This is my third and final post in a (rather impromptu) mini-series on academic journals and their place in the 21st century landscape. You may want to read my previous two posts here and here before reading this one?
To find a new enlightening and inspiring idea (as distinct from finding a recipe for getting safely through the peer-built barricade), browsing through thousands of journal pages is all too often called for. With my tongue in one cheek only, I’d suggest that were our Palaeolithic ancestors to discover the peer-review dredger, we would still be sitting in caves… (Zygmunt Bauman)
In my previous posts on academic journals I’ve compared them unfavourably – either explicitly or implicitly – with the kind of informal ‘peer review’ that happens through blogs and social media. Some commenters have assumed that this means that, like Bauman (see above) I’m completely against peer review. I’m not.
Peer review is valuable. In fact, it’s so important we need a (re)new(ed) academic ecosystem to protect it.
I’m all for new systems such as hypothes.is which provides an open, distributed peer review layer for the web. Although I don’t want to go into it in too much depth here, academia is one of the few unreformed areas with outdated power structures and glass ceilings.
As Stephen Thomas pointed out in the comments to my previous post, academic journals have, and still do, play an important role in both establishing precedent and providing a quality filter. This is important (most of the time).
But, as Dan Meyer pointed out in the quotation making up the bulk of my first post in this series, it’s the edifice that’s built upon the academic journal system that’s problematic:
The incentive seems strange to me… I don’t understand this brass ring I’m chasing. (Dan Meyer)
This academic edifice is built upon other perceived ‘advantages’ of academic journals, including:
- Dissemination of work
- Career progression
- Contact with others inside and outside field
Academics, unfortunately, have ended up inventing a stick with which they can be beaten. In the UK, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a crude instrument looking a research outputs. Career progression (and therefore status) depends upon disseminating work in journals that are, all too often, closed and paywalled.
Part of the answer, I agree, comes through academic journals becoming open access. That’s a step in the right direction (even if it does smack a little of Henry Ford’s ‘faster horses‘). Going further, something more like Alan Cann’s experiments around open peer review could work. But, realistically, we need something a bit more radical.
How can we save peer review whilst democratising and reforming higher education?
I leave you with the words of Frances Bell, who commented on my previous post:
What I suspect is that more research needs to be done on how, for example. scholarly societies can support research, scholarship and practice in a digital age. (Frances Bell)
Amen to that.
This post will make more sense if you read this one first: You need us more than we need you. Further to the results of my reader survey, it will probably resonate more with you if you’re in Higher Education…
So how did academic journals come about?
Until the late seventeenth century, communication between scholars depended heavily on personal contact and attending meetings arranged by the early learned societies (e.g. the Royal Society). As the membership of these societies increased, more people could not attend the meetings and so the Proceedings, usually circulated as a record of the last meeting became a place to publish papers that had not been presented at the meetings at all and moved towards what we now recognise as scholarly journals. (Wells, 1999)
So journals are a replacement for personal contact.
Are they good for anything else? Brown (1997) cites the following:
- distributed (many copies are stored in many places)
- scholars trust and understand the system
- journals have prestige built up over many years
- portable and easy to read
Which of the above benefits either (a) cannot, or (b) are not currently able to be replicated by another system?
Some would argue that an important difference between (for example) a blog post and a journal article is that the latter has been formally peer reviewed.
However, as even the editor of The Lancet points out:
The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than a crude means of discovering the acceptability — not the validity — of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong. (Horton, 2000)
Just how big do the cracks in the ivory tower have to get before the whole edifice tumbles?
Odlyzko (September 1997) points out that there was an “extensive resistance to print by scholars” in Gutenberg’s time which included calls to ban the new technology because only trash was getting into print and books were not as durable as parchment. The reaction to the Web of today’s scholars has largely echoed the reaction of scholars to the printing press in the 15th century. (Well, 1999)
Is the only reason we persist with journals and their articles is because they provide a convenient means to weigh the pig?
Image CC BY-NC-SA Lal Beral
Brown, S.A. (1997). Scholarly publishing using electronic means : a short guide. Newcastle: Northumbria University
Horton, R. (2000). “Genetically modified food: consternation, confusion, and crack-up”. MJA 172(4), p.148–9
Wells, A. (1999) ‘Exploring the development of the independent, electronic scholarly journal.‘ Sheffield: University of Sheffield
Although I’m still yet to have an academic article published, I’ve made a public commitment to do so only in open-access journals. I’ve already dedicated this blog to the public domain (see CC0 license in footer) and shared my thesis online. Whilst for me it’s a logical continuation of my position as an open educator/academic/researcher/individual, I’ve been waiting for a compelling reason for others to ditch closed journals.
In this, my third blog post quoting Zygmunt Bauman (from a recent interview with Simon Dawes, editor of Theory, Culture & Society), I want to consider briefly the ways in which the whole edifice of the peer-review system is flawed. It’s not just about the binary distinction between whether a journal is ‘open’ or ‘closed’.
Simon Dawes: One final question, TCS is committed to the process of peer-review, and many of our (both rejected and accepted) contributors are grateful for the feedback given by our editors and anonymous reviewers, and for the subsequent strengthening of their articles, but you are critical of peer-review and no longer act as a referee for us. Could you tell us why?
Zygmunt Bauman: There are, by the most conservative counting, two grave and deeply regrettable collateral victims of the peer-review gruesome strategem: one is the daring of thought (wished-washed to the lowest common denominator), and the other is the individuality, as well as the responsibility of editors (those seeking shelter behind the anonymity of ‘peers’, but in fact dissolved in it, in many cases without a trace).
Last but not least, I would single out yet another collateral damage: the multitude of the trails blazed and heterogeneity of inspirations. I suspect that the peer-review system carriers a good part of blame for the fact that something like 60 percent or more of journal articles are never quoted (which means leaving no trace on our joint scholarly pursuits), and (in my reception at any rate) the ‘learned journals’… ooze monumental boredom. To find a new enlightening and inspiring idea (as distinct from finding a recipe for getting safely through the peer-built barricade), browsing through thousands of journal pages is all too often called for. With my tongue in one cheek only, I’d suggest that were our Palaeolithic ancestors to discover the peer-review dredger, we would still be sitting in caves…
That’s a fairly damning verdict from an Emeritus Professor of Sociology, don’t you think? I haven’t met anyone who thinks that the REF (Research Excellence Framework) is a good idea and does the job it’s intended to do. The ‘peer-built barricade’ that Bauman mentions evolved in a world before real-time communication between academics; although it feels obvious to say so, the internet changes everything. As proved with <a href="my thesis (see Appendix 3) the amount and quality of feedback does not depend either upon journals or anonymity. We can, and should, build a better (more democratic, fairer, transparent) system.
Image CC BY-SA Gideon Burton