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.