The Lex Academic Interview | Professor Lisa Bortolotti
Lex co-founder, Professor Constantine Sandis, speaks with Lisa Bortolotti, Professor of Philosophy at Birmingham, about her incoming editorship at Philosophical Psychology and how to overcome bias in academic publishing.
Hi Lisa, thank you so much for taking the time today. And huge congratulations on becoming the incoming editor of Philosophical Psychology, which will be re-launched with a new editorial team in January 2022. I really loved reading your open access editorial. Perhaps you could begin by describing how one goes about creating an editorial team. Did any particular principles, thoughts, or ambitions come into play?
Yes, thank you. I was really excited to have the opportunity to become the editor of Philosophical Psychology. I’ve had some editorial experience before, as an associate editor, but was never in charge of a journal. And Philosophical Psychology, in particular, has always been close to my heart. One of the things I have always liked about it is that while it supports philosophers who use empirical research in their work, it also gives a comfortable home to cognitive science research that takes the philosophical implications of its results very seriously. In fact, I published with the journal a bit at the beginning of my career. This included one of the first papers I wrote in co-authorship with a psychiatrist and a bit later with a group of psychologists. The journal has been a pioneer of interdisciplinary and co-authored research in philosophy. Now there are many more venues available, which is definitely progress. It’s a really exciting opportunity to be able to lead the journal moving forward at this time.
The immediate key issue for me was to build an editorial team of associate editors to handle submissions to the journal. Nobody can run a journal by themselves, though some have tried. This is not just because it’s a huge amount of work, but because all of the decisions have wider implications for the readers, the authors, the publisher, the profession, and even society more widely. Many Philosophical Psychology articles get picked up by the press and inform public debates.
I wanted to have a supporting team that shared a number of values. They believe in interdisciplinary research and do it themselves to a very high standard. They are interested in the future of the profession and the ethical challenges we have in academia today. And they care about the relationship between academic research and wider debates in society. All four of the new associate editors invited to join me from January fit this bill. They are interested in super topical issues, such as bias, prejudice, and rationality – not only in the context of abstract psychological experiments, but in current affairs (such as the recent spread of conspiracy theories).
Not all of them are philosophers by training, although they all have an interest in philosophy. For example, we have a psychologist who then decided to do a PhD in philosophy and a philosopher who runs a psychology lab, which I find an extremely interesting case of successful interdisciplinary research.
It was also important to me that the editors were not all from the US. I’m saying this because Philosophical Psychology’s current editorial board is mainly composed of highly respected researchers who are mostly US-based. That may seem to make perfect sense in a way, because looking at the stats, most of the journal’s readership is based in the US and the UK. But it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Really good and exciting research in philosophy of psychology and the kind of psychological work that matters to philosophers is done everywhere in the world. So I’m really proud that one of my associate editors is based in Portugal, another in Chile, a third in Japan, and a fourth in the UK. We all participate in the same community, no matter where we come from or which institution we are based at.
That’s wonderful. The journal definitely fits both your personal research profile in so many ways. As you say, it has been a truly interdisciplinary journal from the outset. But is it fair to say that, as with its editorial board, its authors and readership have primarily always been native Anglophone speakers?
It’s hard to tell. I don’t have specific statistics on authorship, but it’s just a natural consequence of that way of running things. If a journal is based in the US because all of the editors are there, it’s more likely that these editors will choose referees or invite authors who are in the same community. I’m not saying that people outside would be discouraged to submit because I submitted without ever having been in the US, but people generally submit papers to journals when they find similar work by similar people. This is a problem of representation which wasn’t even something that was consciously thought about until relatively recently. This issue with diversity needs to be addressed, but is not specific to Philosophical Psychology.
A problem with most journals that publish analytic philosophy and certain types of interdisciplinary philosophy is that they tend to re-enforce the sense that some kinds of work are mainly done in specific places, by a specific set of people. That’s something that needs to be challenged. This ambition guided me in selecting people for the editorial board; members of the board do not handle submissions, but advise the handling editors. There were already a number of people who were active in the journal and had been extremely helpful in consulting the editors, so of course they are still on the board. But we also wanted to refresh the board as there were many people who had retired or moved fields. This created an opportunity for us to change things a little. We wanted people at all stages of their career. We wanted people based all over the world and now have all continents represented. We wanted women. Now, women are more than 50% of the board. We also sought people with experience in science communication and how research can be communicated to the public in an engaging way. It took a long time, but I’m super proud of the new editorial board.
