Old research

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 17, 2008

This week I received my copy of “The Capability Approach“:http://www.cambridge.org/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521862875, a fat book that contains a large number of essays on… yes, good guess. It’s primarily written by social scientists or interdisciplinary oriented scholars — hence not so much the more philosophical side of that literature. Sometimes I feel very happy and satisfied, perhaps even a little proud, when I see a book to which I’ve contributed a chapter. For instance, that was the case last September when Jude Browne’s splendidly edited “The Future of Gender“:http://www.cambridge.org/us/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521697255 came out. That volume contains many excellent essays on issues of gender and sexual difference by interesting thinkers, and I felt my own chapter was decent enough. Sadly, I do not have such feelings about my chapter in The Capability Approach. The simple reason is that that chapter was written in 2001, and analyses certain limitations of the capability approach for the analysis of gender issues. Yet in the 6 years and 8 months between sending that chapter to the editors and its ultimate publication, I think very little of what I wrote in that article is still original or not by now broadly appreciated. The literature on the capability approach has developed at an incredibly fast pace, and the arguments in that chapter are… well, a little old. Academic publishing is a slow business – often too slow. Anybody a worse experience than those 6 years and 8 months?



John Quiggin 05.17.08 at 8:06 pm

My worst for a book chapter is a little under 6 years. However, since the chapter was arguing for a low rate of discounting for future benefits, I guess I can’t complain.

Journal articles are another matter. Get a couple of rejections and a long revision process, and it can easily take seven years from the first version of the paper to publication, though you do get to update along the way. My frustration with this process is one reason I’ve gone for blogging.


Kieran Healy 05.17.08 at 8:55 pm

There is a famous edited volume in sociology which has yet to appear after, I think, nearly 14 years in the works now.


Henry 05.17.08 at 10:51 pm

Six years and counting on one particular chapter (about the governance of e-commerce, so boy will it be out of date when it finally appears …)


Matt 05.17.08 at 11:00 pm

I’m too “young” (professionally speaking, not personally, alas) to have had this problem myself but there are several volumes in the Cambridge Companions to Philosophy series that have been “forthcoming” for at least 6 years now (more in some cases) with at least some of the papers having been written that long. (I’m thinking of the volumes on Fichte and Frege in particular.) They are no longer officially listed as “forthcoming” at this point so perhaps all hope has been given up on them. Too bad, if so.


harry b 05.18.08 at 3:04 am

Currently 5 years but no prospect of it coming out on one paper. One of my professors in grad school bumped into me at his mailbox just as he was opening a package with a book containing an essay he had written 13 years earlier. He said he had forgotten about it, which I half-believed.


harry b 05.18.08 at 3:05 am

Here’s a different question: the time lapse between beginning to write a paper and finally sending it to a journal. My record on that is 10 and a half years.


Tom Hurka 05.18.08 at 3:48 am

At least one Cambridge Companion to Philosophy has been canceled even though some authors wrote entries for it. So I guess their time from writing to publication is … infinite.


dr ngo 05.18.08 at 3:55 am

FWIW: I sent the complete, copy-edited, carefully proofread text of a volume of my collected essays in hard copy AND on a disk in the particular near-obsolete word-processing language they asked for to the press which had agreed to print it in 1992. Final date of publication: 1999. Along the way they lost the disk, reset the entire typescript by hand, turned it over to some recent graduate (I suppose) for copy-editing, and introduced – by my rough estimate – more than a thousand errors, all of which I insisted on correcting.

It may not be a record, but it was enough for me.

(Also I, like many others, have had articles in promised volumes “forthcoming” for decades now. Annoying, but I now think of this as routine.)


Neil 05.18.08 at 4:12 am

I wrote a paper on lessons journalists could learn from Gulf War I, lessons to apply in the then-looming Gulf War II. I submitted it in early 2002. It is, the editor tells me, still under submission. Hopefully I will get referees’ reports in time for GWIII.


Ingrid Robeyns 05.18.08 at 8:10 am

I’m glad I’m not writing on e-commerce or contemporary wars ;-)

I have another chapter for an edited book which now stands at 5 year and still counting, so if it continues like this, my personal record may be broken in a little while.


