Scholarship

Open Letter to OSAP Editorial Board

The following is an open letter I sent to the editorial board of Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy in light of the responses I received to my post on response time problems at OSAP.

I will post any reply or comment the board or the incoming editor would like to make in response.

You may download a copy of the letter or read the entirety of it below.

Dear Editorial Board of Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy (OSAP),

I am writing to you to share the information I have received about serious problems with current editorial practices in the hope that this will lead to reforms in the management of this important journal. In my view, OSAP should not move forward to a new editor before reflecting on and publicly acknowledging what went wrong in its editorial process over the previous years. I am publicly sharing this letter as I think too often discussions of professional problems in our field have taken place behind closed doors. Obscuring problems damages those who are not in the know: junior scholars and those who lack connection to the centers of prestige in the discipline. In fact, one of the central problems at OSAP is a lack of transparency, leading to a lack of accountability.

I’ve been reporting data about journal submission statistics for a few years on my Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy blog, Endoxa. This is a resource I created to help share information on journals, events, and other news relevant to the ancient philosophy community. My posts are based on the APA Journal Surveys project and statistics shared by the journals themselves, when available. I noted that many people reported waiting an excessively long time to hear from OSAP. In 2019, I received an email from Victor Caston, the editor from 2016 on, indicating that the problem was being addressed and decision times were becoming shorter. I reported his assurances when I next posted on journal surveys and timeliness. Several junior members of the profession ended up submitting to OSAP based on the assumption that processing times had sped up. I now have evidence that this is not the case and that the problem persists. I do not know if the board is already aware of the scope and severity of these problems, but I know that many in our field are not, so I am publicly sharing the data I have obtained. If the board or editor would like to share internal data at any point, I will happily post that on my blog or direct readers to the appropriate location.

On March 4, I posted a request for scholars to report their experiences with OSAP. Within a day, I have heard directly from 31 people. 29 of them reported either outrageously long waits or that they never heard back from the editor at all. The response times they experienced varied from 9 months to over 3 years, with only 1/31 reporting a time to decision under 9 months. Over half waited over a year for any response and many withdrew after 12-24 months without ever hearing back from the editor. My correspondents were predominantly assistant professors, non-tenure track scholars, and graduate students (only 5 respondents were tenured when they submitted). My blog’s reach is limited, so these are only a fraction of those affected. The majority of people who wrote to me indicated that they knew of many others with similar experiences. Only three of the 30 received multiple reports on their submissions. The delayed experiences followed a similar pattern. There is an excessive wait, not for referee reports, but for an initial decision from the editor. In all the cases I am aware of, when authors finally hear back the verdict is a rejection, usually with comments from the editor of varying length or a single report whose origin is ambiguous (i.e. it might be an external referee or just the thoughts of the editor). Some noted that they ultimately received extensive and insightful comments, while others felt that the comments were not helpful and/or reflected the editor’s lack of expertise in the particular subfield or text. I do not claim that these 31 responses are a representative sample—others, no doubt, have had positive editorial experiences. There are enough of these negative reports, however, to show that OSAP has a systemic problem in how it treats submissions that needs to be addressed going forward, whoever is in charge.

A further issue is that many correspondents also indicated that they were aware of cases where submissions from more senior and prominent members of the field were treated quite differently. In this context, I observe that over the last five years, only 25% of articles published by OSAP have been authored by junior scholars (graduate students, assistant professors, and those without permanent positions). By my count, only 16/62 were by junior scholars (counting their status at the time of publication, I’m glad to share my analysis if desired). Some of those 16 are by scholars whose work had already appeared in OSAP. Given the visibility and historic influence of OSAP, it is troubling that its editorial practices appear to limit opportunities for those whose position in the profession is precarious. Academic career opportunities for junior scholars are severely constrained and will in all likelihood remain so for some considerable time. It is incumbent on the community to give every opportunity possible to junior members. Even if the situation of junior scholars was not so dire, justice dictates that they should be able to submit to leading journals in our field on an even footing with more senior scholars.