Original articles in the journal have always been peer reviewed by two independent experts. In the case of editorials and book reviews, which traditionally haven’t had any peer review system associated with them, I want there to be feedback from editorial board members with the relevant expertise. This is so we are confident that the person publishing the book review, or the editor writing the editorial, doesn’t inadvertently make any mistakes that are going to affect the future of the journal.
One thing that struck me when you were talking about the history of Philosophical Psychology is that so many journals were established before the internet. So it made a lot of sense, back then, that they would be edited within a particular department, university, or city. It was probably already quite complicated to have people from across the United States alone, with editors having to communicate by fax, snail mail, or interstate phone calls. A truly international journal would have been even harder to run in those days. We’re no longer tied by those constraints, so we need to free ourselves from this traditional conception of what a journal looks like.
Absolutely. And I think the pandemic really taught us that we can do a lot of things at a distance. Just to give you a personal example, the last 10 years of my life I’ve avoided long flights mainly because of family constraints. During this period, I never gave a talk in the US, Australia, or Asia. But with the pandemic and the normalization of talks on platforms like Zoom, I received a lot of invitations. So it has been a very busy pandemic for me. For the first time in my life I gave talks in China and had wonderful interactions without moving from my living room. Of course you don’t have the pleasure of socializing after the talk or meeting students, which is extremely important. It’s a networking aspect of our profession that shouldn’t be dismissed, but there can definitely be intellectual exchange without it. There were questions and comments and replies and interactions.
So we can do this kind of thing at a distance. We can have an editorial team with people in three different time zones, even if it’s tricky to set up meetings that are good for everybody. The journal’s microcosm is a good model for the profession becoming more diverse and inclusive more generally. We are more likely to invite people we’ve met at conferences or worked with to be reviewers. So it’s unlikely I’d suggest a Portuguese reviewer – not because there are no good reviewers in Portugal, but simply because I may not be acquainted with any. So, it requires more time and research for me to be able to identify them. By contrast, if I have an associate editor who is based in Portugal and knows the community, it will be much easier for them to identify a good person there for the review. This is an incredibly useful way of opening up the pool of reviewers, which is an issue with all academic journals because the same small range of names tends come to mind immediately. And they shape the content of the journal, which creates a feedback loop in terms of the type of submissions it consequently attracts.
A nice side effect of diversifying is that we not only reduce bias and increase fairness, but also help to solve the referee scarcity and response time problems. And the result is a more balanced set of articles. This is because the referee reports no longer reflect the opinions of a small set of Anglophone speakers, however objective and professional they may seek to be. One thing I was immediately struck with, when Philosophical Psychology put up photos of the editorial team members, is that it had a really powerful ‘this is what an editorial team looks like’ feel to it. This was followed by posts about the BPA/SWIP Good Practice Scheme and the Barcelona Principles. Could you say a little bit about each of these things and how Philosophical Psychology aims to adhere to them?
Yes, absolutely. So, that’s the British Philosophical Association (BPA) and Society for Women in Philosophy(SWIP) good practice scheme. It’s something I’ve been acquainted with for a long time simply because I had the honour of working together with Helen Beebee, who introduced it. And it’s a series of recommendations that the societies have been making to institutions (including departments, learned societies, and journals) to encourage and promote the representation of women in academic philosophy since 2014. I remember working with Helen to ensure that the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, where she was at the time and where I’m still based, could comply with the recommendations.
The recommendations are all common sense when you think about it. But there’s a danger of thinking that there’s no longer a problem of representation. For instance, I’ve worked for five years leading a European project. In none of my meetings has there been a problem with representation of women. The same goes for the project outputs and the specialists associated with it. So I, I came out of it thinking, ‘Oh my God, we did it!’ But when I went back into the world, it was not like that at all. There are still philosophy conferences with 8-10 speakers where none of them are women! There are still special issues that come out in journals with no women authors. I still receive invitations to join volumes of papers where I’m the token woman being invited. And I know that because they’ve got all of the content lists ready with only white male authors, and then this kind of empty slot: ‘Oh, do you want to join?’ It’s like, ‘No, don’t talk to me unless you first address this problem that you’ve got with your content list.’
