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When it’s unethical to be a well-published academic

by Charles Foster

There’s a huge number of journals publishing papers about ethics. Would the world be poorer, less ethically well adjusted, or less wise, if half of them went out of business? I doubt it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Less, famously, is more. Let’s face it: there’s little or nothing that’s new in most of the papers we write. We write them because we feel that we should; because our ‘career’ or our self-esteem demands it, or, more likely, because the department needs to put in a long list of publications in order to justify its existence.  The fact of a publication is more important than its quality.

In order to justify the recycling of old thoughts, and to convince ourselves and our readers that we’re really smart, we write our papers in impenetrable jargon. Whole papers are devoted to saying in new technical language what was simply and accessibly said in words of one syllable in the 1930s. Academic enterprise has become a process of obfuscation.

This is dangerous short-termism. University philosophy departments are under tremendous pressure. They are losing out in the Darwinian scrabble for funding to those disciplines whose relevance is more obviously demonstrable. Our competitors do their homework. They read our flabby, onanistic papers, rightly mock, and continue their mockery, with devastating success, before the funding committees. The results are predictable and unfortunate.

Publishing pointless papers is unethical. There are four reasons:

(a)          It’s a form of plagiarism to translate old thoughts into new language and pass off the translated thoughts as one’s own. The very act of publication carries the implied (and usually inaccurate) representation that there is something new being said.

(b)          Writing pointless papers kills trees  unnecessarily and uses up other precious resources. It might be argued that there is a countervailing benefit – that of maintaining the jobs associated with paper-writing and journal publication, but I suggest that in the medium to long term there will be no such benefit: see point (c).

(c)           Writing pointless papers makes it hard to continue to justify the whole academic enterprise of philosophy. That makes philosophy departments vulnerable to predators. If we assume that the business of philosophy is worthwhile, this is a Bad Thing;  it will remove the ethical antiseptic of professional philosophy from the Academy, allowing cognitive infection to spread unchecked. Philosophy’s main justification is that it calls the process of thinking itself to account – often (and indeed usually), in disciplines other than philosophy. Philosophers primarily exist for non-philosophers. If philosophers aren’t there to say ‘What do you mean by that?’, and ‘Surely X doesn’t follow from Y?’, the world will be a scarier place.

(d)          A related point:  writing pointless and inaccessible papers diminishes the perceived utility in everyone’s eyes of philosophical methods themselves.  And so those methods won’t be used. That’s a shame – not just for philosophers, but for the whole enterprise of human thinking.

So: there are ethical obligations (not just self-serving, status-enhancing obligations) to do better. That means:

(a)          More rigorous criteria in the peer review of philosophical papers. Nothing should be published unless it takes the debate significantly further, and unless it is written in a way that can be understood by anyone capable of reading a Daily Mail op-ed column.

(b)          A recognition in research assessment exercises that if X doesn’t publish something, it may well be because she’s got a greater knowledge of the existing literature than Y, who does publish. Current RAEs do not count some work: it is ‘unclassified’. The system needs to change to give a negative mark to much of the material that is currently published.

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20 Comment on this post

  1. There's no question that there's a lot of bad philosophy being published, and not just papers, but also books. I disagree, however, that a work that does not say anything new is not worthwhile. I doubt anything genuinely original has been said since the Hellenistic period. The thing is, important philosophical insights have to be repeatedly recycled in new writing in order to be effectively disseminated. That's not the only reason, however, that philosophers ought to keep writing and publishing. Kierkegaard famously observed that every individual must, in a sense, experience himself the whole history of the evolution of thought. It doesn't matter what insights others have had. It matter what insights we have ourselves. Writing is one of the ways we develop insights. It is also one of the ways we communicate them to others. What conversation hasn't, in effect, been had already? Should we all stop talking to one another just because we can't really say anything that hasn't been said already? I'm all for more rigorous peer review of papers as well as for giving more credit to academics whose emphasis tends to be on teaching rather than publishing. Rewarding people, however, who fail to publish because in their view there is nothing new to say is outrageous. The point of academic writing is to be part of a continuing conversation and the desire to be a part of that conversation is an expression of the pedagogical impulse. Anyone who opts out because he thinks everything has been said already ought not to be an academic. Such a person isn't merely anti-intellectual, but anti-social and is thus entirely unsuited to be a teacher.

  2. Many thanks for your comments. I'm entirely with you and Kierkegaard about the need to experience oneself the evolution of thought. But that's best done in pubs, blogs, seminars, and the introspective watches of the night, rather than in peer-reviewed publications.

