Peer Review? Or Fear Review?

“The … problem is that peer review as we currently practice it isn’t simply a mechanism for bringing relevant, useful work into circulation; it’s also the hook upon which all of our employment practices hang, as we in the US academy have utterly conflated peer review and credentialing. “(Fitzpatrick, 2010).

This quote from Fitzpatrick’s blog entry pretty much sums up my feelings about the peer review process in a nutshell.

While I have never had my work peer reviewed or published, I often wonder whether the peer review process has gone the way of other rites of passage that are now more hindrance than help.  The first example that always springs to mind for me is the unpaid internship.

In its purest form, I think it’s a good idea.  The intern receives experience in a relevant field, learns new skills, makes connections and gets to experience “real-world” work.  However, the idea’s popularity has become its downfall.  Organizations create unpaid internships and students trip over themselves to get a foot in the door.  The number of internships goes up while the quality goes down and now it’s just considered a rite of passage to spend summers doing thankless free labour in order to be considered suitable for a paying job (one day, maybe).

The peer review and publication process strikes a similar note with me (and I welcome criticisms of this point from people who have actually undergone the peer review and publishing process).  But from friends doing PhDs and friends who already have them, I get this sense that the need to publish in quantity or to publish for a higher power (such as a corporation funding your work) has superseded the need to publish material that is true to the heart of one’s research.  In my Foundations of Library and Information Science class last semester, we were shown an example of a study was that rushed ahead in the publication process.  As a result, a reviewer completely missed a major flaw in the study and was subsequently lambasted for it.  I wonder how often this scenario occurs: what are the odds of an academic twisting their material for a better chance at publication?  Or submitting unfinished research in the desperate hope that they can get their foot in the door?

In addition to this, academia is often labelled an “old boy’s club,” so younger academics need to load up on publications in order to be considered on the same level as established figures.  They’re the ones doing the research of tomorrow, and they’re the ones who risk undercutting their own research in order to get the numbers they need.  As a result, it seems that academia suffers as a whole and nobody wins.

I really like Mike O’Malley’s idea of crowdsourcing peer review via online forums (O’Malley, 2010).  An “elbow-less” space might be more productive and help to enhance the spirit of collegiality in academia.  The problem that arises with this, however, is the same problem that continues to ensure that unpaid internships will be a “thing” for the next few decades.  Unless all academics and all unpaid interns agree as a body to partaking in a system that is less than ideal, the system will continue to thrive.  Unfortunately, our society is such that when called upon for a unanimous act that will assist everyone equally, there are always people who choose instead to climb over the backs of their peers.

If I had more time to write an entire paper on this subject, I’d actually love to go into detail about the perils of crowdsourcing peer review (trolling, anyone?), the regional differences in academic publishing culture, and whether or not we should approach “fixing the system” from a different angle.

Yours in research,

Laura

Fitzpatrick, K. (2010, October 25). Peer-to-Peer Review and Its Aporias [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/blog/peer-to-peer-review-and-its-aporias

O’Malley, M. (2010, October 19). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://theaporetic.com/?p=446

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