So this is just to say that we shouldn’t be complacent. Beebee was a great role model to me because she was a very young, female professor of philosophy. She’s still an amazing role model because she goes on doing amazing things and she’s still in charge of this good practice scheme. It’s very important to give young women the sense that yes, it’s possible, yes, they can do it. I can have children and do it. I can have a life and do it. There is that kind of space for me. That’s something really close to my heart.
To the linguistic bias issue, I’ve come quite late. It’s always been part of my personal history, but not something that I was very confident to talk about. I remember being on the job market and going to interviews and people’s expressions would change when they heard my accent. The first question I was ever asked was ‘where are you from?’ or ‘where did you study?’ But while it’s always been part of my biography, it’s not something that I’ve reflected upon much. I guess I was under the illusion that it was kind of my fault and that maybe one day, people would not even notice that I had an accent.
I will never lose my accent; that’s become clear now. My English has improved, but I am still extremely sensitive to the kind of ways in which people react to me. I work within a community where the idea is that if you’re doing analytic philosophy, you need to be crystal clear and you have to resolve ambiguities. And sometimes you’re asked to write elegantly – not just well, not just clearly, but to be a good writer. Not everybody makes that choice of clarity versus elegance. Sometimes, they want both packaged together. That’s clearly not something that you get straight away, especially when you’re not a native speaker. It’s a barrier to a number of things. And I guess reading the Barcelona Principles for a global inclusive philosophy by Filippo Contesi made it all come back.
Initially, I read it and I didn’t know what to think. I took a few days. I didn’t sign it immediately, I want to be honest with you. It was a lot to take in and I wanted to think about each of the things that were being talked about, because you internalize a lot of these norms. You end up thinking that you need perfect English. And thinking that you’re not good enough. There is this pressure, especially on junior people, to be linguistically perfect. Why are they not helped to achieve the kind of aspiration that they feel they need to fulfil in order to be considered members of this community? There is nothing they’re doing wrong. They might have the best ideas, maybe the most original ideas, and just not be able to communicate them in the right way to be taken seriously by journals or the people who select conference abstracts for presentation.
It shouldn’t be just their problem to fix any more than the under-representation of women in philosophy is just the problem of those women. The under-representation of people who are not native speakers in English is not their problem. We all need to do something about it. So it was very important for me to think about that and the Barcelona Principles, as the editor of the journal – to think about what we do when we desk reject, for instance, a paper. Did language play a big role and if so, in what way? Was it simply because the author’s English didn’t sound right? Or were there other issues justifying caution with regard to the paper? Would clearer language have made a difference?
Having an editorial board and a team of associate editors who are not all native speakers of English really helps with these issues. So I’m very proud that three out of four of the associate editors are not native speakers of English. Language did not prevent their achieving great things, despite the challenges they faced. Hopefully, we can now create an environment where there are no barriers to junior non-native speakers achieving what they want to achieve in the profession.
I empathize with you because I think I also internalized a bunch of norms when I came to study in the UK as an undergraduate. You kind of think, ‘So, this is how I need to speak and write in order to succeed’. Then, I remember much later being struck by Slavoj Žižek’s accent. Whatever you might make of him as a philosopher, he turned his Slovenian accent into strength. It’s almost part of his act or persona, although it’s not put on. And his first books were not written in English or a language traditionally associated with philosophy, such as French or German. Friends joked that perhaps I would have benefitted from a strong Greek accent.
Part of what you’re talking about is the effect of seeing an editorial board for an Anglophone journal that is not made up of native speakers. This might entice more people to submit papers and make the journal less likely to dismiss any of them for superficial linguistic reasons. When you’re making difficult selection choices, it’s all too tempting to start by desk-rejecting anything that doesn’t read right without a second thought for the quality of the author’s ideas. At the same time, language can legitimately make it very difficult for referees to understand and evaluate the author’s arguments. How would you deal with this kind of issue?
I think in terms of editorial decisions, there is no hiding. It’s extremely tricky. When the language is difficult, how do you decide if it’s just a linguistic problem or if there is an issue with clarity of thought? In some cases, if you’re an expert in the area, I think you can distinguish a few grammatical issues from conceptual errors or misunderstandings of views. In other cases, it’s difficult – especially if it’s not your own field. My recommendation to my associate editors would be to look for someone who is very familiar with the literature if you are not confident in your own judgment. You can even ask the reviewer for specific feedback on linguistic worries.
