Citations, gender balance and disagreement

Philosophy has a problem with gender balance. It has the longest history of any academic discipline but that is a history set within millennia of patriarchy. And it’s a discipline that engages seriously with its history. We still cite Plato and Aristotle from two and half thousand years ago. With social progress, gender balance in the profession has improved, albeit from a most unfavourable and unjust starting point. We are at least now in a position where we can correct some of that injustice in our citation practices, engaging with women’s ideas and thereby challenging the stereotype that philosophy is a man’s preoccupation.

This being philosophy, though, it’s complicated. As I’ve read work from other disciplines, I’ve become more conscious of the idiosyncratic citation practices of my field and realised that they do not always make gender-inclusion easy. One feature is how few citations we make in philosophy. A typical philosophy paper will be 10-pages long with 15 citations whereas I’ve seen medical papers that are more like 3-pages long with 100 citations. When there are fewer citations to go round, the choices we make become even more important. But I don’t think this is the only problem. What I’ve noticed is that in philosophy around 80-90% of the citations we make are disapproving ones. We cite people to say that they are wrong: sometimes obviously wrong or stupidly wrong. Again, I don’t see this so much in other fields. Typically, they might say “there is recent work on X”, and follow it with 20 citations. More usual in philosophy is to say: “N has argued for Y and Y has obvious flaws. Y is plain wrong”.

As I’ve become more aware of matters of equity, diversity and inclusion in the intellectual endeavour, I have wanted and tried to include more women in my references but, to do so, I feel that I’ve also had to fight these conventions. I don’t want to cite women only to say how wrong they are. But I don’t want to not cite women either. The solution has been an attempt to break out from the disciplinary conventions and try to include more approving citations. This itself is hard, of course, given that philosophy as a whole tends to focus more on disagreement than agreement.

To give an example, I work a lot in metaphysics. We have some excellent women metaphysicians in Helen Beebee, Laurie Paul and Sara Bernstein. Unfortunately, for me, they all work in a neo-Humean/Lewisian tradition that I think is wrong. I feel uncomfortable citing them only to say so. In my new Absence and Nothing, I’ve instead tried to find women’s work with which I agree, such as by Heather Dyke and Geraldine Coggins. Again, the discipline doesn’t help me. There are very few instances where we accept what another philosopher says and, even if we do, it’s likely to be on a confined, isolated matter. It seems that there’s no point saying something if someone else has said it already.

I’ve found another gender-related matter when introducing women into the hypothetical examples that often occur in speculative philosophical writing. So many of these examples concern despicable acts or stupid beliefs, e.g. “John decides to torture a cat” or “Jim believes that 2 + 2 = 5”. The scenarios are so extreme that it could look misogynistic if I used women’s names (try thinking of those examples with women’s or non-Western names substituted). The difficulty here is that we often need absurd cases in order to make the point, such as for reductio ad absurdum or to demonstrate some moral precept. The more extreme, the clearer the point.

In part, the nature of philosophy has created these difficulties. It tends to be adversarial and I am of course aware of a view that this itself is a product of historical patriarchy. I’ve seen movement in the right direction here, towards philosophy as a more cooperative enterprise. Nevertheless, I don’t think it would be right to eliminate disagreement from our or any other discipline. It’s a vital part of the intellectual quest that we challenge each other and overturn established wisdom. The ideal would be if we pursued that quest in a context of justice and equality so that we didn’t have to worry about whether it was a man or woman whose views we were rejecting. We can only get there one step at a time, however, which means making changes now to the flawed system within which we operate.

New beginnings

Today I am taking my eldest to university for the start of the new academic year. It’s led me to recall my own start at Huddersfield Polytechnic, nervously walking through the campus entrance on the first day, back in 1986.

Opting to take a degree was a gamble. After school, I worked as a civil servant for almost three years. It was considered a much desired ‘job for life’ then and when I told my parents I was leaving it in order to study Humanities they were furious. My dad was staunchly anti-education and frequently said that it made people more stupid. He understood and respected a regular pay packet and thought I was lazy by reverting to student life, which he hoped was behind me. He made it clear that they wouldn’t give me a penny in financial support.

I left home and went it alone. For 6 months I was completely estranged from my parents. I had entered a different world: a world of dusty old books and ideas. Where it would lead, I did not know. It was certainly a new beginning and it changed my life. I started a process that continues to this day. Talk about life-long learning! I’ve remained a student for the past 35 years!

