Pranking the Academy

Thinking about the Third World Quarterly situation.

September 22, 2017

I'm a little baffled about the Third World Quarterly thing. An editor of a journal overrides an editorial board decision to reject an article and claims it was favorably peer-reviewed. Fifteen members of the editorial board resign in protest. (Alsotps's guess that this might be the final straw in a series of more private disputes sounds plausible, though I'm not sure I agree it's a good idea to rehash old arguments in scholarly journals' opinion sections just because some folks want them rehashed, not when there are so many places to voice opinions and no shortage of journals taking submissions.) Is asking for retraction of a piece that was rejected by peers censorship, a violation of academic freedom, an instance of political correctness run amok?

I think that's the wrong question.

What is peer review, anyway? It's a vetting system that's far from perfect. The first article I ever submitted to a scholarly journal was rejected after a long delay and in rather uncharitable language. As a lesson in how peer review works, I tell students how I reread it, decided it might have merit after all, submitted it elsewhere, and it ended up on a list of the twenty best of the year (in an admittedly small subfield - but still it was sweet). I also share examples of reviews that made me wince and go back to the drawing board that in the end improved my work immeasurably. I also tell them about a couple of pieces I wrote that I decided not to revise or resubmit after reviewers gave me good and honest feedback. Sometimes we take a look at Retraction Watch or discuss how influential a discredited study can be. We talk about times the value of peer review has been challenged, as with a small study Peters and Ceci published in 1982 in Behavioral and Brain Sciences along with dozens of responses, or the famous Sokal hoax

All that to complicate the misimpression that students often get that "peer review" means is some kind of guarantee of quality, because so often they hear "make sure your sources come from peer-reviewed journals" and don't hear "oh, by the way, peer-reviewed journals publish lots of rubbish, so be careful out there." Sorting out the rubbish is not something you can do by checking a box in a database. It's something that takes careful reading and lots of background knowledge, which is why I wonder whether asking undergraduates taking lower division courses should be asked to find and use peer reviewed research in training-wheels "research papers" makes any sense at all.  

But getting a more complex idea of peer review somewhere along the way is worthwhile. Recognizing that scholars and scientists have particular methods and ethical practices, and that their ideas go through a vetting process is valuable, even when that process sometimes rejects a novel ideas or accepts substandard work. Recognizing that scholarship is a social process that makes ideas public through a different process than news reporting or televised debates is part of information literacy. 

Peer review not a great system, but it's better than nothing. Students are not surprised to learn that university press book manuscripts go through peer review. They're much more likely to be shocked to learn that books from trade publishers aren't fact-checked or reviewed by knowledgeable peers, though they might be reviewed by a lawyer to avoid a lawsuit. 

Portia Roelofs and Max Gallien argue at the LSE Impact blog that the current mania for impact metrics promotes publishing academic "clickbait," that journals, like websites and social media accounts, are rewarded by attention, whatever is bringing in the traffic. I think that's a valid concern, but this particular incident is also a prank to delegitimize the conversation among a particular community of scholars and accuse them of bias. It's meant to upset the apple cart. It's a Breitbartian thumbing of the nose at the peers in peer review.

The one thing I find cheering as I write this is that though the prank is getting a lot of clicks at its publisher's website, another article in the same issue is getting more views. It seems a little more relevant just now. 

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