PPR and the ethics of peer review

It happened again! I worked hard on a philosophical article and it was quickly rejected—this time after being submitted to Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (PPR), which is often ranked among the top 5 philosophy journals.

Don’t worry, dear reader, this won’t be yet another of those boring occasions where a whiny author complains about his work being misunderstood or not deserving rejection. In fact, I won’t talk about the content of my article at all; even its title and topic are irrelevant.

The rejection was based on the opinion of a referee who claimed that I had badly misinterpreted the view I was criticizing in the article and that for this reason my argument is without merit. I was not convinced by the referee’s argument, but I won’t go into that. The main focus will be on the following three sentences at the very end of the referee’s report:

My recommendation, in any case, is that you reject this paper without encouragement.

But if, contrary to my advice, you decide to accept the paper, I recommend that in your dealings with this author you not put yourself in a position where you must trust his word on anything.

He is clearly not a person to be trusted.

This is quite strange because there is nothing in the referee report itself that would constitute a justification for such a defamatory utterance. (Even if the referee were right that I misinterpreted philosophers I criticized, from this alone it certainly doesn’t follow that I did it deliberately nor that this is a reason to warn the editors that my word should not be trusted on anything.)

The referee does go into another ad hominem argument elsewhere when he considers possible reasons for my alleged failure to understand correctly the philosophers I criticize in the article:

Why does [Author] not see that? Is he too dull or too malicious? My money is on too cleverly full of himself. But it does not matter what defect of character we use to explain this paper [emphasis added].

Why on earth would an academic referee not only speculate about an author’s “defects of character” but even single out one particular defect that in his opinion the author most probably has? Surely every academic must be aware of the basic ethical norms in this context, namely that “a referee’s report should never be a personal attack against an individual,” that “evaluation should be based solely on the merit or ideas contained in the paper, and not on who wrote it,” and that “there is no justification for writing a deliberately destructive referee’s report that is patronizing, condescending or malicious.” (R. Kitchin & D. Fuller, The Academic’s Guide to Publishing, Sage, 2005, p. 171).

Let us go back to the referee’s parting shot—his advice to the editors that they “not put [themselves] in a position where [they] must trust [my] word on anything [emphasis added]” and that I am “clearly not a person to be trusted.”

Why should it be clear that I am not a person to be trusted? Nothing in the report comes remotely close to making that clear. And the referee did not point to a scintilla of evidence for the very strong statement that my word should not be trusted on anything.

Interestingly, there was another recent occasion in which my trustworthiness and honesty were very similarly called into question, again without any evidence being provided for that claim. In a recent post on his blog, which is widely read by philosophers, Brian Leiter invited his readers to discuss my article “Study Philosophy to Improve Thinking—A Case of False Advertising?.” In his usual style he first called me names (“a right-wing crank” and “an anti-Marxist zealot”), then without evidence accused me of “fraudulently misrepresenting” one of his posts, and finally ended the introductory paragraph by warning his readers that “honesty may not be [Sesardić’s] strong suit.” No adequate justification was given for such a serious public accusation either.

Returning to the report on my article, it might seem that the referee’s invectives could not have been based on personal animosity. For how could the referee know that I was the author of the submission he was asked to review for PPR? Doesn’t this journal announce that it has adopted a triple-blind review policy?

Yes, but there is a loophole here. If you do an internet search of the key phrase from the title of my submission, the first three hits of that search will immediately lead you to pages that announce my recent talk, which has essentially the same title as my article submitted to PPR. Needless to say, referees know very well that  in the interest of impartiality they should refrain from doing such searches in the attempt to discover author’s identity, but sadly many academics, and particularly those obsessed with rankings, status and philosophical gossip, will find it hard to resist the temptation.

Be that as it may, one bad referee report does not a crisis make. More troubling, though, is that the editors of the journal found nothing objectionable about it. They saw no problem with forwarding to an author a referee report in which, besides arbitrarily being described as a person whose word should not be trusted on anything, the author is said to be either “dull” or “malicious” or “too cleverly full of himself,” with the referee announcing that his money is on the last of these three “defects of character.” Even the fact that the expression “full of himself [or themselves]” appeared in the report five times was apparently not sufficient to raise the red flag.

If the editors didn’t have enough common sense to recognize the obvious improprieties, they have received (and ignored) the very clear advice on this matter in the guidelines for editors by Wiley, the publisher of their journal: “If you receive an unnecessarily rude or offensive reviewer report, remove those comments before sending to the authors.” Furthermore, Wiley refers to Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers, issued by the Committee on Publication Ethics, according to which “peer reviewers should not make derogatory personal comments or unfounded accusations.”

The editors of PPR behaved unprofessionally.

It’s unclear how often it happens in philosophy that journal editors tolerate incivility and arguments ad hominem in referee reports. Hopefully not very often. I have evidence, however, that some philosophers would be reluctant to complain about, let alone publicize, such ethical violations, mainly because they would be afraid of antagonizing the editors and thereby jeopardizing their chances of publishing in some journals in the field. But though silence might here be a prudent strategy individually, it is a wrong choice for philosophy. For it is speaking up that will make personal attacks less frequent.

PS

Yesterday (February 4, 2019) I received a reply from PPR. The key part:

The Editor of PPR mainly in charge of your submission has seriously considered your complaint. The outcome, however, is that they stand by their judgment that the two lines you quote are not topically irrelevant to your paper.

I still don’t understand how discussing an author’s “defects of character” can be topically relevant to his paper.


8 thoughts on “PPR and the ethics of peer review

      1. Then I’m really at a loss about the comments. The only things I can think of are: (1) the reviewer/editor thinks you willfully misinterpreted Kant, and so can’t be trusted; or (2) they disapproved of some of your other work so much that they took you to be untrustworthy.

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      2. About (1): the reviewer provided no evidence whatsoever that I wilfully misinterpreted Kant.

        About (2): this is a possibility of course, but the reviewer did not say anything to that effect in the report.

        I’ll soon upload my article on PhilPapers, so people will be able to judge for themselves.

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      3. Is it possible that this was a misfiring attempt at humor? Only judging from the topic and not knowing anything about the content of the paper, perhaps they meant to say something about not trusting someone who argues against the wrongness of making a false promise. And in that sense it wouldn’t be off topic.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Haha, an interesting suggestion. But no.

        First, there were other ad hominem remarks in the report. And second, the editors would have probably mentioned this explanation in their response, if they regarded it as plausible.

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  1. If I was you, I would out the referee and name all the parties involved. You have nothing to lose (I assume you have tenure). Your chances of getting published in this journal are forever zero and given the incestuous nature of philosophy, this will probably happen again at other venues.

    They broke their policy of triple-blind review on what seems to be a dislike of your person. Otherwise the content of your article and not that of your character would have been mentioned so often.

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