My lecturers were quirky and curious, including Mr Colin Parker, a Huddersfield legend, and my hero and idol of many, Dr Bill Stafford. Rousseau, feminism, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, existentialism, Marxism, Hobbes and more occupied my thoughts for three solid years (not enough women or non-Western thinkers). In January of ’88, I decided that I wanted to be – that I had to be – a professional philosopher. Of course, I couldn’t tell anyone about it for quite some time. It was such a preposterous supposition.

I hope others commencing their university courses find it just as significant in their lives as did I. The benefits can take a while to materialise but as I look back to that day 35 years ago, when I started, I see it as the pivotal moment of my whole life. It paid off. Good luck to all!

Writing without footnotes

Received wisdom on the use of footnotes in academic writing has shifted decisively during the course of my career. As a budding scholar, it was expected of me that I would use them. This was one of the markers of proper academic writing, I was told. Footnotes made it look scholarly such that an academic piece was visibly distinguishable from, say, a short story. In any draft paper, then, I had to make sure that I included footnotes. Preferably these would be more than just references, since there would be other ways of making those. Rather, you would have to think of some demi-substantial points so that your footnotes had content, though content the main argument of your paper could do without.

As we all now know, footnotes are a bit of a pain to read: a distraction that diverts us from the flow of the argument; an interruption, often for no more than a minor, orthogonal point.1 I realised that I rarely got something out of reading a footnote, though there were always tales of very important points made in footnotes,2 meaning that you could never just assume they added no value. I did eventually realise, however, that my favourite philosophy books were the ones that contained no footnotes, and barely any references, such as Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind.3 Such books allowed me, the reader, greater immersion in the argument, with which it was then easier to sympathise.

My rule now is to never use footnotes under any circumstances.4 I have a number of authored books under my belt that are entirely footnote-free. What is more, I think that the challenge of writing without footnotes has really helped my thinking. It forces me to order my thoughts in a strictly sequential form, to think hard about what really does, and really doesn’t, matter to my argument. It obliges me not to disappear down any rabbit holes, which, after all, are quite likely only to interest me rather than my reader.

Journal articles are a slightly different matter. I have seen practices change even here, though. Some journals were good, early on, at discouraging the use of footnotes to make substantial points. But practice still puzzles me since I still find some journals that like to use footnotes for the references, leading to scores of distracting footnotes per article. This means that some of my own work does still appear with footnotes, as is the editor’s choice. Why we can’t all just use Harvard referencing, I’ll never know.6

There remains a crucial test that I think is always decisive. Is it really worth saying what you want to say? If it is, then you should include it in the main text of your article or chapter. If not, then it’s not worth bothering your reader to go hunt for it in a footnote. It follows from this that we really should do without footnotes altogether.7 I used to think of footnotes as adding credibility to my work, since they were a way of showing that I understood the rules of the game.9 10 11 Now I feel confident enough to think the opposite. Footnotes detract credibility since I take them as an indicator that the author was not able to un-jumble their thinking at that point and order it sequentially. We are sometimes dealing with very difficult matters in our work, so I understand how it happens, but I do also think that footnotes might have been better just left as the author’s personal annotations and seen by no one else.12


1. We all know the problem. You’re following the train of argument, see the footnote, and then have to look to the bottom of the page and read what is essentially, a diversion and dead end. Then you have to find your way back to the main text and try to remember your previous place in the thread. Even worse is if the footnotes are relegated to endnotes, meaning that you have to go hunting in the back of the book, often for scant reward, and then recall where you had first come from.

2. Such as Bishop Butler’s devastating refutation of Hobbes.

3. Hutchinson, 1949.

4. The only possible exception I would make to this would be to credit an idea to someone who had given me it in discussion.5

5. Though even this can usually be accommodated in the main text (perhaps in a bracket).

6. Apologies to Chicago and Vancouver, but you just don’t cut it.

7. There really is only one exception I make to this rule, which is to give a list of acknowledgments at the end of the paper, since these are clearly not a part of the paper itself.8

8. There really is only one exception I make to this rule, which is to give a list of acknowledgments at the start of the paper, since these are clearly not a part of the paper itself.7

9. Obviously this raises questions of unequal power dynamics as early career academics feel they have to conform to the accepted practices of their field to be taken seriously.

10. I increasingly see the power of viewing such issues as Wittgensteinian language games: in this case a written language game rather than a spoken one.

