Collegiality and Peer Review

I think I’ve blogged about this before but couldn’t find it in the ole archive, so I figure I should post my comments on this again, just in case.

I just completed a peer review for a decent journal in my field. The interaction with the journal’s editors came entirely through their editorial manager software. The interaction with tidy and efficient with very little friction. The journal editors included a short, standardized note with the initial invitation to review the article and each interaction prompted another short, standardized note when I accepted the invitation to review and it was followed by a standardized note of thanks when I submitted my review. At no point in the process did I interact with a real human being. The review process was managed with an eye toward efficiency. 

I’m not sure that the peer review process should be automated. As someone involved in editing a small literary journal, I can appreciate the volume of submissions that a journal receives and the tremendous amount of energy that goes into dealing with even the most hopeless submission. There are few quick and easy rejections and cultivating a good relationship between reviewers, contributors, and editors is as much part of the job as producing a quality product. I can recognize the temptation to streamline and standardize this tricky process, but I think this is a mistake.

The process of academic knowledge production is so dependent on human interaction. Despite efforts to automate teaching, many of us still see a need to interact regularly with students. I learn more from colleagues with whom I interact regularly, and while I appreciate the potential of a scholarly article to help me understand the world better, I appreciate scholarship more when I understand it in a broader context. Academic meetings, for example, create an interactive space for knowledge production which can be every bit as meaningful as the final, published result. Watching a scholar develop through time, over the course of a series of articles, opens up that scholar’s thinking in new and important ways by revealing the trajectory of a scholar’s thought rather than a frozen moment of information to be mined and cited.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing the process of “double blind” peer reviewing, although it has become increasingly rare in my experience. This practice I think is different from the automated interaction with editorial management software. In fact, the “double blind” peer review exists as a way to anonymize critique only when we expect our fields to be saturated with personal knowledge.

The role of collaboration and personal knowledge remains central to our work as scholars and as educators, and this should extend to the relationship between a journal editor, a contributor, and a peer reviewer. More to the point, since a growing number of journals are published by for profit companies, human interaction seems a basic courtesy since the final result of academic production is not “simply” academic knowledge, but also profit. The impetus for streamlining the submission and review process, then, is to lessen the burden on editors and staff at the journal in order to allow for more submission and faster, more efficient publication, and, at the end, greater profits. The desire for profitability – or at least sustainability – is also tied to the limiting the circulation of this knowledge to those able to pay. 

I have this feeling and hope that this form of the information economy is doomed to fail as funding cuts to libraries, universities, and stagnant faculty salaries make it increasingly difficult to pay for access to academic publications. A growing black market fueled by services like academia.edu, institutional repositories, and social media ensures that free offprints of publications circulate rampantly. Finally, more and more scholars are inclined to take on part of the burden of publishing themselves either through accepting greater editorial responsibilities or refusing to work with publications that limit the distribution of their material. The technical point of entry for becoming involved in publishing is lower, and the collegial spirit that fuels new, cooperative publishing ventures runs explicitly counter to publishing models that seek to produce profit through efficiency.    

An email from an editor requesting a peer review is a small thing, to be sure, but it reminds the peer reviewer that scholarly publishing remains a personal, collaborative enterprise. It’s absence does just the opposite: it emphasizes the drive for efficiency and the push to profit from academic labor.

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