Jonathan Dresner 05.18.08 at 9:04 am

Yeah. Untenured faculty shouldn’t publish in edited volumes — or small, start-up journals, for that matter — at least not if they want it to count for tenure.


Hidari 05.18.08 at 9:49 am

It’s not just the time to publication that bothers me, it’s the time to review. As I write monographs (not textbooks) they really live or die on the reviews (at least on my last book I managed to get pre-publication quotes from some serious academics, which helped). But it’s a good 3 or 4 year waiting list before your book will get reviewed by a journal.

I really think that academia is living in the pre-internet dark ages, and is going to have to shape up and get real about these time delays.


Charlie Stross 05.18.08 at 10:25 am

This isn’t an academic publishing phenomenon, but Harlan Ellison’s ground-breaking major anthology of new cutting-edge science fiction, The Last Dangerous Visions, is now 25 years overdue.


praisegod barebones 05.18.08 at 11:32 am

I’ve had a book chapter accepted in 2001 which is still not in print. Since I’m on a renewable one year contract my publication list is reviewed every year, this is a recurring source of embarrassment – and worse.

I’ve also got a suggestion which might make things better. This is for people whose work is in demand for volumes of this sort to insist on contracts which specify that if the chapter is not published within a certain time, the copyright reverts to the author.

Editors – at least of commissioned volumes – might also be in a position to edit some leverage with publishers over this


praisegod barebones 05.18.08 at 11:34 am

‘exert some leverage’, obviously.



Bill Gardner 05.18.08 at 1:01 pm

11 years. And I only discovered that it had finally appeared because it came up in a search (for something else) on Google scholar.


Bill Gardner 05.18.08 at 1:04 pm

Your comment is awaiting moderation.

Oh really? Wait till you hear me when I’m ill-tempered.


S.W. 05.18.08 at 1:10 pm

Just to confirm Matt’s comment above about the Cambridge Companion to Frege, I once found myself in a philosophy department lounge, where someone (presumably the author) had a left a finished draft of his paper for the Frege volume for people to read. I read it. It was good.

That was seven years ago. I really wish that book would come out.


abb1 05.18.08 at 3:03 pm

I used to work for a company that runs an internet-based system for some medical journals to do their peer-reviews and stuff like that. It’s quite complicated, actually, all those convoluted rules they have there; it’s a whole little world of its own.


db 05.18.08 at 5:47 pm

I have a chapter forthcoming in a CUP companion volume (though not in philosophy). Although i was only recently signed up to write the chapter, the volume itself was originally commissioned in the late 1980s. It will be published next year.


Chris Williams 05.18.08 at 7:00 pm

One of my friends took 17 years to turn his PhD into a book. It’s quite good, though. A couple of weeks ago I submitted an article for publication which was the end product of a paper that I gave in 1995. 13 years. Ow. On the other hand, I’ve changed my mind several times about the topic since then, found out a whole new lot of stuff, and had it rejected by a couple of [small-minded and short-sighted, natch] other journals, so does that really count?

But that was history, where things more slowly, and (in my bit of it at least) people tend to look out for one another rather than try to trump them. I’ve something else about to come out in _Policing and Society_, which I’d been slowly working on for about 10 years: last week I found that an article on the same topic has just been published in _Criminology and Criminal Justice_. A quick nervous skim was enough to show that their approach is different from mine, and their conclusions reassuringly tangential, but I spent about 30 seconds wondering if I’d have to etch “Never bump something to after the RAE deadline again, you fool” on the bathroom mirror.


magistra 05.18.08 at 9:13 pm

A friend of mine had a nasty time with the Pictish Arts Society, with his article coming up after 7-8 years without endnotes.


Lee Sigelman 05.19.08 at 12:18 am

Sometime in the 1970s, I co-authored a minor paper that we immediately submitted to a second (third?)-tier psychology journal. In fairly short order, the paper was accepted and we, being young faculty members, were pleased. The editor gave us two choices: (1) We could remit page charges of $100 or so, in which case the paper would be published within the next couple of issues; or (2) we could forgo page charges, in which case the paper would be put in their queue and published on an “as-soon-as possible” basis. We opted for (2). Now, more than 30 years later, we are still waiting for the paper to appear in print. Do you think we should stop listing this paper as “forthcoming”?