11. Are we allowed multiple footnotes on the same point? That’s where it leads.

12. Maybe take this point out. I’m not sure it’s the right note on which to end.

A window on another world

Regular readers of this learned and erudite blog would be forgiven for thinking that I am perpetually preoccupied with the most abstruse matters of metaphysics and constantly immersed in a philosophical trance from which few worldly concerns could distract me. Fortunately, that is not the case at all. To survive in academia, you have also to be able to switch off from the day job and find some diversion that allows you to clear your head.

I am well qualified in that respect since I grew up in a non-academic household surrounded by all that popular culture could offer and which left an indelible mark on my consciousness. My family home contained no books, and I won’t claim that to be any advantage, but nor do I regret the interests I developed in football, TV, music and comics. When I now need a rest from work, I can still set free my inner child to indulge those youthful delights.

My continuing love of football is no secret since I have written a book on it, and a few others on sport generally. But that all stems from a more innocent time. We had our first colour TV delivered in the early 70s and I would stare wide-eyed at the kaleidoscopic sensations the occasional televised match would provide. I remember vividly the 1974 FA Cup Final between Newcastle and Liverpool. Those red strips, and the black and white striped shirts, popped out against the green, green grass of Wembley. And the crowd noise formed such a spectacular backdrop. Even greater pleasures awaited since that was also a World Cup year. I cried when Cruyff’s Holland lost the final. That Dutch team were like rock stars!

And there were rock stars too, filling my TV screen. The first band I loved, while still a little kid, were Sweet. They too made the most of colour TV, showing off their outlandish costumes. And the music was so catchy. Teenage Rampage is one of their best but it seemed they were on Top of the Pops almost every week with some new hit.

My formative years were spent in a tiny farming village just outside Wakefield. Very little happened there but television gave me a window on another world: sometimes literally! The first Doctor Who story I remember watching was Carnival of Monsters, with Jon Pertwee as the doctor, so I know I would’ve seen it on January 27th 1973. Later that year I bought the Radio Times Dr Who 10th Anniversary magazine: a prized possession that I foolishly sold in adulthood. It was TV too that alerted me to the existence of Marvel Comics, an advertisement leading me to get Mighty World of Marvel #1 when it came out on September 30th 1972. My imagination was stretching way beyond the village boundaries.

It is all too easy to disparage popular culture. Rarely is it high art. But to those of us who neither lived near, nor could afford, the theatre or opera, nor had an environment in which the reading of books was encouraged, these mass market and disposable forms of entertainment gave colour to our lives. Perhaps it was escapism, yes, but we had something that needed escaping. I was fortunate to go through the golden age of comprehensive education in Britain. Social mobility was still a thing but a precondition of it was the realisation that another life was possible. I often tell my kids that the 1970s were the greatest decade of all to be young in this country. Primarily, that was down to a thriving popular culture without which I would not be what I am.

The proposal

All stages of writing a book excite me, even reading the proofs. But the other end of the process is particularly thrilling and fun. The original conception, the first idea, the basic premise is a stage at which infinite possibilities remain open, which over time will become narrowed down. Initially vague and abstract ideas crystallise into something more solid and concrete that you could propose to a publisher. Along the way, that moment of discovery, when you first understand for yourself exactly what you want to do, is the key stage. At that point, conception has occurred. You see the possibility of life for your plan.

I am around that point again. I have a very good idea of what the book will be. Even better, it will be a co-authored book, so I am sharing that excitement and journey of intellectual discovery, which exponentially increases the satisfaction. I have not written a book with this co-author before. That is another fun dimension of the process as we find out how each other thinks and works.

The immediate aim is constructing a credible proposal that will gain a publisher’s interest. We think the idea is excellent but we need to convey its attraction clearly and succinctly. I’ve written quite a few proposals over the years. Many of them succeeded in securing contracts but not all. I now have a bank of old proposals on file and often share them with colleagues or other potential authors who ask me about getting books published. Early career researchers are usually the ones who ask my advice as it might not be obvious what a publisher wants to see. Some of them have moved over to a standard pro forma system, though I still prefer to go freestyle. I think it a really good idea to make an initial contact with the editor and start the conversation so that a proposal is not received out of the blue. My own discipline, philosophy, has some brilliant, experienced commissioning editors, such as Peter Momtchiloff, Hilary Gaskin and Tony Bruce, with whom I’ve worked over many years. They are really knowledgeable people and also very honest. They won’t string you along if they think your idea doesn’t fly.

