The Narrowness of Academic Journals

Today, I received a rejection notice from a journal to which I had recently submitted.  In itself, this does not bother me–frankly, after a few years on the job market, I am almost numb to rejection.  Unlike the job market, however, journals tend to give at least some justification, however slight, for rejecting a submission.

What bothers me about this particular rejection is what bothers me about many journal rejections: namely, that it was rejected, essentially, for not fitting a paradigmatic format which is maintained as the “standard” for academic philosophy journals.  That is not to say the comments lacked valid criticism altogether; in particular, a claim that I ought to define more clearly some of my terms is indeed helpful.  But these are criticisms that fit within the typical requests for revisions, rather than reasons for rejection.Ancient_facepalm

The reasons for rejection themselves, on the other hand, are as bland as most journal articles:

On page 3 the paper speaks of “The position I am advancing in this paper”. That position should be stated clearly and succinctly at the paper’s outset [it’s in the abstract–which I’m fairly certain is the point of an abstract, isn’t it…?]. It would then be helpful to state some alternative positions (with citations of the literature) and to give reasons why those positions are less plausible than your own. This would help make it clear exactly what contribution the paper is making to the current state of philosophical discussion.

Confidence in the paper’s interpretations… would be strengthened by giving more citations to relevant secondary literature

My general sense is that the paper casts too broad a net. It should narrowly limit its scope, stake a clear thesis within that restricted area, and show in the clearest possible terms the superiority of that thesis to alternatives in the literature.

To be sure, my submission pushed the limits for the journal’s length restrictions… which, in itself, is a frequent problem with journals.  12,000 words may seem like a lot when staring at a blank page, but it is hardly enough space to say much of anything worth saying; hence the reviewer’s suggestion that the scope should be narrowed.  Fair enough; except that what the paper is saying cannot be narrowed and remain the same paper… which is precisely why “alternatives in the literature” are not considered, either–because there are no “alternatives in the literature”, as the paper is written.  That is, there might be alternatives to the broad issue the paper is addressing, but they are so far removed from the approach taken in the paper that, short of writing a book, there is insufficient space to compare and contrast.

All of which is to say that submitting this paper was, in the first place, a fool’s wish.  This notion that journals exist in order to “contribute” “to the current state of philosophical discussion”, and that this unfolds by stating the present positions, critiquing them, and subsequently demonstrating the superiority of one’s own position is, I think, wrong and mistaken about the nature of philosophical discussion.  For one, it says: to say anything worth considering, you must say it in this particularly-structured manner and no other.  For a second, it says: the content of what you say, in order that you say something worth considering, is necessarily determined in its scope by what He and She and They and The Other have already said.  For a third, it says that you must say only this much and no more; no ideas too big, please, we want bite-size thinking only.

In other words, ideas that challenge on a large scale–which was what I was attempting in my submission, and which necessarily does not fit the format–are inadmissable for consideration in academic journals.

Which, to my mind, leaves academic journals sadly narrow.


2 thoughts on “The Narrowness of Academic Journals

  1. I don’t have a solution here, other than to suggest that it’s unlikely academic journals will ever be receptive to truly original thinking, given the structure of academia. Once one accepts payment for doing philosophy, one inevitably joins the herd and then is subject to the herd’s limitations. Journal editors can not afford to publish anything too far outside the group consensus or their positions of power, their career status, salary, bank account, marriage etc will then come under threat. Anyone who wishes to explore outside of the group consensus has to pay the price of freeing themselves from all these burdens.

    However, having done that, a writer loses the authority these institutions are expert at generating, and then no one will listen to you anyway because authority is what people listen to, not reason. So if you truly have a breakthrough idea, your choices are to try to publish in academia and be ignored, or go on your own and be ignored. 🙂

    A solution to the above is to forget about being heard, and learn to enjoy the act of thinking and writing for itself. Clickety clack, clickety clack go the keys on the keyboard. Enough.


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