Conversation About What Peer Review Is

A thoughtful article by Rebecca Schumann about peer review by appears in Slate.

Peer review is seen as a thankless chore with little reward other than the editor’s someday owing you a favor—thus, articles regularly, I’m talking almost always, languish untouched on the referee’s desk for six, 12, even 18 months. Come to think of it, I’m actually still waiting to hear about a submission from 2012. (Spoiler alert: I don’t care anymore.)

She offers an interesting proposal for correction:

Right now anyone can submit an article or book to any journal or press, and if the beleaguered (often unpaid) editor likes it, she begs friends or grad students or total strangers to look at it for peer review. But what if in order to be eligible to submit an academic article to a journal, a scholar had first to volunteer to review someone else’s article for that same journal? What if that review had only two requirements: It has to be timely (in academese, by the way, this means three months). And that review has to be constructive. You want to publish and not perish? First you have to earn that right by making a punctual, non-petty investment into the publishing enterprise. Journals get better, more motivated reviewers; authors are more invested in actually reading and contributing the journals. Everybody wins. Call it “peer review review.”

Kent Anderson offers useful observations and a helpful taxonomy on the way to basically disagreeing, but I think he is wrong. Contemporary academia has too much pressure on the academic for peer review to work effectively. He suggests we build gently on a platform that provably works. I believe that the whole business is based on models of scarcity (of ink and paper) and surplus (of intellectual engagement) that no longer exist. The scaffolding he wants to build upon rests upon a foundation that is crumbling.

Schulman also points to this book: Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. I’m probably sufficiently disengaged from academia now that it would do me and my readers little good for me to read it. But it’s an interesting project. It not only proposes alternative approaches to peer review, it also implements one of them.

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