had awkward conversations with the journal manager about who could be a good referee for the paper. (The manager would know when we suggested sending an article to the author, but wouldn’t know when we suggested sending it to their colleague, student, or dissertation advisor.) It also meant that the editors couldn’t do some of the basic administrative jobs that accrue when a submission arrives, since they couldn’t see the incoming email. These jobs all had to be done by the manager, who of course had a lot of other jobs to do, especially when an edition was being put together. It would have sped things up if the editors could have taken over some of these jobs when the manager was flooded with other tasks. But I think, and I suspect most people in the profession think, that the priority should be preserving blind review, and that’s what the Review thought too.

The other misconception about the Review is that all the refereeing is done by Cornell faculty. In practice, the Review seemed to send out more articles than most journals. Every article is read by the editors, usually by both editors. If an article needs to be refereed, and pretty much every article that gets published is refereed by a non-editor, then the editors select referees the way every other journal does. That means that articles are sent to colleagues a fair bit of the time, i.e., to other Cornell faculty, but more frequently they are sent outside.

The point is not that Cornell faculty never referee papers. Every journal makes heavy use of the faculty at its home institution. It’s rather that the Review is not particularly striking in its use of ‘in-house’ referees. I did more reviewing for Noûs when I was at Brown than I did for the Review when I was at Cornell before becoming an editor. The vast majority of the articles that appeared in the Review while I was there were recommended for publication by non-Cornell philosophers, as well of course as being recommended by the editors. So the Review really isn’t an ‘in-house’ journal in the way that many people think it is. (And, for all I know, that it really was 50 years ago.)

This isn’t to say that the Review is at all perfect. It has quirks like every other journal. The response time for articles fluctuates somewhat, and sometimes well over what’s acceptable. Certainly I would have liked to do a better job of speedily returning papers when I was an editor. (I gather things now are better in this respect than they have been though.) But it is to say that the Review is rather different, and I think rather better, than many people think it is.

One Reply to “Philosophical Review”

  1. It’s worth emphasizing what a big plus blind editing is. Since it’s very unlikely that the refs used by a journal will recommend publishing exactly the number of submissions that can/should be accepted, the final decision is in the hands of the editor(s). Rather than the refs being the deciders, it’s perhaps more accurate to think of the editor(s) as being the deciders, with the refs providing input/advice to the editors as they make their decision. At any rate, lots of close calls turn on which way the editor(s) goes, given ref reports that don’t conclusively point in one direction or the other. Thus the great importance of blind editing.

    I think editors of journals that don’t have blind editing (but do have blind reffing) should probably be more reluctant to stray from the advice of their refs, and should try to make their final decisions more of an automatic function of the referee reports. (e.g. if the journal gives papers to 2 refs, and if they’re getting too many submissions being recommended for publication by both refs, then have some fairly objective way of discerning the strength of the rec’s, and accept the papers that get the strongest rec’s).

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