Ingrid Robeyns 05.19.08 at 10:15 am


Lee Sigelman: I think you win the contest for the worst experience (qua time lag, that is – one may also have bad experiences in other dimensions, such as how one is treated by referees or editors). Perhaps the journal no longer exists?


harry b 05.19.08 at 7:29 pm

Oh, Lee’s experience reminds me that I, and a friend, both had papers accepted for a journal in 1996, when neither of us had tenure. They have never been published (and I wouldn’t want mine to be published now, anyway). Still, nothing like Lee’s experience, except that in 100 years time the gap between his lag and mine will be a very small percentage of the full time we have been waiting.


Tom 05.19.08 at 9:15 pm

So what book would you recommend on the capability approach?


Colin Danby 05.19.08 at 9:35 pm

#23 sounds like a little shakedown. You can see the temptation for a journal editor to take advantage of people’s interest in getting published.


Ingrid Robeyns 05.20.08 at 8:11 am

tom (@26): that is a really hard question. For one thing, it depends on what you need it for. As far as I am concerned, there does not yet exit a good monograph that describes the capability approach from both a range of disciplinary viewpoints, as well as from the different reasons why people want to know more (e.g. abstract philosophical analysis, or empirical research, or real policy development). The book I linked to in the post *may* contain some intersting chapters for someone doing empirical research, though I haven’t read most chapters, so can’t say this with confidence. For economists intersted in advanced measurement techniques, my late friend Wiebke Kuklys’s “book”:http://www.amazon.com/Amartya-Sens-Capability-Approach-Applications/dp/3540261982 is probably a very good starting point (disclaimer: I co-authored one chapter with her in that book). For philosophical interests the famous Nussbaum-Sen volume on The Quality of Life is still among the best, and there is also a volume edited by Alexander Kaufman, called ‘Capabilities Equality’. Yet except for Kuklys’s book, these are all edited volumes – implying that it is almost inevitable that there are some stronger and some weaker chapters included, and that it still does not give you a systematic account of what the appraoch is and does. And there are of course Nussbaum’s books, which give her own version of the approach. For practioners, there is very little – and a huge demand (but I know some people from the “HDCA”:http://www.capabilityapproach.com/ are working on such a volume).

All in all, I think for the time being it is better to stick with a selection of articles and book chapters from these edited volumes.


Dave 05.20.08 at 9:22 am

Wouldn’t Sabina Alkire’s book, Valuing Freedoms be a good place to start on the capabiliy apporach.


Ingrid Robeyns 05.20.08 at 9:41 am

Dave, yes, of course, how could I forgot SAbina’s book?! Yet I should add that many readers find that book rather difficult to read (I myself wrote a very positive book review of her book in Economics and Philosophy soon after it came out, yet I’ve been told by several readers that they found it a rather hard book to read, and I agree.) In addition, I think that for political philosophers who are interested in theories of justice and related discussions, it is not the best starting point. That’s one of the problems with the capability approach – it is very interdisciplinary, and we use it for different puproses and within disciplinary conversations. For each of these, other books or articles are more relevant.


Tom 05.20.08 at 1:41 pm

Thank you! That is extremely helpful. As it happens, I am a policy analyst who is struck by the gulf between the factors that I know how to analyze and the concerns that most motivate the members of the community organizations that I am trying to support with my work, and I am wondering whether this approach would have something to offer in bridging that gap. I like reading philosophy, but ultimately I am wondering how to shape an applied research agenda that is politically relevant for low-income communities.


Ingrid Robeyns 05.20.08 at 3:00 pm

Tom, one other book that I also forgot is Jo Wolff’s and Avner De-Shalit’s Disadvantage which uses the capability approach in developign an account of what it means to be disadvantaged, and how to develop policies to combat that. Yet I should add that some of my students, especially the two who are members of a medium-size city Council, where sceptical about the practical value for policy makers.

I seem to have forgotten too much this morning – should not respond to comments before drinking coffee….


Dave 05.20.08 at 3:29 pm

Oops. I shouldn’t have forgotten Disadvantage either. I hope Jo isn’t reading this comment string.

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