Friday, November 9, 2007

Why we need ‘peer review’!

Manuel Alvarado in his reply to my earlier comments makes a very clear case against the process of ‘peer review’ in academic publishing in the arts and humanities. He presents 3 reasons behind his objection:

1) When trying to create new intellectual disciplines, a body of literature does not exist, nor is there a body of experts for the peer review process. Therefore, he suggests we should only use peer review in long established areas of scientific and medical publishing.

2) When the subject matter of the books may date quickly we should avoid slowing down the process by peer review.

3) Peer review is inherently conservative and would hinder publication of intellectually stimulating and groundbreaking work. Peer review does little more than confirm that conventional academic protocols have been observed. Reviewers may have academic and personal prejudices and hobbyhorses.

I happen to disagree with Manuel and would like to respond to each of his points.

1) It is true that publication as a method of dissemination is new to the arts and humanities. However, there is no good reason why publication of academic work in these areas should be exempt from the review process. In fact, the process of educating academics in these subjects to become good reviewers contributes to their development of a solid academic community. If we allow a poor publication model to be applied to the arts and humanities, we will end up with these becoming poor academic subjects. It is of paramount importance to a publisher to promote and encourage high standards as these new subjects are developed.

2) Academic publications are “archival repositories of verified knowledge”. Material that requires rapid dissemination need not be considered for inclusion in a long-term repository. Part of being academic is to take time to reflect on whether one’s discoveries can take the test of time.

3) It is true that peer review in a very small measure acts as a filter that rejects some material that may be good. But for sure it also rejects a lot more material that is poor in quality of presentation and some that is plainly not worthy of publication. And what is wrong with art and humanities publications following consistent style concentrations? Clarity of presentation helps in better communication.

To be honest I don’t believe that Manuel has bypassed peer review in his past publishing enterprises. My view is that as a result of his being both an academic specialist as well as being the publisher, he has been able to perform the peer review process in-house. His dual role has allowed him to speed up the publication process, giving the illusion that peer review was not needed.

In fact, most of what Manuel says confirms to me that peer review and the rest of what an academic publisher offers an author is a discipline that does the author more good than harm!

Publishing is a process of mediation and conflict! At each stage the author negotiates an improvement:

• the refereeing process (proposal, MS) - need to persuade peers it is worth publishing it.
• copyediting process - need to be clear to a non-specialist reader
• design and layout - need to fit into a house style while making sure that ‘form’ reflects the ‘content’ of the publication.

Manuel is right in mentioning the web as a crucial tool in the process of dissemination. The web comes into its full potential as an alternative when the author is unwilling, unable or in too much of a rush to negotiate publication via a caring academic publisher. A publisher adds value to the author’s work, but at a price! It requires the author to be more patient as well as increasing the financial costs.


Manuel Alvarado said...

Masoud Yazdani sets out my three main arguments in his piece ‘Why we need “peer review”!’ but I still beg to differ from him. I will respond to all his main points.

In his first response Masoud is concerned about the ‘development of a sound academic community’ and argues that if poor publication models are allowed to be applied to Arts and Humanities they will end up becoming poor academic subjects. He may well be right but my central focus is not on the academic but on the intellectual. For this distinction I am drawing upon the work the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci and in particular from the first volume of his work translated into English: Notes from the Prison Notebooks. Academic work is fine in the sciences (and social sciences) but even in those fields one wants to encounter intellectual thinking, teaching, research and writing. By that I mean work that breaks the boundaries, the offers those leaps of the imagination and intellect which open up whole news ways of thinking – in other words work that is truly imaginative, innovative and creative ie work that is not bound by the constraints of an academic field. The obvious example of the need for these creative leaps obviously occur in Literature, Music, Art etc. But they also exist in all the works of those thinkers who, throughout history, have broken the boundaries of the then contemporary thinking ranging from Socrates and Plato through Galileo and Copernicus, Newton and Einstein, to Brecht and Benjamin and any of those figures who are correctly lauded as the giants of Western cultural thought.

In his second response Masoud is unhappy about dropping the concept of ‘peer’ review. I don’t think Galileo and Copernicus would have been unhappy about it not be applied to their research to give just a couple of examples of major thinkers who had their work derided and dismissed by the academic peers because of fear! Masoud also correctly states that academic publications are ‘archival repositories of verified knowledge’ (although I am not too happy with the use of the word ‘verified’ here. I think a significant proportion of work that lies in archival repositories would be questioned if not derided these days.). However it can be important to archive material that is published in very short time spans where the primary material rapidly goes out of date – almost overnight in some cases. A good example is the field of Media Economics. Of course there should be magisterial, conceptual and theoretical overviews of the field but these will need to be based on work that has been researched and written about very quickly. For example I have a colleague who was attempting to write a complex study of an aspect of this field particularly focussing on globalisation but it has never been published because the field changes so rapidly. A not dissimilar situation to that of Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

On the third argument Masoud writes that peer review may reject ‘some material that appears to be good’ but that it also acts as a filter for rejecting material that is ‘poor in quality of presentation’ and some that is ‘plainly not worthy of publication’. My position here is that the publishing house itself is the first filter of quality – one would clearly not send poorly presented material or obviously shoddy work to peer reviewers. They too are usually busy academics trying to get their own work published!

Masoud then makes some generous comments about me and he may well be right. I have had the privileged experience of only being involved in publishing within my own sphere of knowledge (working for SEFT (the Society for Education and Television), BFI (British Film Institute) Publishing, John Libbey Media/University of Luton Press and Intellect (although many of Intellect’s books lie outside my areas of expertise – point taken Masoud!).

The rest of Masoud’s arguments in his column I am largely in agreement with. All I wanted to do was to begin to question the principles and (limited, for me) values of a system – peer review – which I think the academic community (all the way up to the Research Assessment Exercise) unthinkingly accepts.

Masoud Yazdani said...

I am pleased that Manuel makes a distinction between my focus on academic and his on the intellectual when we are arguing for the importance of peer review. I agree that the more you move away from the scholarly to the "truly imaginative" work the weaker my case becomes.

I also agree with Manuel that there may be many work already published with peer review that may now be questionable now. But that is the benefit of new discoveries. My argument remains that there should be an honest and well intentioned independent verification of academic work before it is published.

Finally Manuel points out that the publishing house itself is a filer of quality. I agree with him but I think that filter needs to be complemented by others. No publishing company can take the full burden by itself alone.

Masoud Yazdani said...

I found this guideline from the European Reference Index for the Humanities (ERIH)very useful. Although it promotes peer review it also acknowledges its limitation:

"All journals included must fulfil normal international academic standards, i.e. selection of
articles is based on an objective review policy. This quality control is normally through peerreview,
and it is expected that journals would depart from peer review only where there is
another system ensuring quality control. In some scholarly traditions peer-review is an
unfamiliar procedure. It is one aim of ERIH to encourage top-journals to adopt a coherent
peer-review system."

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