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Putting the “peer” back in “peer reviewed articles”

October 28, 2011

The more I learn about life at a research institution, the more I grow to understand how much power and hype has come to surround the process of publishing in “peer-reviewed academic journals”. There seems to be a peculiar academic compunction to give surprising amounts of clout to the peer review/academic publication process. This strikes me as bizarre because, of all the ways I can think of to engage in knowledge generation and discussion, academic journals certainly don’t top the list. Nor do they for most average citizens, I believe. Most people think of newspapers, TV, schools, workplaces, YouTube, blogs, radio, libraries, churches, independent media outlets, print books, magazines, zines, book clubs, cocktail hours, block parties, museums, community centers, retirement homes, etc. as places to discuss and engage with knowledge. This makes sense, considering academic journals are usually pretty esoteric and locked up behind paid firewalls that require library subscriptions. Average citizens are unlikely to want to go through the hassle of trying to access academic journals when there is a wealth of other ways to engage with knowledge right at their doorstops.

Given all that, academics seem surprisingly willing (or perhaps resigned?) to make this very singular process of academic publication a central structure of their academic rewards system. This forces me to wonder: what exactly does peer review/academic publishing contribute to academics’ vocations? And, if I choose to participate in this process, what can it contribute to my vocation?

I admit that I come at this issue with a certain degree of ignorance, as I have never published in an academic journal. This means I also come at it with few preconceived notions about whether and how academic journals must fit into academics’ careers. Since I am primarily engaged in the social sciences, it is possible some of my considerations may apply differently to the natural sciences and humanities, and I would be excited to hear more about engagement with knowledge in those domains. But for now, this is the process of me, an M.A. student, trying to figure out how to engage with the various communities and modes of knowledge generation, and where I want to fit.

Focusing on the format of “article” first, and ignoring whether it’s academic or published outside of the academy:
The idea of publishing an article seems relevant if I am involved in a project or inquiry (or a stage of a project or inquiry) that deserves a sense of completion and reflection. If I have been engrossed in a project for a period of time, and if this project would benefit from a reflective phase, and if others could benefit from my formalizing and making some of this reflection public, then publishing an article might make sense. The venue for this article would probably vary depending on my purpose: if I think my reflection is useful primarily for other academics with library subscriptions to academic journals, then the academic publishing route may be the way to go. If, on the other hand, a broader audience may benefit, then I will want to look to into publishing in newspapers, on websites, or formulating my article as a letter to editors, politicians, community leaders, etc.

Publishing an article would be inappropriate, however, if it led to a false sense of project completion, or signaled a premature end to my engagement with a project. If an article “gives me an out” or “closes the book”, rather than inviting further discussion, then it is probably an inappropriate choice.

Thinking, then, of the idea of “peer review”:
The idea of having a group of people engage with my work for the sake of improving it seems like a generally good idea. Three major questions, then, are: 1) Whom do I engage in this review process?, 2) When do I engage them in the review process?, and 3) How do I engage people in the process of reviewing my work and participating in further discussion related to my work? Tackling each question individually…

1) Who?
From they way I’ve seen it presented, the words “peer review” have become somewhat of a tautology in the academy. It is assumed that, when I submit an article for publication, journals arrange for academic “peers” to “review” my work. I can, perhaps, choose a journal based on the editors and contributors I know to have produced quality, relevant articles in the past, deem them to be my chosen “peers”, and submit to that journal. Beyond that, though, I have very little control over whom to involve, and who is construed as a “peer” for the process of evaluating and improving my work.

This strikes me as hugely problematic, because the quality of “peer review” can only be as good as the quality of the peers themselves. For example, in my academic career, I see myself potentially working with teachers, students, “tech geeks”, librarians, politicians–any number of individuals. Depending on the projects I get involved in, these people will be my “peers”. If I work on a project at a high school, for example, I would expect teachers and students from other high schools to be “peers” in the review process of my work. Ideally, I would like to have some instrumental control over whom to involve as peer reviewers, not out of insularity and laziness, but for the sake of rigor. Moreover, the process of involving a breadth of people as peers to review my work gives my work broader scope and relevance and makes it more likely to generate further engagement. Is this not what lies at the heart of academics’ deepest desires?

