Peer review is the system whereby academics report before publication (usually for free) on journal papers and book manuscripts in their area of expertise. This is the main mechanism by which academic publications are validated: suggestions for correction or improvement made by the anonymous reviewers are usually shared with the authors so that the result of the process is better scholarly communication.

The Economist‘s February 2015 article “Academic publishing: Oath market” reported on stresses in the peer review process. (You may not be able to access this piece unless you have a subscription.) “Peer review’s current incarnation took shape in the middle of the 20th century: authors submit a manuscript to a publisher, who then seeks out academics suitable to comment on it; the publisher then submits critiques anonymously to the authors, who amend the work to reflect the critiques. The system nearly works. The reasons for anonymity are manifold, but that information asymmetry often causes trouble, with reviewers shooting down rivals’ work, pinching ideas, or just plain dragging their feet (overwhelmingly, reviewing is unpaid).”

With the thousands of journal articles flying about looking for a home one can see how the pre-publication peer review system might well be under stress. As an academic you do after all have a job, and you can’t just put that aside because you’ve agreed to review thirty journal articles. There are fewer books, but of course, on the other hand books are longer. Academics do peer review because they regard it as part of their responsibility as a member of the academic community: helping advance research is part of the reason for their existence. And the possibility of learning something can also be a powerful motivator. But as pressures increase the temptation to cut corners is always lurking there. Short-back-and-sides gets the job done and that manuscript off the desk, but of course does cloud the water when less than responsible research manages to get published. Openness helps. Faculty of 1000, an online biology and medicine publisher, has come up with an oath its peer reviewers must accept:

  • Principle 1: I will sign my name to my review;
  • Principle 2: I will review with integrity;
  • Principle 3: I will treat the review as a discourse with you; in particular, I will provide constructive criticism;
  • Principle 4: I will be an ambassador for the practice of open science.

Other publishers are allegedly following the lead. The oath obviously doesn’t have any real force, but the thought is that by agreeing to it reviewers will have to think about the issues, and this may make them behave better. For many I would imagine this might seem a bit offensive. Book publishers obviously have an easier task, each requiring fewer reviewers, and they are thus perhaps more likely have a personal relationship with their referees. Of course many journal editors also have personal and professional relationships with many who they can consult as peer reviewers.

Writing a journal paper is also unpaid work, but it can be seen as more central to an academic’s mission, being the way in which research is communicated, thus reputation enhanced, and credentials buffed. But how about making pre-publication peer reviewing similarly recognized and potentially prestigious? Publons, a company which enables academics to track their usually anonymous peer reviewing contributions, aims to allow peer reviewers to get the credit for them that inclusion in their bibliographies would confer. It was established in 2012 and according to Wikipedia has more than 150,000 signed-up academics.

The whole academic enterprise is under stress these days. There seems to be an urge to make the whole “business” more efficient — in economic terms. Investment is going into STEM subjects and the humanities are being devalued — after all, what good is a degree in history, English or philosophy when it comes to getting a job? None: so let’s defund them! If governments (and through them, we) insist on turning university education into a job-search commercial commodity, then peer review cannot survive. As a teacher you’d be insane to divert your attention from your lecturing and research for even a minute — let someone else review that paper, and I’ll read it when it’s published if it’s any good. Business-orientated policy-makers might well say that that’s just as it should be. If peer review is worthwhile, then its value should be indicated by its price. Publishers should pay pre-publication reviewers. But of course that means the price of academic journals would have to rise to cover the extra cost, and we’ve been being deluged in complaint about how ridiculously expensive journals already are. (And ditto academic books of course.)

How this will all end up is beyond me. Maybe we’ll wake up to the danger of attaching a price to everything. More likely we won’t and will just have to come up with a slicker, cheaper way of communicating research. Those who think we already have such a thing should pause and reflect on what costs are saved by not printing a journal article on paper. (Hint: hardly any. See Profitability of e-books?)