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EA needs a cause prioritization journal

It's about time that someone started publishing a journal for cause prioritization arguments. It may have open peer review or a traditional formal process, it may come from a reputable academic press or it may be an in-house thing with zero credibility to the outside world, it may publish regular papers or weird things like argument maps and adversarial collaborations, I make no claims about how to navigate these details, but there needs to be a journal.

I don't think this claim needs much special argument; I expect that many people's reaction to this will be "gee whiz, of course that's a good idea." We think cause prioritization is a serious new issue, we should have a venue to publish about it, pretty straightforward right? Every new field gets a journal, and the review and publication process improves article quality. Still, I will develop the argument for an EA journal in greater detail, and hopefully make it clear that it is worth the time and money required to run it.

EA has developed a significant body of knowledge spread across a variety of spaces. Some of it is fine as common knowledge and blog posts; simple ideas, which are easy to accept and communicate. Or they may be temporary practical issues, like evaluation of a particular charity, that don't last long enough to warrant the special attention and timelessness of being put into a publication. Yet cause prioritization arguments are more conceptual, they are important, and they need to be fleshed out with greater rigor than they have been. This paper for instance has been relied upon for ages, yet nothing has really followed on from it. There has been no quantitative modeling or sensitivity analysis, there has been no thorough comparison of risk reduction versus growth acceleration, and without that we aren't getting closer to really settling the issue of whether existential risk really can be presumed to be our biggest priority in the long run.

We occasionally have discussions that move past the basic old cause prioritization arguments, but that is transient; many arguments are left in a form that is impossible to summarize and build upon, then forgotten. Then we devote most of our time to bickering about the community, because we are not being fed enough difficult new intellectual content to keep our minds occupied. We think that all the cause prioritization arguments were pretty much fleshed out already, so we assume that the issue is settled and treat causes like ideologies or identities rather than hypotheses.

So not a lot of real progress is actually being made on the core EA project. I think the situation is actually very poor by academic standards. We need to encourage people to do serious work on cause prioritization, make sure that it is rigorous, and make sure that it is in a format that lends itself to further work. A good way to address this and other problems is to create a journal for it.

Existing journals aren't suitable.

First, they are rarely interested in the questions of cause prioritization. While journals may be interested in cost-effectiveness arguments for particular efforts in their particular field (e.g. https://www.academia.edu/34953571/Cost-effectiveness_of_interventions_for_alternate_food_in_the_United_States_to_address_agricultural_catastrophes), I can think of none which would care about rigorous comparisons between very different causes. For not only is cause prioritization interdisciplinary among different scientific fields, but it also relates to ethics and decision theory, meaning that it crosses a set of domains so wide that no typical journal will encompass it. Utilitas can be amenable, but it won't work for non-utilitarian EA arguments, or arguments over moral uncertainty.

Second, publishing to an external audience requires explaining or defending lots of basic premises and background that may be common in an EA audience. The results can be seen in these two papers (https://commons.pacificu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1573&context=eip / https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10677-013-9433-4). They both argue for the viability of certain EA activities, yet the most of their space is taken up by issues which were widely considered settled or uninteresting in the EA community at the time of publication.

Third, common scientific norms revolve around frequentist statistics and typically require proven results in order to be considered interesting; everything else is relegated to the same bucket of "plausible". This makes it difficult to make a scientific argument for the prioritization of some uncertain causes over others. In EA, we are much more comfortable with subjective Bayesian epistemology, we are more comfortable acting on the basis of uncertain possibilities, and we are very interested in knowing just how likely or unlikely a possibility is. With our own journal, it will be easier for us to publish a paper that properly models all the uncertain parts of the equation that are necessary to complete a full cause prioritization argument. Subjective Bayesian methodology does get published in reputable journals, it's just rare - most academics are less comfortable with it.

Fourth, involving EAs in the peer review will ensure that papers are appropriately written to target EA criteria and dodge the likely EA counterarguments. Even though the author of a draft would be an EA, she may have a blind spot regarding the way that other EAs think about the issue.

It will lend notability to our movement and ideas.

Having a journal on a subject is a small step for establishing it as a widely-acknowledged legitimate field of study. It encourages other people to cite the works in their own literature and take them seriuosly. To be sure, a new journal may not be noticed at all, and I don't know what it takes to make a journal seem properly reputable as opposed to something like those creationist journals where they are just publishing whatever fits their point of view so nobody pays attention to them. But anything would be technically better than having these ideas be put up on the internet by their own authors with no review or publication at all. To be sure, in practice, a very bad journal would be worse than nothing because of the reputation risk, but I doubt that we would screw things up that much.

