Scholars threaten to boycott badly run journals

February 4, 2005

Young philosophers have threatened to boycott certain academic journals, some of which take three years to respond to papers submitted, in a protest against bad practice.

In a development that could be repeated in other disciplines, a number of internet discussion groups have named and shamed what they believe are badly run and unethical publications.

They argue that the journals blight careers and perpetuate cronyism among established academics. Some groups have called for boycotts of the worst offenders.

The examples of bad practice at journals include:

* Sitting on submitted papers for up to three years, which prevents publication that is crucial to career success

* Prejudicing the peer-review process by failing to conform to conventions on the blind review of submissions (where academics submitting papers remain anonymous)

* Failing to provide feedback on rejected papers

* Failing to ensure that decision-making and review processes are open and transparent.

The Leiter Report, an international philosophy discussion group hosted by Brian Leiter of the University of Texas, lists dozens of "horror stories".

One academic said that a journal held on to one of his papers for three years - making him wait 21 months for feedback after initially recommending that he revise and resubmit his work.

"It seems almost comically absurd to me now that I think about how long that is."

The convention in philosophy is that academics must not submit the same paper to different journals simultaneously, so long delays can put careers on hold.

Simon Prosser, a teaching fellow at St Andrews University, said the delays had a big impact in the UK.

"Given the pressure that UK departments are placed under by the research assessment exercise, it seems quite plausible that hiring for permanent posts could be affected by whether or not the candidate is likely to have four items in print," he said.

One regular journal reviewer admitted that he frequently knew who had written papers because he was often told about the work by the authors themselves.

"I always tell the editor and ask whether I should referee anyway, and in almost every case the editor says that I should," he said.

Another reviewer said: "The effect of... personal knowledge is incalculable and impossible to counteract for such frail and easily swayed creatures as we humans are."

Pea Soup, an internet discussion forum for "philosophy, ethics and academia", has published a seven-point proposal to improve practices. One recommendation is publishing statistics on the time between the receipt of scripts and the final publications.

David Sobel, chair of the department of philosophy at Bowling Green State University in the US, wants to take the protest further. He said: "I think we should seek to get a number of philosophers to sign a statement saying that we will... boycott journals that do not comply with a list of demands within a specified time frame.

"I quite seriously urge that we take to the metaphorical streets. I urge that we not merely make a good case for change but find plausible ways to effect the warranted change."

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