Get a bunch of syntacticians in a room and it’s not long before they begin to regale each other (and themselves) with titillating tales of publishing porn:
Do you know that it took me two and half years to get that paper into LI? You should see these absurd reviews that I got from NLLT, two say publish and one guy says reject and the editor doesn’t see that his comments are full of S*&$. Language why would anyone publish there? They hate theoretical linguistics!! Cognition got the people I was criticizing to review the paper and they sank it! I got a review from Syntax longer than the paper I submitted, and most of it just missed the point.
You can add your own favorite vignettes, I am sure. What surprised me this weekend is to discover that publishing porn is not restricted to syntax or even linguistics but extends quite broadly across academia (see below). I had always thought that the disgruntlement arose because of the dearth of journal outlets for publishing in syntax. The big three -LI, NLLT and Syntax- have relatively few pages between them. Language doesn’t (won’t?) publish hard-core theoretical syntax for love or money (btw, this is quite odd as the professional society journals in economics, philosophy, physics etc. are where the newest stuff is showcased. Language, in contrast, is the last place to look for new cutting edge syntax (or, from the little that I can tell, semantics or phonology)). Limited pages probably matter.
Page limits also make editors lives more troublesome. To live with the restrictions the editorial decision is not ‘take the good ones, reject the bad’ but ‘take these good papers and not those.’ Couple this with the fact that IMHO there is a lot of good syntax being done and the result is that there have to be arbitrary ways of managing the flow. One way of doing this is restricting submissions (e.g. the one-paper-under-review-at-a-time policy at LI). Another is queu management (e.g. the long lag time between submission-review-resubmission-re-review-…-acceptance-publication). A third is content management (e.g. the dearth of debate in the pages of the journals, a policy that frees up space).
Editors also face the “herding cats” problem. I don’t know about you, but reviewing papers is not my favorite pastime. I know that this is important and a contribution to the field and important for people’s careers yada, yada, yada. But…you can fill in the rest, I suspect. Part of this results from the expectations people have of reviews. They are “supposed” to be long and very detailed and very thorough. Even typos! Rather than expecting a judgment about the relevance or importance of the paper with a review of the central argument (something that would be about 1-2 pages long), the reviewer is expected to effectively write a reply, moreover a reply that won’t be published. There is, I am sure, a lot of interesting discussion being carried out furtively in the review process that deals with interesting (
because though contentious) issues that really
should be public but never will be.
To add to the burden, papers are typically very long. In the past natural experiments occasionally emerged that permitted one to measure paper-bloat (this is no longer possible as most journals will not publish previously aired work, even conference proceedings). Sometimes a paper that first appeared as a conference proceeding was subsequently reissued in more elaborated form as a journal article. To my hazy recollection, the more detailed paper often failed to convey the basic idea as clearly as the 15 page conference paper did. There is a kind of “defensive” linguistics that lards many papers, no doubt the result of the thorough vetting process, which serves to obscure the main idea. It sometimes seems like a paper cannot simply leave a problem knowingly unsolved and still expect the paper to make the printed page. This results in “explanation creep” that often muddies a relatively clear main theme, to the detriment of the insight the paper offers.
There is one final problem, though I cannot tell how endemic it is. I have occasionally gotten the impression that reviewers like to make sure that papers that gore their favorite oxen don’t see the light of publishing day. I cannot tell how widespread it is, but I doubt that it is negligible. Let me relate an anecdote: I was once asked to review a MS for a pretty prestigious press. I read the MS and found myself unconvinced. However, I also concluded that the direction being taken, though not one that I found congenial, represented a common perspective was well done given this perspective and deserved an airing. My review said as much, as well as including some more detailed critical points mainly for the author’s interest. I was contacted by the editors and asked if I thought the MS deserved publication. As my first sentence was something to the effect that this MS should be published as it represented an important perspective on timely matters I was a bit surprised. I was told that it was clear that I disagreed with the ideas and remained unconvinced by the arguments so why would I recommend publication? I found this odd. Is the standard of publication whether the MS persuades the reviewer that it is true? I hope not. That is a very high bar. Interesting, ok, provocative, sure, makes you think, check. But true? Really true? Nope, too much to ask.
So given all of this what would gruntle me? I really don’t know, which is partly why I am writing about this here; you know, generate some chatter about the problem, discover that my mood is largely dyspepsia and that I should stop with the fried chicken and anchovy pizza. Here are some minor proposals:
· Limit all paper submissions to NELS length 15 2-space pages
· Limit all reviews to 2 pages
· Penalize late reviewers (say, deny publication in the journal for some period)
· Consider ways of migrating all journals to the web where page numbers won’t matter and do so in a PLOS like open format
· Have a more active editorial board, one that solicits and recommends MS for publication rather than just reviewing adventitious submissions
These are relatively conservative changes that could be implemented relatively quickly.
I would like to end with a few words on a more radical proposal that caught my eye. It’s called “A Rant on Refereeing.” It suggests that we dump reviewing altogether as it has become a way of stifling the circulation of ideas rather than promoting them. There are several linked papers (here, here, here) that are also worth reading, some in favor some not. The main idea is that web based circulation of papers should replace the refereed journal format and that there are ways of managing the downsides (how to assure quality (answer: no magic bullet even in journals), how to finesse the promotion and tenure role of reviewed publications (answer: letters will be more important), how readers will find what’s “important” (answer: not easy but aggregate sites will naturally arise to organize the paper flow) etc. It is very provocative and if you are interested in these issues I suggest you take a look.
Ok, enough: I am curious about what others think about these things, so if you are inclined, let me know.