  3. Anthony Drinkwater

    I like your piece, Charles
    Perhaps you should set up a "Bad Ethics" blog to match Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" – and hope that you avoid too many libel actions…..
    (but I'll subscribe to the defence fund).

  4. I liked the article: don't publish till you actually have something to say: endless dull, dry and non-productive papers just weaken the subject and make us all despair of the discipline we entered because it was exciting and interesting…

  5. Anthony and Dave,
    Many thanks.
    A 'bad ethics' blog? What a great idea. Philosophy badly needs the sort of self-policing that only satire and heavy sarcasm can effectively do.

  6. I agree with the majority of this, apart from the bit about how papers should be "written in a way that can be understood by anyone capable of reading a Daily Mail op-ed column."

    For this to be achieved, a paper would have to outline much of the previous work in an area and explain a whole load of concepts that would otherwise be implicitly understood by someone with an academic background in philosophy. This would simply perpetuate another annoying trait of many philosophy writers; using 1000 words when 100 would do (though to me this seems to be worse in older philosophy papers and books, rather than journals).

  7. A typically well-written and provocative post, Charles. One other problem with publishing pointless papers is, as Michael Dummett points out in the preface to one of his books, that it makes it less likely that people will read good papers, partly because I sha'n't necessarily know in advance which are good and which bad, but also because if I think — or my journal editor or referee thinks — that I have to read all the papers on a particular topic then I'll read fewer good papers over my life time (and write on fewer topics).

  8. Daniel. Very many thanks. I agree entirely that that's another real problem.
    All best wishes.

  9. I pretty much agree with you, and that is why I am actually in the middle of a personal and professional crisis. The answer I gave myself is that bioethicists (I don't take general philosophy into account) should leave the ivory tower where they sit in since centuries and mingle with people. We should go to the hospitals, teach doctors and nurses how to treat patients, how to take sensible decisions etc. And we should also talk to normal people, introducing them to topics which I think are important to themselves, to free them from religious wrong assumptions or illogical thoughts. Publishing is just a small piece of our duties, in my understanding. The problem is to find a way to bring ethics outside academia, spreading the results of our thinking among the general public and among doctors or medical practitioners in general.

  10. Francesca. Many thanks. While of course crisis is uncomfortable (and in that sense I'm sorry you're going through it), the fact of your crisis, IMHO, indicates that you're the only sort of bioethicist whose existence can be justified. It's wonderful -and unusual – to read a post that talks unashamedly about the duties of bioethicists. Yes, all bioethicists should be street – or ward – evangelists. And you describe the mission beautifully: I particularly applaud your emphasis on 'normal people', and the need to introduce them 'to topics which I think are important to themselves, to free them from religious wrong assumptions or illogical thoughts…' We (by which I mainly mean I) so easily forget that patients and potential patients are the real substrate of bioethics.

  11. This is one of the very basic lessons Peter Singer (of Canada) taught us in our master in bioethics at the University of Toronto. "Don't surrender to the pressure of Publish or Perish; if you don't have a point and something to say, don't go for publication". Moreover, he warned us that editors (I am not sure whom he had in mind!) are smart and they can figure out if you have something new to say and a point to make.

    Clearly, this is not always the case. I think editors are under pressure to publish just as the writers are under pressure to write.

    Thanks again Charles.

  12. Ghaiath,
    Many thanks for this. I'm delighted to be able to agree with Peter Singer about something.

  13. This was an interesting article in that the author brings up some very interesting points. When someone is writing an article, there should be some new information that supports the subject. I do not see an issue with using other peer reviewed documents to write such an article, but there seems to be a fine line between rehashing the same subject and providing new research or thoughts into the field under study.

  14. Thanks Mark. Quite agree. I wasn't suggesting that we shouldn't stand on the shoulders of peer-reviewed giants: quite the opposite; we must.

  15. I do not agree with: "It’s a form of plagiarism to translate old thoughts into new language and pass off the translated thoughts as one’s own. The very act of publication carries the implied (and usually inaccurate) representation that there is something new being said." If philosophy since old times until now is only subtitles notes on Plato's dialogues, nothing until now were exactly new, but it were very important in this "translation" activity. Maybe Foster means old thoughts as our own ideas and arguments in contemporary philosophy and ethics, and so the prescription, that I agree with: "Nothing should be published unless it takes the debate significantly further, and unless it is written in a way that can be understood by anyone capable of reading a Daily Mail op-ed column."

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