Famous computer scientist and Roomba co-founder Rodney Brooks writes about the problems of peer review in academia. He notes that peer review has some important virtues even as the way it’s currently practiced generates many problems and pathologies too. Brooks says, “I don’t have a solution, but I hope my observations here might be interesting to some.” I have a partial solution: researchers “publish” papers to arXiv or similar, then “submit” them to the journal, which conducts peer review. The “journal” is a list of links to papers that it has accepted or verified.
That way, the paper is available to those who find it useful. If a researcher really thinks the peer reviewers are wrong, the researcher can state why, and why they’re leaving it up, despite the critiques. Peer-review reports can be kept anonymous but can also be appended to the paper, so that readers can decide for themselves whether the peer reviewers’ comments are useful or accurate—in my limited, but real, experience in English lit, they’ve been neither, and that experience seems to have been echoed by many others. If a writer wishes to be anonymous, the writer can leave the work as “anonymous” until after it’s been submitted for peer review, which would allow for double-blind peer review, and that double-blindness would help remove some of the insider-ism biases around people knowing each other.
Server costs for things like simple websites are almost indistinguishable from zero today, and those costs can easily be borne by the universities themselves, which will find them far lower than subscription costs.
What stands in the way? Current practice and setup. Plus, Elsevier and one or two other multi-billion-dollar publishing conglomerates that control the top journals in most fields. These giants want to maintain library fees that amount to thousands of dollars per journal, even if the journal editors are paid minimally, as are peer reviewers and so on. Only the companies make money. Academics live and die based on prestige, so few will deviate from the existing model. Publishing in top journals is essential for hiring, tenure, and promotion (the tenure model also generates a bunch of pathologies in academia, but we’ll ignore those for now).
There are pushes to change the model—the entire University of California system, for example, announced in 2019 that it would “terminate subscriptions with world’s largest scientific publisher in push for open access to publicly funded research.” In my view, all public funding bodies should stipulate that no research funded with public money can be published in closed-access journals, and foundations should do the same. There is no reason for modern research to be hidden behind paywalls.
It would also help if individual schools and departments quit making hiring, tenure and promotion decisions almost entirely based on “peer-reviewed” work. Those on hiring, tenure, and promotion committees should be able to read the work and judge the merit for themselves, regardless of the venue in which it appears.
Coronavirus and the need for urgent research has also pushed biomed and medicine towards the “publish first” model. Peer review seems to be happening after the paper is published in medRxiv or bioRxiv. One hopes these are permanent changes. The problems with the journal model are well known but too little is being done. Or, rather, too little was being done: the urgency of the situation may lead to reform in most fields.
Open journals would be a boon for access and for intellectual diversity. When I was in grad school for English (don’t do that, I want to reiterate), the peer reviewer reports I got on most of my papers were so bad that they made me realize I was wasting my life trying to break into the field; there is a difference between “negative but fair” and “these people are not worth trying to impress,” and in English lit the latter predominated. In addition, journals took a year, and sometimes years, to publish the papers they accepted, raising the obvious question: if something is so unimportant that it’s acceptable to take years to publish it, why bother? “The Research Bust” explores the relevant implications. No one else in the field seemed to care about its torporous pace or what that implies. Many academics in the humanities have been wringing their hands about the state of the field for years, without engaging in real efforts to fix it, even as professor jobs disappear and undergrads choose other majors. In my view, intellectual honesty and diversity are both important, and yet the current academic system doesn’t properly incentivize or reward either, though it could.
In the humanities, at least being wrong and “peer reviewed” doesn’t carry some of the costs that being wrong and “peer reviewed” can in the sciences.
For another take on peer review’s problems, see Andrew Gelman.