It is also worth noting that junior scholars are significantly more likely to be members of disadvantaged and marginalized groups. By my estimate, only 15 of the 62 articles published over this 5-year period were by women and at most 4 of these were from women who were junior scholars at the time of publication. OSAP does not ask about racial or ethnic identity and I did not attempt to estimate representation, but the preponderance of articles by prominent senior figures, who are more likely to be white than junior scholars, probably impedes representation in this area as well.

There were also many egregious failures of communication. Over half of my correspondents reported receiving no response to one or more follow-up emails. A significant proportion ended up withdrawing their articles without hearing from the editor at all, usually after 1-2 years. Further, at least 6 correspondents received a response only after someone more senior or personally connected to the editor wrote on their behalf. Many have submissions still under review with no resolution in sight.

It is deeply unfair to invite junior scholars to submit to a journal if its process will tie their papers up for years without giving them a fair and equal chance of consideration. The current situation also means that it would be unfair for hiring, tenure, and promotion committees to count an absence of publications in OSAP against a scholar. If OSAP is publishing only 3 articles by junior people per year and fewer than 1 per year by junior women, requiring scholars to succeed at publishing in this venue before going up for tenure is unreasonable. This, unfortunately, has been the expectation in multiple tenure cases. A scholar’s career should not rest on a selection process that is so severely flawed and unequal.

Victor Caston, the current editor, has informed me that his term is ending and he will not be continuing as editor. Given this, my recommendations will be forward looking. There are serious issues with OSAP’S editorial processes that must be dealt with whoever the editor is. I am sharing recommendations not because I have any authority or standing—how to proceed is obviously up to the board and OUP—but because I believe adopting them would result in a process that is fairer to junior scholars and disadvantaged groups. I am also sharing them because I think transparent discussion of processes is sorely needed in our field. Most of my correspondents asked to remain anonymous, since OSAP is such an influential journal and they wanted to avoid any negative impact on their future submissions or any pushback from members of the profession involved with OSAP. I understand this fear and so have not attempted to gather signatures or open expressions of support. This situation is a significant part of the problem. Those without power in the discipline lack standing and fear the professional consequences of speaking up, while those with power do not wish to damage their relationships with other prominent figures in our field. While speaking only for myself, I am trying to accurately represent the concerns of those I have heard from and, at the least, open up a conversation on these matters. It is clear, however, that there is a wide perception of unfairness in OSAP’s editorial practices and that many scholars in ancient philosophy are unwilling to submit to OSAP until these issues are addressed.

With that being said, here are my recommendations. In my view, the first thing that should be done is to send all submissions currently under review out to referees. Given the concerns about the justice of current editorial practices, it seems only fair that current submissions be given serious consideration by referees who are experts in the appropriate areas of ancient philosophy.

It is also clear that OSAP needs a better system for managing submissions, one that would allow authors to submit anonymously and  easily check the status of their submissions. It should also ensure that all submissions are given proper and timely consideration. Many of these issues could be addressed by employing an editorial assistant or manager with no personal or professional stake in the outcome of submissions, as many other journals do. The person in such a role could anonymize submissions, persistently follow up with referees, and be a neutral respondent to queries from those with submissions under consideration.

More broadly, the experiences I report call into question the editorial model under which OSAP has operated for a long time. On this model, a single editor adjudicates all submissions and sends only a small percentage of them out for review. The editor is also given wide discretion on selecting referees and deciding how to use their reports. This model may have some advantages: some feel it allows for careful editorial discernment and curation and can make sure hasty or staid referees do not prevent groundbreaking work from coming to light. Certainly many excellent articles have been published in OSAP over the past five years and earlier. Yet the model has serious flaws. First, when submissions are not anonymized, this model may give significant advantages to those who are already prominent in the field or well regarded by the editor. At the least, it cannot avoid the appearance of doing so, especially when the editor’s judgment plays such a large role in both initial and final decisions on acceptance. Over the past five years, many believe OSAP has adopted a two-track model on which senior scholars are given speedy responses and shepherded through the publication process while junior people struggle to even have their submissions considered. OSAP’s editorial system gives the editor considerable discretion, but it surely is not intended to allow for two separate and unequal processes. If such a two-track process is allowed by the board, it should at the least be publicly disclosed. If OSAP is committed to treating all submissions fairly, then steps must be taken to ensure that its process for evaluating articles is not biased in these sorts of ways.