I hadn’t thought too much about this approach before you asked me, to be honest, because I still have to have my first meeting with my associate editors. But I think it’s sometimes misleading to say that it’s easy to tell when it’s just language. Often, it’s not easy at all in philosophy. I’m already receiving papers because I’ve started the transition process. With very technical papers, I can kind of follow what the gist is but I can’t really make an evaluation of the arguments involved. In those cases, you ask a reviewer who is an expert. The same goes when there is some kind of problem with the language. That’s what the reviewers are for. This might mean fewer desk rejections, which is a very low price to pay for a more inclusive field.
You’re right that just because we know what the right thing to do is, we shouldn’t pretend that it’s easy to achieve. And there’s a difference between knowing that a paper doesn’t meet certain standards and not being sure if it does. If we can’t exclude that the language may be preventing us from seeing that the author is onto something really important, then the paper has to be given the fairest chance possible. But how one goes about doing this is tricky. It requires time and resources.
I also wanted to ask you whether you think philosophy is different from other academic subjects, perhaps especially those sciences that deal with equations, experiments, data, statistics, etc. If the data speaks for itself, perhaps the language matters less. If I’m coming up with E = mc2, who cares about my grammar? Whereas in the humanities, things seem different. Since philosophy often deals with language and conceptual clarification, perhaps it’s a case in point. I’m thinking particularly of the kind of philosophy that conceives of itself as a humanistic discipline rather than one modelled on the sciences. In the works of Martha Nussbaum or Bernard Williams, for instance, it’s harder to extricate the argument from the writing.
I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question. There are several things that interact. There is the person’s voice as a writer and everybody has their own different style. Maybe they model it on that of people they admire in the field. Maybe they change that style and voice as they progress in their career and get a better grasp of what works in terms of academic writing. Then, there is some kind of discipline-relative issue. Philosophy is extremely hard because there are so many different ways of doing it, so many schools of thought, and what counts as good writing differs across them.
Yes, and there can be biases even among native speakers. There was a time when it felt like a philosophical norm in the UK to assume a level of acquaintance with Shakespeare, Austen, Trollope, and the King James Bible, or certain examples of high art if you were working in aesthetics. Much later, it became okay to write about The Matrix and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But certain class biases still exist in places, though there are different philosophical subcultures in which cultural expectations differ radically. I remember reading an interview with Joshua Knobe and he was saying how in his neck of the philosophical woods, it would be far more controversial to cite someone like Tolstoy than, say, a Spiderman comic.
Yes, at this point, it becomes a bit useless to talk of the language of philosophy. There are certainly things we can say when we talk about philosophy as a discipline, in terms of clarity and argument. But in terms of style, I think that this can really change. Whether it’s a bigger problem with philosophy, I’m not sure. Analytic philosophy has this kind of aura of being very rigorous and almost scientific about language. But I wonder whether other disciplines have areas where language suddenly becomes very important and I just haven’t come across this.
I happen to work a lot with phenomenologists. Not because I’m a phenomenologist myself, but because I work in the philosophy of mental health and a lot of phenomenologists are interested in that. Their style of writing (even those of them who are my students) is extremely different from mine. There’s a huge divide in terminology, the prose is different, and the sentences are longer and in many ways prettier – more soothing if you read them out loud. To me now, it makes very little sense to say that any particular philosophical style is better than another. Because phenomenologists are very interested in the qualities of personal experience, it makes sense that they use the language most suited to that. If I’m interested in the relationship between different mental states and how they come to cause action, their style and language may not be suitable for my purposes. I’m going to have a drier kind of style: shorter sentences, disambiguation, and so on.
It gets particularly hard with interdisciplinary work. I’ve worked with clinical psychiatrists, psychologists, and sociologists. Most of the discussions we have are not about what we want to say, but about how to say it. We have to present the results of the project. Whoever does the first draft obviously uses the language they’re used to, which is perhaps standard in the journals they normally publish in. But then it goes to the other authors and they say, ‘what does that mean?’, ‘why aren’t you using this word?’, ‘why is the methodology section is so short?’, or ‘why is this author mentioned without further description?’ So really, there are no norms ‘of the discipline’ and that’s a good thing. There are norms of very specific fields, sometimes even specific projects. You have to accept pluralism. Philosophical Psychology is a very eclectic journal that might publish papers in Chinese philosophy, phenomenology, and empirical psychology all in the same issue.
