The ways we don’t do research, because they don’t exist




Helen’s interesting post yesterday, ‘The journals we don’t write in, because they don’t exist‘, about how philosophy journals might become fruitfully more diverse got me thinking more about a topic that I’ve been thinking about lately: namely, ways that today’s technology and a new publishing model might fruitfully alter how we do research.

Readers may recall that Liam Kofi Bright, Remco Heesen, and I advocate in a new BJPS paper for a crowdsourced online approach to peer review. Although Heesen and Bright advocate elsewhere for abolishing traditional peer-review at journals, I am more inclined to support a hybrid approach to peer-review closer to that currently practiced in math and physics: one that combines traditional peer-review at journals with a crowdsourced approach. This is for a couple of reasons. First, insofar as some are skeptical of the utility of a crowdsourced approach, a hybrid approach would be a more conservative change to peer-review than abolishing journal review altogether. Second, the hybrid approach has already been implemented in other fields (see above), and seems to work well. Finally, insofar as (our arguments for crowdsourcing aside) there are arguably virtues and vices of both approaches to peer-review, a hybrid approach can stake a reasonable claim to be a ‘best of both worlds’ approach.

In today’s post, I want to discuss one potential benefit that changing peer-review might have that has not, to my knowledge, been much discussed: namely, how it might revolutionize how we do research in a good way. In their earlier paper, ‘Is Peer Review a Good Idea?‘, Heesen and Bright examine various potential benefits of abolishing traditional peer review at journals, including:

Improving the dissemination/sharing of scientific results
Improved time allocation (traditional peer-review is extremely time intensive)
Reducing gender skew in publications
Reducing costs of publishing/freeing up library resources
Reducing professional focus on ‘short-term credit’ (which favors publishing lots of articles) in favor of long-term credit (i.e. impact)
Reducing the role of powerful gatekeepers

Whatever you may think of these potential benefits (including whether they really would be benefits), here is another possible benefit of transitioning toward a more open, online approach to peer-review (including the hybrid journal + crowdsourced approach that I favor): it could substantially increase philosophical and interdisciplinary collaboration, in ways that might not only lead to better research, but help authors deal with a longstanding quandary that I expect that all too many of us face. Allow me to explain.

Recently, I’ve started to co-author papers more. It has been a real delight to do, and the reasons why I’ve pursued it are several. First, sometimes I’ve simply initially developed ideas with others (e.g. in conversation or communication over email). But this isn’t the only reason. Second, like many philosophers, my philosophical interests are pretty wide-ranging (ranging from my AOS’s in ethics and social-political philosophy to cognitive science, mind, language, metaphysics, philosophy of science, and philosophy of physics). This can produce a quandary. Sometimes I have ideas for papers in these latter, tertiary areas that lie at the boundary or even beyond the areas of my areas of advanced training or expertise. In other words, sometimes I think I have a pretty neat idea in an area, but I lack sufficient expertise to bring the project to full fruition. Over the years, this has resulted in quite a lot of unfinished paper drafts that I suspect could well be made into something publishable…if I only I could find interested collaborators! 

I suspect that I’m far from alone in this. Philosophers tend to have very fruitful minds, so if there were just some way that we could make collaboration easier, one can only imagine how it might improve the quality and scope of research (viz. bringing people of diverse expertise together on new projects). How could this be feasibly done? Here’s the obvious thought. Suppose our profession did move toward a hybrid journals + crowdsourced online prepublication peer-review system where, much as physicists post preprints on the ArXiv prior to submitting to journals, philosophers normalized the practice of uploading paper drafts to the PhilArchive prior to submitting to journals. Next, suppose that there were some user interface (such as that recently developed at Freelosophy) where readers could not only leave reviews of preprints, but also where authors could post their papers under various categories, such as ‘Looking for co-authors/collaborators’, tagging particular areas (such as Metaphysics or Cognitive Science) where they are in need of expertise. Then suppose that PhilArchive visitors interested in collaborations could not only search for new papers posted looking for collaborations (much as in PhilPapers’ prexisting new articles search function), sorting papers by area (e.g. you could search for new papers looking for collaborators in Metaphysics, or more more narrowly still, such as on grounding or whatever). Suppose furthermore that people could sign up for email alerts in particular areas (much as PhilPapers already has a system of email alerts for ‘new papers in your area’).

Although we can of course only speculate here, I have to imagine that something like this might fruitfully transform how we do research. Throughout the history of academic and intellectual history, the dominant model has been individual scholars (or, more recently, scientific labs) working in relative isolation, perhaps getting feedback or collaborative help from a few available parties (e.g. in your department or cultivated professional network). Notably, this traditional model in fairly obvious ways favors people working in large research departments with ample professional networks–as it can be incredibly difficult for less well-placed scholars to receive feedback or cultivate collaborations. This new approach might turn this traditional research model on its head. Instead of individual scholars working mostly alone (or merely with their lab-mates), anyone with good ideas might be able to post working drafts online, soliciting collaboration from other interested parties across the globe. The PhilArchive and professional norms could then treat drafts as ‘published’ in a sense, much as in math and physics it is expected that people cite ArXiv preprints, even before they are published in journals–and, like the ArXiv, the PhilArchive might allow authors to post updated drafts (e.g. Version 1, Vers. 2, etc.), including drafts with new collaborators, so that the scholarly record is fully public and transparent. 

Although I suppose I could be missing something here (which is all too possible!), this new approach to research seems to me an inspiring one–one that could bring diverse researchers together across the globe to produce better and more interesting research drawing on their mutual expertise. Insofar as people like to work on interesting ideas (I know I do), it is my hope that many people would gravitate toward this new model (seeking out collaborations), if the relevant infrastructure were available (either through third-party sites like Freelosophy or PhilPapers/PhilArchive). But these are just my thoughts. What are yours?

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More