The experience of OSAP over the last five years also shows how easily a process centered around a single gatekeeping editor can lead to unacceptable delays. As pressures to publish continue to rise, there is reason to think that overall submission volume will be high and even the most diligent editor will not be able to properly evaluate all new submissions.

Finally, a single person in our field should not be given so much power to select and define which research is certified as most important. A publication in OSAP is still seen as a leading accomplishment in our field and more articles from it have been selected for the Philosopher’s Annual than from any other ancient philosophy journal, so the question of who decides what is published in OSAP has a large impact on the professional status of many.

These considerations speak in favor of switching to a model where a larger percentage of submissions are sent out to review and where multiple people have an editorial say. However, even if OSAP retains this model of the editor as phronimos, it must switch to an anonymized process. I recognize that OSAP is not an entirely standard journal, but its model does not preclude adopting anonymization of submissions and decisions. Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy, which operates on the same sort of model, has transitioned to a triple anonymous review process, in which neither the editor nor the reviewer knows the identity of the author until after an initial decision has been made. While this journal allows for a few invited submissions (which are, thus, only double anonymized), these submissions, according to Robert Pasnau, the editor, go through the same review process as non-invited submissions. The field of ancient philosophy is much larger and so has no need to invite submissions. A fully anonymized system would remove worries about bias in adjudication of submissions, selection of referees, and verdicts. If the board wishes to keep the editor-focused approach, anonymization would allow for that while removing many of the concerns about fairness. I see no reasons preventing OSAP from moving to a triple anonymous submission system and I do not see any other plausible path to restoring trust in the fairness of its editorial process.

If OSAP does not move towards anonymizing review or refereeing a larger percentage of papers, then it would only be appropriate for the journal to represent itself differently. It should publicly indicate most of its submissions are by invitation or that it plans to alternate between invited and submitted issues. If it does not adopt the standards required for a peer reviewed journal to be run fairly, then publications in it should be treated as the equivalent of publishing an invited chapter in a well-regarded academic book. Hiring, tenure, and promotion committees would then be able to take this change in status into account. If publishing in OSAP is to be seen as a reliable indicator of the quality of a scholar’s work, decisions about publication must be made through a fair and equitable peer reviewed process that offers scholars a level playing field.

OSAP is undergoing a change of leadership and thus has an opportunity to rethink its policies. Other journals in the field, especially those run by a single person (e.g. Ancient Philosophy) face similar issues and I would love to see all the journals in our field move to employing best practices, such as triple anonymization.

Regardless of how the board decides to respond, I hope that OSAP will be transparent about its editorial practices in the future. I will be happy to publicly share any decisions that the board makes about OSAP’s editorial practices or any comments the new editor, once appointed, wishes to make. Junior scholars face many structural difficulties that established members of the profession have little power to change. Editorial practices, however, are a place where we can make changes to better support vulnerable members of the profession and to treat all voices in our community in a fair and equitable way.

Sincerely,

Caleb Cohoe

Editor of Endoxa

Associate Professor of Philosophy

Metropolitan State University of Denver

4 Comments

  • Dan

    Thanks so much for writing this, Caleb! I have had negative experiences with OSAP of the type described and am heartened to find this receiving public attention. Long wait times are perhaps excusable (although the fact that previous editors managed to avoid them is noteworthy). What is inexcusable in my mind is the differential treatment of scholars based on status/seniority, of which I think there is abundant evidence. If OSAP is going to maintain its place as a top venue for research in the field, this cannot continue.

  • Ed

    Dear Caleb,

    thanks very much for writing this letter. I absolutely agree with it. What has happened with OSAP over the last years is inexcusable bad editorial practice, due in part to its editor but also to its editorial system. I would add two further suggestions. Given the enourmous backlog it surely has it seems imperative to introduce a moratorium on submissions (6 months? 4 months?), as other journals have done in the past (PPR, Nous, Mind). And, second, it badly needs an adequate website where all issues are in view and easily accessible. I am aware that the voumes appear in Oxford scholarship online but this is not a substitute for a good website. It would be great that they introduce an Advance Articles section,as other journals in the field have done. This could help mitigate things and get articles in the journal’s backlog into the public domain quickly.

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