The slipperiness of significant publication

I’ve written before about trying to establish the significance of a philosophy publication, which mostly becomes an issue at tenure and promotion time. In an earlier post, I argued that citation counts are mostly rubbish for philosophy. Still, there are pressures to provide numerical measures.

In support of a recent tenure case, our department gave the acceptance rates at journals as evidence of their significance.1 The danger in using such a measure is that, if widely adopted, it would quickly become uninformative.2 If scholars get more credit for publishing in journals with low acceptance rates, they will preferentially start to submit to those. The journals will get more submissions but still accept the same number. This will, in turn, drive down the acceptance rates of those journals.

I recently learned that there is a name for this general phenomenon, Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

This shifts it from being this hunch I have to being a well-established phenomenon. I can now invoke it with greater conversational gravitas. Continue reading “The slipperiness of significant publication”


I just received a rejection notice from a journal. It was the kind of wordy but uninformative prose, filled with trivial but nonspecific detail, which strongly vibes form letter. The real give away was the salutation, which literally said “Dear Professor x”.

There’s an X-men joke to be made here, but instead… grumble, grumble.

Why I hate my publisher

“Hate” may be too strong a word, but I lack an evocative word for this kind of sad, weary resignation. Neither “angst” nor “ennui” are transative.

I published my book, Scientific Enquiry and Natural Kinds: From Planets to Mallards, with Palgrave MacMillan. I’d had a positive experience with Palgrave co-editing New Waves in Philosophy of Science, and they were launching a new series of philosophy of science monographs.

My book was initially available at a fairly high hardcover price of $70-some, but this was to be expected. It was available from on-line sources like Amazon at a bit less, and the eventual paperback would be more affordable. That’s what happened with the New Waves volume, anyway.

But then, in early 2015, Palgrave became part of Springer. This wasn’t because Springer wanted to own Palgrave, but just because Springer wanted the Nature Publishing Group (which belonged to MacMillan) and Palgrave was swept up in the merger deal. To be clear, Springer is among a handful of predatory publishing conglomerates which I would never have published with if I’d had a choice. Monographs published directly with Springer are super-expensive, priced to extract money from academic libraries but not to actually be read by much of anybody.

Since my book was published, the price for the hardcover print has steadily increased. It is now, ridiculously, $100. This is not a matter of increasing the price on reprints or minimally revised editions, but just of jacking up the price for copies from the first print run.

Meanwhile, the eBook is priced at $69.99. Although not explicit anywhere, it’s pretty clear that the motive for jacking up the price on the printed copy is to make a gap between the price of the printed and electronic copies without actually discounting for the eBook.

In the last year, the publisher has started offering electronic copies of individual chapters as separate purchases for $29.95 each. This is terrible, because the chapters are not separate articles. Although some of the parts would make sense read alone, the chapters refer to one another. Among the chapters which are available for thirty bucks a pop are the introduction and conclusion, which are all references and summary and in which no original philosophy is done. The whole reason I wrote a book was because the project grew larger than something that would fit comfortably in an article.

I have written to my publisher numerous times about the sale of separate chapters. It seems like a terrible model both for me and for them. It means that fewer people will respond to my work, except in glib ways that address only part of the larger project. It also means that any customer foolhardy enough to buy a chapter is likely to be pissed off and hate both the work and the publisher. Some people may bumble into paying, but I don’t see how it’s a good business model over the long term.

I have received no response to my queries about the sale of separate chapters. In the same missives, I also asked about whether there would be a paperback edition and was told consistently that sales did not justify it. Despite that, a paperback edition was released this Summer. The price is $95, just $5 less than the still available hardback!

To sum up: Steady and sizeable increases in the price of the hardcover edition. Overpriced electronic edition. Electronic editions of separate chapters. A paperback edition which is priced within a margin-of-error of the hardback edition.

Publish or perish the thought

In a recent article, Daniele Fanelli and Vincent Larivière test the common claim that contemporary academics are publishing more papers than scientists used to publish. They conclude, contra the myth, that “contemporary science is not suffering from a salami-slicing of papers.”

This is compatible with the observation that journals receive more submissions than they used to, because the overall number of scientists has increased. Moreover, as they note, scientists in non-anglophone countries may be feeling more pressure to publish in anglophone journals.

It is also compatible with the observation that scientists’ CVs list more papers than CVs of earlier times, because coauthoring is more common and the number of coauthors per paper has increased. Part of Fanelli and Larivière’s analysis is to abstract from this effect.

Because of their methodology, their results don’t directly address philosophy. It is still plausible that philosophers are now pushed to publish more than philosophers back in the day, especially since there has been a shift from expecting a book for tenure to expecting some congerie of papers. I also wonder whether the growth of co-authorship in philosophy isn’t partly an adaptation to that demand.