It will create opportunities for outsiders to contribute.

Again assuming that it is sufficiently reputable, it could encourage people outside EA to weigh in on our questions, because now it means that they will get a publication. A major benefit here is that the review process, being led by EAs, will help them translate their ideas into a form that is more suitable for us. As it stands, people on the outside who try to attack EA cause priorities often have a pretty poor grasp of what does or doesn't work as an argument in the EA framework, and a poor grasp of our likely counterarguments. This problem persists in academic publications that comment on EA causes. It would obviously be much better to hash out these things pre-publication, so that they can provide us with more useful arguments.

We have enough output to sustain a journal.

Think about all the things being written by individuals in the community on forums and their personal websites, the blogs and reports from all our organizations (Givewell, Open Phil, ACE, FLI...), and the papers that are being published in academic journals by EAs. Much of it is very seriously thought out. With all this effort, just a bit of emphasis of cause prioritization will enable journal issues to be put together within an acceptable length of time.

Hey, what about academic incentives!? Peer review is broken! It's all status signaling! Think about publication bias! Think about the replication crisis! Remember the Sokal Affair??? Etc, etc.

However great these problems are, surely the practice of spreading arguments across Facebook walls, podcasts, and blog posts has them or others to a greater degree. And that's the state of EA thought on cause prioritization. In any case, EAs know enough about these issues, and are sufficiently free of the need to pander to establishment institutions, that we can presumably design a journal mechanism that is better than the norm.

Comments (13)

Comment author: RandomEA 12 September 2018 10:59:35PM *  2 points [-]
Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 13 September 2018 01:45:46AM *  2 points [-]

(relevant blogs, to be precise)

Some of those objections would not apply a journal like this. Namely, the journal itself would be about questions which matter and have a high impact, and cause prioritization is no longer so ignored that you can make great progress by writing casually. Also, by Brian's own admission, some of his reasons are "more reflective of my emotional whims".

In any case, Brian's only trying to answer the question of whether a given author should submit to a journal. Whether or not a community should have a journal is a subtly different story.

Comment author: Khorton 13 September 2018 04:13:47AM 2 points [-]

From your post, it seems like the advantages of a new cause prioritization journal are:

-Peer review

-Articles all posted in one place

-Increased incentive for academics to write thoughtfully about cause prioritization, because publishing on the topic would become more beneficial to academics' careers

-It might make cause prioritization more credible or mainstream

My main questions are:

-Are there any major benefits to creating a journal that I've missed?

-What does it take to create a credible journal? How costly would it be to the community? Are we even capable of it?

-Are there any in-between options that provide the best of both worlds? For example, could we add a peer review function to the forum (maybe posts that have been peer reviewed get a star)? Could we set up a blog that acts as a central reference point for all the work on cause prioritization and incentivizes writers to move the field forward?

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 13 September 2018 08:06:57AM *  2 points [-]

Blind review is only possible with a specialized system/website. The EA forum doesn't support math typesetting like LaTeX, and the arguments would be mixed up with all kinds of other posts. I think the best alternative to a true journal would be a community blog that hosted articles with a review system.

But not all peer review is the same, you want to have some review from people who know the relevant subjects well. E.g., a paper that relates to economic policy should be seen by economists. But if we have unpublished works on a website, I imagine it's going to be hard to get subject matter experts outside of EA to participate in the review process.

Comment author: Dunja 13 September 2018 08:48:00AM 2 points [-]

I agree that journal publications certainly allow for a raise in quality due to the peer-review system. In principle, there could even be a mixed platform with an (online) journal + a blog which (re)posts stuff relevant for the topic (e.g. posts made on this forum that are relevant for the topic of cause prioritization).

My main question is: is there anyone on here who's actually actively doing research on this topic and who could comment on the absence of an adequate journal, as argued by kbog? I don't have any experience with this domain, but if more people could support this thesis, then it makes sense to actually go for it.

If others agree, I suppose that for further steps, you'd need an academic with expertise in the area, who'd get in touch with one of the publishing houses with a concrete proposal (including the editorial board, the condition that articles be open access, etc.), which would host the journal.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 13 September 2018 03:56:06PM 14 points [-]

There do seem to be some strong arguments in favour of having a cause prioritisation journal. I think there are some reasons against too though, which you don't mention:

  • For work people are happy to do in sufficient detail and depth to publish, there are significant downsides to publishing in a new and unknown journal. It will get much less readership and engagement, as well as generally less prestige. That means if this journal is pulling in pieces which could have been published elsewhere, it will be decreasing the engagement the ideas get from other academics who might have had lots of useful comments, and will be decreasing the extent to which people in general know about and take the ideas seriously.

