Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Perish by peer review

Many thanks to Sheila Webber for her entry on this blog regarding the recent Times Higher Article (THE) on peer review.  The article is well worth reading and makes several valid points.

However, a distinction should be made between peer review and anonymous peer review.  Peer review (both formally and informally) is a widespread practice in many professions (including academia).  Anonymous peer review used to be the preserve of academics, but (thanks to Web 2.0) is now a feature of 21st century life.  Anyone who has selected a restaurant on TripAdvisor is likely to be reading an anonymous review by a peer from the dining community.

One key difference is that a bad review on TripAdvisor can be countered by the business owner, and is not likely (on its own) to bring down the business.  The nascent careers of academics are more fragile.

Another key difference is that, on TripAdvisor, I can visit the restaurant and read the reviews, then assess how representative the review is of my interests and my tastes.  In other words, how much of a peer was the reviewer?

When academic peer review began, it was not anonymous.  At some time after WWII, arrangements by which journal editors informally contacted academics for advice on submitted articles appear to have been formalised in the system of anonymous peer review.  Prior to that, the interests, characters and prejudices of reviewers would have been known, resulting in greater openness and (occasionally) unrestrained unpleasantness.  However, the reviewer's credentials could be assessed and (if necessary) questioned.

One contributor to the THE article notes that, in his discipline alone (economics), there are 20,000 new journal articles every year.  The pool of reviewers must therefore be very large, prompting the question: to what extent is a reviewer a peer of the author?

The THE article ends with a contribution from an anonymous author who is is establishing a website for particularly bad examples of anonymous peer review.  I would certainly applaud such an exercise but I hope that, as well as giving the opportunity to read the poor reviews, the site also publishes the articles that attracted them.  It will be interesting to see how many suffer from poor writing, poor research and poor analysis, and how many suffer from being unorthodox and innovative.

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