Key advice I give, and of which I repeatedly remind myself in writing a proposal, is that this is not the point at which to try and impress your editor with flowery words or intricacies. Keep it simple. The editors and referees will be busy people. They will want to see as easily as possible what you intend to do and what the proposed book will be about. Start with a summary of this, a bit like an abstract of a paper, but covering the entire book. This might only be 10 or 15 lines but you need to think it through very carefully. I’ve been discussing the current proposal for over a year with my co-author. We started with an ‘elevator pitch’ just for our own purposes. We thought that if we couldn’t persuade ourselves that we had a credible and exciting book idea, there was no point going further.

There are several other essentials, such as showing that you know and understand what already exists on the chosen topic and establishing your credentials in that field. I would then also offer a detailed abstract for each chapter so that the publisher sees that I’ve thought it all through and know what I will be doing. Once a book is published, I will sometimes look back at the proposal. If it matches closely what eventually came out, I am very satisfied. That shows why the proposal stage is so crucial. More than just securing a contract, it is your plan for the writing of the book. The best plans will indeed be the ones that you can follow faithfully, rather than have to adjust at a later stage.

I’ve not said much about the proposed book I’m working on with my co-author. That’s as I think it should be. If we are offered a contract – and I take nothing for granted – that’s when I will shout the news from the rooftops. You might think that the real work begins at that point; and, yes, researching and writing a book is a lot of hard graft. In a very significant sense, though, I would still maintain that the key groundwork, culminating in the submission of a proposal, is what really determines the fate of your ideas. Take the time you have. Think about it, discuss it, at length. When you have that book in your hands years later, you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing your thoughts, hopes and plans made manifest.

One step at a time

During lockdown, I took up walking. County Durham is blessed with beautiful countryside. Finding it such a tranquil diversion, I started to look for greater challenges and spectacle further afield and have since taken on a few summits. The longest walk I did was 25 miles, including three peaks. The last of the day was Ingleborough from the north. I didn’t know until I got there that the ascent from this direction is an almost sheer vertical. It can be done without specialist equipment but required a very careful climb up the rocks which are formed into a sort of pathway, though not like any I’ve trod before.

Exhaustion had set in by then and, even after the summit, there was another 6-mile walk to get back to base. I found that the ascent was of such difficulty that I had to fully concentrate on every step I took. It was necessary to look for each potential foothold and just be in that moment alone. The next step was the only one I could take and thus I couldn’t think about any of the subsequent ones, or the descent to come, and it was good that I didn’t. One step at a time.

Since completing the walk, and others, I’ve reflected on this as an approach to any large and long-term project, such as writing a book or developing an academic career as a whole. Writing a book might sound, if you haven’t done one before, to be such a large and intimidating task that it’s hard to know where to start. It looks like it involves so much work; and, in truth, it does. Typically, there are years of research, thinking, drafting, redrafting, presenting, checking, indexing and proofing to come. In my own case, I think of a research monograph as a task of around five years, though it can vary. My forthcoming Absence and Nothing completes thinking that began 32 years ago.

The way of working that is best for me is to plan a book carefully so that I can break it down into much smaller and less intimidating tasks. If I have a plan, then in writing one chapter or sub-section, I don’t have to worry about all the other parts that I have yet to write. And this is effective. In a sense, no one can write a whole book. All that you can write is the next sentence, and if you repeat that task, you will eventually have a section. Keep going and you will get a chapter. But, all the time, focus on the current task. Be in that moment. The book is what you get if you persist until your plan is complete.

I know this can sound glib. One step at a time is a cliché. Taking on the challenge of a major walk had me consider it afresh, however. It’s not only about completing big pieces of work. Life is full of trials and difficult periods, which everyone will experience at some time or other, be it bereavement, anxiety or illness. In those times, just getting through the day is an achievement. In some circumstances, merely taking the next step is all that you can do. Our lives are our greatest and most difficult challenges of all. There will be days when you feel tiny and overwhelmed by the task ahead. But you can do it, one step at a time.

Talking the talk

What is your most important job as an academic researcher in the arts? Is it reading? Or is it writing? And really that means publishing, right? It must mean the latter since when you give a report at the end of a study leave, it usually just has to detail what you have produced and not what you’ve actually researched. But there’s an aspect of research that I’ve left out and which I think is absolutely crucial in the creative process. And that is conversation. All my instincts on entering academia were that sitting around talking is a waste of time and should be avoided. Gradually I came round to the realisation that it’s what it should all be about.

It wasn’t an easy learning process. At my first conferences, the most striking feature was the capacity for philosophical discussion of the other attendees. I was still quite shy and not confident of my position or arguments, so I held back, but I could see deeply engaged conversations going on all around me about very detailed points of philosophy. I guess we’ve all seen two conference delegates engaged in a serious discussion in the bar late at night and gone to bed only to find the same two continuing the same discussion the next morning over breakfast.

