Reader query: negative VS positive papers

A reader writes:

I have recently learned that some grad students in my department hold the following belief: journals are more likely to reject papers that advance a ‘negative’ argument and provide a response to some well-known view than a paper that advances a ‘positive’ account of some phenomenon. That is, even if editors receive a positive referee’s report that recommends publication of a (roughly put) response article, editors still frequently reject such articles in order to publish ones with a “positive” account. Thus, grad students have been put off from submitting papers to journals, as they have felt this to be futile: I don’t yet have a positive alternative account of x, so submitting a paper that discusses someone else’s a view of x is futile, because it’ll get rejected anyway.

Thinking so struck me as prima facie false. Plenty of response papers are published by top journals (my own work being a case in point). But hearing this also got me worried: is there something to this? I always advice my grad students to start by publishing ‘negative’ parts of their dissertations first, but if the above view has something to it, my practice may be misguided. Then again, if the above is false, grad students need to know that. What do you think?

9 thoughts on “Reader query: negative VS positive papers

  1. I know someone whose entire dissertation was built on negative claims. There was not a single positive element in it. S/he managed to publish a large part of it, mostly in very good journals. I think it’s not a problem to get published if your findings are mainly negative. However, I do think there is a bias in philosophy to regard people who propose new ideas in a more positive light than those who mainly criticize. If you want to build a long-term reputation, it therefore strikes me as important to do some constructive work. But this doesn’t need to be at the stage of writing the PhD. A reader of the dissertation of said individual remarked during the doctoral defense “After having presented all this negative work, you’ll have to do some constructive work as well. Or you have to decide, like Anakin Skywalker, whether you will join the dark or the light side”.

  2. Agree with everything anon says above at #1. Don’t know what editors do, but as a reviewer I don’t look down on negative papers, and from looking at what papers are published I don’t see a bias against them. At the same time, I do think that you’ll have a better scholarly reputation if you also advance some positive theses, and wouldn’t advise grad students to “start by publishing ‘negative’ parts of their dissertations first.” Just publish whichever parts are the easiest to work into journal-quality genuinely freestanding pieces and put them in the pipeline.

  3. I think what matters more is whether the paper contributes to a literature and moves the dialectic forward. Good negative papers can do that.

    However, I think in the medium-to-long term, people want to know what an author thinks her or himself. Early in one’s career, it’s understandable that one doesn’t have many worked out positive positions, but I think that the sooner one can do that, the more one stands out. I think one of the hardest things to publish is an *entirely* positive paper (oh it can be done!), where the author situates their view within a literature and just proceeds to lay out their own view.

    Criticizing is often (though not always) easier than putting forward a positive account, but the former are still very useful publications.

  4. When I referee, I don’t think in terms of “positive” or “negative,” but I do frequently think in terms of how much of an advance the paper represents in the debate, and often of that as compared to paper length. While there can be seminal negative papers (anyone remember Gettier?), there’s also a greater risk of negative papers failing to make a significant contribution, even when they’re free of mistakes. There’s a particular genre of negative paper which slowly and pedantically examines McX’s particular view of Y and shows why it fails, all while remaining neutral about the many other very-similar-to-McX’s view of Y that get around the problem. (And often takes 8k+ words to do it.) It’s a kind of nitpicking paper which doesn’t advance the literature in any significant way, and is at a higher risk of rejection (by me qua referee) even if it doesn’t have any errors of reasoning or exegesis in it. It also seems to be a very tempting kind of paper for grad students to write, because with such an extremely narrow focus it’s easier to write such a paper free of errors of reasoning. I wonder if the advice to “not write negative papers” is really a kind of over-correction to steer students away from this genre.

  5. I want to strongly second what Euthyphronics wrote. I certainly am much harder qua referee on papers that are on why McX is wrong than I am on papers that try to put forward a novel new view. And I might even express this tendency by saying that positive papers are to be preferred to negative papers.

    But just to expand on Euthyphronics’s point there really are gradations here. A paper with a good argument against contractualism, not just against the particular way that one contractualist, or even one prominent contractualist, develops the view, shouldn’t be tossed in the same bucket as a nitpicking paper on McX. A paper that started life as a nitpicking paper on McX, and then expanded to show why there were some forced choices that led to the problems being raised, and why McX’s failed view is the best hope for a view on that kind, could be just as good. (Though it would be best to pitch the paper as an objection to a family of views, and then illustrate it with the problems McX faces, rather than have the chronology of the paper mimic the chronology of one’s research.) So there isn’t a simple positive/negative split here.

    I’m not saying that all referees are like me. As Anon@1:29 says, there are lots of negative papers that get published, and that should be taken into account. But I do think there’s something to the worry in the original post. Grad students should be encouraged to write papers that at least think about the breadth of the claims being challenged, and about whether their paper really gets at why there is a problem here and leads on to positive proposals. Alternatively, like Gettier, they could write 3 page papers!

    Sometimes I include an exception to all these rules for work that is nitpicking not about random paper by McX, but about paper by star philosopher McY. A really novel objection to something Hume wrote, even if it’s just about Hume, would be really something. But I’m not sure grad students should think about such exceptions. It tends to lead to them writing nitpicking papers about the people who are considered stars by their grad school. Unless everyone else agrees with the stariness of their philosophical target, this can (and frequently does) lead to disaster.

  6. Two points:
    1. As a referee, when I read a predominantly negative paper, I look very carefully for charitable interpretation of the view(s) being criticized. If the author’s criticisms can be met with more charitable readings of the view(s) in question, then I’m inclined to think that the paper doesn’t contribute much to the debate. So yes, ‘nitpicking’ hurts an author’s case for publication, as does criticism that seems unduly aggressive or hostile.
    2. Tone matters a lot. If a negative paper just ends with, “McX’s view is wrong,” then I’m not as favorably disposed toward it as I am toward a paper that points toward the next step in the dialectic, invites further inquiry, etc. So an author does better to say things like, “To succeed, McX-like views must answer these objections/ must satisfy these desiderata/etc. I invite those more sympathetic to McX-like views to rise to this challenge.”

  7. I pretty much agree with everything Euthyphronics and Brian said. Though I wish in these discussions, I wouldn’t get picked on so much.

  8. As a referee, I don’t think of positive vs. negative either. As above, I consider the merits of the paper and how the paper is contributing to the debate.

    The phenomenon of which you speak is, indeed, interesting but it’s not something with which I am familiar.

  9. Although critiques of other peoples’ theories is very important, as a former co-editor of a journal, I much preferred papers which proposed some stimulating or provocative new idea to what I came to call parasitic papers, dependent upon someone else’s stimulating and provocative new ideas. Although the term “parasitic” may not be generous, it is the case that what are being called “negative” papers are in fact dependent on someone else’s creative efforts.

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