Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"Back in My Day!" [er, well, when I was a kid anyways! :) ]

This morning I happened to be reading an article from a 1970s issue of Ethics when I was struck by the difference in length and reliance on citation/notes typical of articles in the journal from 40 years ago. So I decided to compare the Jan 2015, 2005, 1995, 1985 and 1975 issues of the journal to get a sense of how philosophical articles in the journal have transformed over that time. Here is what it looks like [I'm assuming one page length then = one page now]:

1975: average size of article is 13 pages with 17 references/notes.
1985: 14 pages and 25 notes
1995: 22 pages and 47 notes
2005: 33 pages and 53 notes
2015: 23 pages with 57 references/notes.

Many of the “notes/references” section of an article published today probably approximate the article length of some articles published 40 years ago.

Assuming (as I think is reasonable) this data indicates a larger trend in journal article publishing in philosophy, I think it is worthwhile pondering how prudent our current expectations are. Does the typical paper published today better exemplify the “intellectual virtues” we want the discipline to exemplify?

When one goes back and reads a great paper in the journal from say the 1970s it is amazing how “trim” and focused the argument and analysis can be, given the shorter length and minimalist reliance on extended notes, the need to attend to all the minor moves and distinctions, the need to demonstrate familiarity with the extended literature in the field, etc.

The specialization of the discipline over the past four decades has really altered the *skill-set* of the enterprise. Here is an interesting test—search through the archives of the journal and pick out a random article from the 1970s and read it. Then pick out a random article from the past decade and read it. Which do you enjoy reading more? Which article did you learn the most from? I ask these questions because I think it is important to critically reflect upon the current practices we employ in the profession. Perhaps the most basic practice is how we write journal articles. Things have significantly changed over the past few decades (e.g. many more journals, especially in ethics and political philosophy) but I’m uncertain as to how beneficial those changes have been in terms of refining the “intellectual virtues” one believes the profession should seek to cultivate.

I think there is something troubling about the way the discipline has transformed over the past 40 years. Consider, for example, two exemplar papers from the 1970s: Singer’s “Famine, Affluence and Morality” PPA 1972 and Judith Jarvis Thomson “A Defence of Abortion” PPA 1971. The former is 14 pages in length and has just 5, yes 5!, references/notes. And Thomson’s paper is 19 pages and 8 references/notes. You just can’t write (or at least publish in a top journal) articles like that anymore. Sure there are admirable lengthy papers, but I think something valuable has been lost in terms of how we conceive what the philosophical enterprise ought to be. And that concern is not simply stylistic (e.g. papers should be shorter). The stylistic issues concern me because I believe they have an impact on *substance*. They impact the way we conceive of what is manageable and desirable to write about and engage with in an article.