I did my Masters and then PhD at the University of Leeds in the early 90s. I was the only Masters student enrolled that year but there was an interesting postgraduate community. The physical space of the philosophy department at Leeds was ideal for nurturing conversation. There was a central foyer with seating and the academic offices around the edges. Many a philosophical discussion occurred in that area and, even though I wasn’t one of the most vocal, I would often listen in to what was said. I now think of it as a magical time. Staff, postgraduates and undergraduates would all be involved. Leeds had some particular philosophical preoccupations back then and it all rubbed off on me. I believe the foyer space is still there.

Decades later, I am one of those who can talk for hours about philosophy. And I do so guilt-free since I see completely that this is how intellectual progress is won. It takes time, of course, and sometimes a lot of it, but I also understand that it is the most valuable use of my time, as a researcher. I sometimes meet younger academics who, like me, wonder whether talking is real work. I’m pretty confident that as they progress they will recognise that it was and will treasure some of the conversations they’ve had along the way. One pointer I’d give is to make sure you capture the gains that discussions produce. Keep a journal and make notes afterwards, if you’ve found something particularly interesting, intriguing, promising and literally noteworthy.

When I was Head of Humanities at Nottingham it was decided that we would have a new building for the whole school, which had previously been dispersed around campus. Few academics want the disruption of moving offices so the project was unpopular from the start. As Head, I had a small role in approving the building plans and one thing I was very keen on was having some open plan social space. There had to be individual offices for staff as well but I was keen on recreating for others the conducive space from which I had benefitted at Leeds. I’m pleased to say that it’s now there and I used to get a glow of satisfaction every time I saw colleagues sat talking on the sofas. They were talking the talk and what could be more useful than that?

The index

Compiling a book’s index is regarded as a chore. Some authors are willing to pay to have it done for them. Others trust it to an automated program. I always prefer to compile my own indexes and this week I completed the index for my Absence and Nothing: the Philosophy of What There is Not.

As a student, I was often frustrated by inadequate indexes. With little time, I’d usually want to read only the part of the book relevant to my next essay but often it would be hard to locate. Occasionally I’d try to look up a particular topic or example that I knew I’d already seen in a book and it was then even more frustrating to find it inadequately or badly indexed. I’ve always tried to make my own indexes user-friendly, thorough and complete, viewing the list through the eyes of reader looking for something specific.

It requires good philosophical judgment to know what terms to index. A paid indexer might miss a passing reference to mechanisms, for instance, not knowing that this is an important philosophical topic in its own right. An automated program wouldn’t know the difference between significant and insignificant uses of a term. As a metaphysician, I might talk about objects at one point and index each mention of ‘object’. But if a say ‘an opponent could object that…’, then a search function would take that as an instance. I think of the index as an integral part of a book and, if I’m author of the book, I should be author of the index too. It’s the way of showing which are the important concepts of the book. It might sound over-ambitious, but I like to think that a good index can be a work of art. I try to have fun with it. I try to make it readable in its own right. Occasionally, I put in jokes.

I first starting thinking about absences, nothings and negatives back in 1989. There are 32 years of work that have gone into this book. Compiling an index from such a lengthy project brought back so many memories of issues I’d struggled with and authors I’d read. It was a pride and pleasure to index two former undergraduates I’d taught. There was sadness too: I indexed a number of contemporaries who have passed on all too soon.

Unlike any other index I’ve compiled, this one gave me a pressing sense of the passage of time. I was aware of my own age and aging, of my progress through the problems but also through my career and life. Other philosophers and texts accompanied me on the journey, some still here and some now missing. I never thought I’d be the kind of academic who would spend more than 30 years writing a book so didn’t anticipate these feelings. For an author, the index is usually the very last work on a book and I must admit to some ambivalence on the closure it has brought me. Alas, time to let go and to move on.

To live (and die) for philosophy

Philosophy produces a level of intensity and dedication like no other academic pursuit. To do it right, the discipline is supposed to be all consuming. Socrates drank hemlock rather than give it up. The young Wittgenstein told Russell that if he could not be a philosopher, he would shoot himself. Maybe it’s just because I don’t get around enough but I’ve never heard anyone say ‘dermatology or death’ or ‘the life without geology is not worth living’.