Yeah, my first reaction when I saw the Barcelona principles was why stop at philosophy? I can see why some sciences might be different. But do philosophy journals have a particular problem with non-native speakers compared to, say, history, law, or classics? Then I thought that many philosophers talk as if the subject is defined by clarity and argumentative rigour, which I find very embarrassing – as if other disciplines as a group lack clear writing or decent arguments. So perhaps the problem is aggravated by a mistaken view about our own subject. But suppose we manage (as I’m sure you will at Philosophical Psychology) to overcome those kinds of primitive obstacles; more advanced ones remain. Once a paper by a non-native speaker is past the desk rejection stage and, say, going through a revise and resubmit or conditional acceptance, whose responsibility is it to ensure that the final version is linguistically fine? And how high or low does one set the bar?
I guess I can see at least three options. One is that the paper receives the usual cursory proofread, but is otherwise published in the author’s idiosyncratic, non-native style. We might call this the Žižek option, though he’s not really like that in print. A second option is that final acceptance is conditional on the author producing a version that has been thoroughly proofread by a native speaker. This either comes at a financial cost or supports a system that further abuses the ‘free time’ of academics. Third, the burden could be put on the journal to ensure that they can use a substantive professional editing service. I’m sure there are other alternatives too.
Yeah, it’s again an extremely difficult question. I’m not sure what the right answer is. One thing I’d like to say is that probably in all academic fields, but perhaps especially in philosophy, reviewers get a really bad press. Yet in these 2-3 months of participating in the transition process for Philosophical Psychology, I’ve come across many extremely thoughtful referees who not only provide detailed comments on the arguments in the manuscript, but also give a list of corrections to the language. Nothing is too small, whether grammatical issues, typos, infelicities of language. So there is quite a lot that is accomplished within the review process itself, not because of anything special that the editor does or requests. There’s just a passion for their subject that the referees show. These are not isolated occurrences, but kind of the norm. I’m actually completely in awe of these reviewers who take their job seriously. It’s so helpful to the authors, regardless of whether the paper is accepted or not, to have that kind of scrutiny and detailed attention to their work. So, something is accomplished in the process of peer review. More can be accomplished in the copy-editing as well the proof stage.
But I agree that in some cases, I think we may want something else to happen, too. There is software and professional editing services, but of course these come at a price. I wonder whether institutions could do a little bit more to support their employees and help them publish better papers. What’s happening at the moment is just informal. Trusted friends or colleagues may help out, but there is no mechanism in place that I’m aware of. And that’s maybe something to think about because, ultimately, the affiliation will appear on the paper. Institutions have an interest in the paper being the best that it can be linguistically, not just scientifically or philosophically. Maybe even funding organisations. Funders care so much about research being open access and rightly so. They make it compulsory, now, that deliverables are open access. Why not also fund the extra support that authors need with language, so they can make use of professional editing? This wouldn’t add too much to the publication costs and it would be a way in which linguistic and editorial expertise becomes available to authors.
I have no clear answer of what the future should be like. But I think we need to think about that more carefully. There are lots of people who are doing small things out of their goodwill, but as in all cases of bias, it’s systemic solutions that we’re looking for.
I agree that the real progress needs to happen on a larger scale. But the first steps are important. You might not solve it all, but you can be part of the solution rather the problem. I think the Barcelona Principles are a great starting point, owing to the problems with journals that we discussed towards the start of our conversation. At the same time, I don’t think that the burden should or even could lie solely with the journals. I actually already know of departments that allow their faculty to use research funding for this kind of thing and also of academics who have included editing and indexing services in successful grant applications. It would be good if such practices were more fully systematized, removing the burden from volunteering referees who, let’s face it, are often non-native speakers themselves.
As you say, these are difficult issues. But it sounds like you are on the right track!
Maybe I should be talking to the associate editors, who will have some ideas as well.
Yes, it’s a collective thing that we all need to address together. And it was really wonderful talking to you about all these things. Thank you so much for doing this and I wish you the very best for journal’s re-launch in 2022.
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