2) When?
In the current environment of academic publishing, it seems like “peers” don’t get involved in reviewing work until the very final stages of the game. At this point, their contribution seems likely to take one of two forms: 1) it can be cosmetic–encouraging an author to polish up an argument, an algorithm, or an analysis, or 2) it can be censorial–giving a “yay” to articles that are not too offensive to the accepted framework for publication, or a “nay” to articles that are egregiously erroneous (as determined by the accepted framework for publication).

My point here is that, given the very late stage at which peers are currently recruited to the academic article review process, they seem to be in the unfortunate position of operating more like an intelligent “rubber stamp”. Now, I don’t know about you, but in no other domain of life would I consort with peers who do little more than rubber stamp our relationship. During my K-12 years, my peers were a source of creativity, criticism, commitment, even coercion–and all the other social realities of life. Why is it different in grad school? Why can’t we figure out what positive things peers at other institutions and outside of universities can contribute to the broader research/publication process and involve them more profoundly throughout?

3) How?
This is a very broad question, and will undoubtedly vary with the project at hand. Here’s where I’d like to get a little more creative, just for the sake of argument. Academics of all disciplines tend to love these things they call “conferences” (and particularly if they’re locate in exotic, warm-ish destinations). They’re a great way to connect with people who may have similar (or fruitfully diverging) interests to my own, and to engage in conversations that may enhance my work or forge new partnerships and modes of engagement with a knowledge community. In short, they’re an interesting form of ongoing “peer review”. The problem with conferences is that they often involve hefty fees and travel expenses. They also don’t tend to attract (or accept) people outside of academic circles to attend.

What if, in celebration of my own and my peers’ academic work, and in the spirit of generating future engagement, we decided to throw a party? The students in my department, for example, could assemble professors, other students, community members, elected officials, relatives, the mayor, etc. to come sip coffee, nibble some cookies, and critique our various research projects? Our audience is still likely to be somewhat insular, since only people with sufficient time and interest would attend, but it would be a rough assembly of diverse peers to engage in some broader discussion. This would add a different kind of rigor and germaneness to the peer review process, and could occur in addition to or in lieu of other peer review models. This “party peer review” model is just one possibility among many, and may be inappropriate in different departmental settings with different time and financial constraints. Still, I’d advocate for a more rigorous understanding of how peer review can occur and persist beyond the current academic peer review model.

* * *

Put simply, my sense is that academic journals actually have a much smaller role to play in academic engagement than we currently give them. I’m slowly starting to suspect that journals are part of an elaborate rewards structure that may occasionally generate quality academic discourse but that may also suck time and energy away from other modes of inquiry and engagement. I don’t want to see a world where my “scholarship” involves running around the hamster wheel of academic publication when I should be running a marathon in a different direction.

I believe that we create institutions to serve ourselves and our higher purposes. When these institutions do not serve us in useful ways, we are compelled to rebuild them with fresh purpose and new eyes. I would like to assume that academics are around, first and foremost, to be humans and citizens. We are here to serve other citizens and participate in this process we call “citizenship”–particularly when our institution receives funds from the taxpayers to support our work. Let’s work to those ends! There are certainly creative, dedicated academics out there. I’ve hyperbolized (or at least generalized) here for the sake of argument, and to try to give a sense of what the academic world starts to look like at times for an M.A. student at my phase in life. I want to see an academic world that is grounded in breadth of inquiry, depth of inclusiveness, novelty, and sense of purpose. I am gradually learning how hard this is–how rigorous this is. And so I’m curious: where should academic journals fit into this mix?

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