Some time ago I heard on the grapevine of an acquaintance thinking badly of me because I was treating philosophy as a nine-to-five job. Apparently they’d seen me walking my kids to school, shopping in the supermarket and chatting to the local greengrocer like I was some kind of normal person. Philosophy should be your life and, if you are a true philosopher, you can never switch it off. It’s hard to imagine Nietzsche doing laundry or Kant caring for elderly relatives. Philosophical heroes are unhappy and moody, constantly preoccupied with loftier thoughts and it would be unconscionable to distract them with mundanities of regular living.

This must all look very pompous to non-philosophers. We think hard, for sure, but so does anyone who succeeds in any academic discipline. I’ve not known any subject area where it’s easy to become a university professor. We do have a very long history, though, and this has helped create a number of myths out of our long line of forebears, such the story of Diogenes, who lived his philosophy to the full and made his home in a barrel.

I don’t see the norms that have come out of this historical practice as being particularly helpful. The performative conception of being a philosopher – that you must do it right, and to do so you it must consume your every thought and action – is one that serves us badly, especially in relation to the current employment arrangements. It discriminates against those who wish to raise a family, the effort of which often falls disproportionately on women. It discriminates against those with disabilities who might have good reason to prioritise personal care. Generally, I think it is bad for our mental health to have nothing but philosophy in our lives. It also means that to succeed, and secure a permanent position at a university, you have to dedicate your life to your work. Given that there are fewer jobs than people wanting them, what happens to those who then have to change direction in life? How have we served them? Or are we happy to treat them as philosophy’s collateral damage: our very own human sacrifice?

I am happy to challenge these norms of our profession and have plenty of interests outside of philosophy and academia generally. I think it makes me a happier and more adaptable person. Indeed, I suspect that most other professional philosophers are like this too. What varies is only the degree of guilt for not performing our philosopher-hood right. Instead, we can subvert the stereotype, discard the myths of what a philosopher looks like, and think about a more positive set of norms for our profession. As well as being healthier for us, I see no reason why this couldn’t produce better philosophy too.

Unsung heroes of academic publishing

The text that appears in academic books and papers is never the result of one person’s labours alone, not even in single-authored pieces. The author submits their copy but the words also go through the hands and minds of those silent contributors, the copy editors, before they reach the printed page. Copy editors save us from our last-remaining typos but a good one can do more than that, sometimes providing helpful grammatical and stylistic improvements. Maybe even philosophical improvements.

I’ve written enough books and papers now to be able to tell the difference between a good and less-good copy editor. For my forthcoming book Absence and Nothing: the Philosophy of What There is Not, I had one of my best ever and wanted to insert a thank you into the script. I can’t remember ever seeing a copy editor acknowledged before. In this case, I had a sense of philosophical dialogue with the editor checking my complicated text. We had a lengthy discussion over the difference between ‘what is not’ and ‘what-is-not’. Was it merely a grammatical matter, governed by rules of consistency, or was there a substantial philosophical difference between two distinct things? We also had a bit of a joke together when he saw my example of a copy editor correcting double negations in a section considering their occasional legitimate use.

The best copy editors for my work will be those with a feel for philosophy and who treat the text not just as a collection of words but as a philosophical argument. Philosophers will prefer precision over what reads easiest and this is where I’ve had problems. One copy editor decided, for instance, that a claim I expressed with the form ‘P, only if Q’ would read better with a sentence that had the form ‘only if P, Q’. A non-philosopher might think there was no difference. In another case, I saw that a number of figures had been redrawn, presumably to look more aesthetically pleasing, but thereby negating the point they were meant to illustrate.  

I sometimes joke that English is my second language as I grew up with a number of Yorkshire colloquialisms that had to be unlearnt as I became an academic. Copy editors were some of the people who helped correct my early efforts and I’ve always tried to make full use of the grammatical lessons they give. I do admire a trained copy editor’s eye for detail. I have in the past been susceptible to confusing homophones, for instance. Should it be ‘emit’ or ‘omit’, ‘elicit’ or ‘illicit’, ‘discrete’ or ‘discreet’? It might sound right as you read it in your head but a good copy editor sees beyond the sounds.

We operate within a publishing landscape that is not always defensible. Predatory publishers are the tip of an iceberg of academic exploitation and there are many practices I would condemn. I certainly wouldn’t lay any of the blame at the feet of the hard-working copy editor, though. I imagine it is not easy work and they have to fight for pay and conditions like the rest of us. They might occasionally annoy us when they suggest things with which we disagree, but if they save me from one typo, and make the public version of my work better, I am still going to be immensely grateful.