  • For early stage work, getting an article to the point of being publishable in a journal is a large amount of work. Simply from how people understand journal publishing to work, there's a much higher bar for publishing than there is on a blog. So the benefits of having things looking more professional are actually quite expensive.

  • The actual work it is to set up and run a journal, and do so well enough to make sure that cause prioritisation as a field gains rather than loses credibility from it.

Comment author: Dunja 13 September 2018 08:31:44PM 5 points [-]

These are good points, and unless the area is well established so that initial publications come from bigger names (who will that way help to establish the journal), it'll be hard to realize the idea.

What could be done at this point though is have an online page that collects/reports on all the publications relevant for cause prioritization, which may help with the growth of the field.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 14 September 2018 11:17:40AM *  1 point [-]

For work people are happy to do in sufficient detail and depth to publish, there are significant downsides to publishing in a new and unknown journal. It will get much less readership and engagement, as well as generally less prestige. That means if this journal is pulling in pieces which could have been published elsewhere, it will be decreasing the engagement the ideas get from other academics who might have had lots of useful comments, and will be decreasing the extent to which people in general know about and take the ideas seriously.

Yes. On the other hand, there has been relatively little publication on cause priorities anyway. I think most of the content here would be counterfactually unpublished.

For early stage work, getting an article to the point of being publishable in a journal is a large amount of work. Simply from how people understand journal publishing to work, there's a much higher bar for publishing than there is on a blog. So the benefits of having things looking more professional are actually quite expensive.

Well some of this (though not all) adds value in terms of making the article more robust or more communicable. Also, a uniform format maybe helps keep people from being biased by the article's appearance (probably a very small effect, however).

Comment author: Lila 14 September 2018 01:50:58AM 0 points [-]

Academics will not find a new journal run by non-academics credible, much less prestigious. No one would be able to put this journal on an academic CV. So there's really no benefit to "publishing" relative to posting publicly and letting people vote and comment.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 14 September 2018 09:41:18AM *  0 points [-]

I didn't say it would be run by non-academics.

No one would be able to put this journal on an academic CV.

That will depend on who runs it!

So there's really no benefit to "publishing" relative to posting publicly and letting people vote and comment.

Well there are many ways to run a review process besides public votes and comments. You can always have a more closed/formal/blind process even if you don't publish it.

Comment author: aarongertler  (EA Profile) 14 September 2018 11:37:13AM 4 points [-]

To provide some context for this discussion, here's a 2017 overview of the cause prioritization landscape (not an intellectual summary -- more about the way resources are distributed, and what happens to the output).

That summary notes that existing cause-prioritization research is rarely used by non-EAs, but has influenced some government funding when it was spread by other parties (e.g. the Copenhagen Consensus Center talking to the British government). If a journal did come to exist for cause prioritization, much of its impact might come from how the results are shared, rather than the existence of the results in a journal format. And the EA community already has routes to sharing our results -- so to me, the main question at hand is: "How do we get better results?" Or, as the OP put it, how do we make intellectual progress?

If we want to focus on accelerating progress and helping discussions not become "lost", a journal doesn't seem like the optimal format. Something like the Cause Prioritization Wiki, which allows for rapid updating and the aggregation of content in a single place (rather than scattered through many articles) seems better for those goals.

This makes it a bit harder for some outsiders (e.g. academics) to contribute, but makes it much easier for non-academics to incorporate academic information into summaries. I suspect that an approach of "help EAs find good research and add it to our databases" would go better than an approach of "help good researchers find EA and publish in our journal", but each plan has its own pro/con list.

Comment author: Denkenberger 15 September 2018 06:29:42PM 8 points [-]

Interesting idea, but I think GCR / X risk is further along. CSER has identified thousands of relevant papers, and there have been 3 special issues in the last 4 years. So I think GCR is ready for a journal (perhaps 2-4 issues per year). I would recommend for cause prioritization to do a few special issues and see how it turns out. Even that is a significant time commitment. One way to do it would be to have a special issue associated with an EA global.

Comment author: RyanCarey 16 September 2018 07:25:04AM *  6 points [-]

I agree that special issues are the sensible intermediate step.

Even for GCR, we ought to check that the special issues are not just using up the backlog of decent content (a first-album-syndrome where the first few issues are great). So I'd like to see us sticking with special issues for a little longer, and to see an ongoing improvement in quality and volume of content before we commit to a standalone journal of 2-4 issues per year. But opinions can reasonably differ, of course!