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At Macleans, Luc Rinaldi recently covered a lot of ground in “Does Peer Review Do More Harm Than Good?”, pointing out several issues arising from the way we publish today:

  • Some journal publishers are allowing papers to go to the head of the peer-review line if they are paid for the expedited service. This undermines the purpose of peer review by creating a limited pool of reviewers who will turn their reviews in quickly if the authors pay for the service. This is, in part, to satisfy those who need CV lines stat and can afford it in journals that carry a prestigious publisher’s brand (such as Springer/Nature) but publish anything that passes the review process.
  • Scammers have set up loads of pretty obviously fake pseudo-journals and conferences in much the same way that our email inboxes were flooded with a modern-day variation on the Spanish Prisoner confidence trick. Some call these “predatory publishers” but since they’re not really publishers at all, I just call them scams.
  • Reviewing articles is a lot of hard work, gets little recognition, and often fails to spot problematic scholarship. There may be better ways to filter out bad scholarship, but we can’t agree on what they are.
  • People living outside Europe and North America want the credibility of peer-reviewed scholarship, but may not be familiar with or respectful of the rules. (What Rinaldi says about this mainly comes from an interview with bioethicist Arthur Caplan, who published a widely-read opinion piece about unregulated faulty publications polluting science, but it’s not an uncommon complaint.)
  • Because we now have new models for financing publishing and many new publications are being launched, it’s hard for scholars to keep up with what’s legitimate.  

There’s big one issue I don’t see on this list. Why does everyone have to publish so much? Are we really advancing knowledge, or is this some weirdly inflated reputational currency that is running out of control? I’m not saying we should quit doing research, but maybe we should be a little more selective about what we feel needs to be part of the record.

For one thing, it’s getting harder and harder to consult the record, as bloated as it is. It’s incredibly costly, both in terms of the time we put into writing and reviewing it and developing and sustaining systems for sharing and preserving it all. It also means that people are so frantically gathering up metrics of our productivity that we have less time to think, and some of our best thoughts require fallow time.

I’m reminded of Michael Pollan’s dietary advice: Eat food. Not too much. The mass production of research publications is unhealthy in so many ways.

What if we told people up for tenure that they could only submit some small number of publications (say, only three articles or book chapters) to illustrate their promise? I realize publication patterns vary enormously by field but we could come up with some way of saying “show us your best stuff; just not too much of it.” What if we said “it’s great if you publish, but please don’t overdo it” at annual review time. What if graduate programs and hiring committees and granting agencies said “hold on there, you’re over-producing. Volume is not what we’re looking for. Give it some thought.”

Perhaps technology is simply making it easier to create and share stuff, and what we're seeing is a lot of creativity that was hidden when publishing was harder. Maybe scholars just have a lot more to share about what we are learning about the world and we simply have more avenues for sharing it.

But I don’t think so. I think the problem with peer review isn’t paid fast lanes or fake journals or the need for a new kind of peer review. It’s that we too often use the adjective "productive" with the word "scholar" unthinkingly. In an era when jobs are insecure our reputational economy is suffering from runaway inflation. What’s the cost of being too busy to stop and think? 

It's our system. Would it really be that hard to fix?

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