A Study of Contexts and Practices

What Is Peer Review?

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 This seems a very simple question with a very simple answer: peer review is the review of scholarship and other forms of scholarly activity by one’s peers. The foundational role that peer review plays in the determination of scholarly authority indicates that it is “the primary avenue of quality assessment and control in the academic world.”[5] Yet many scholars, across many fields, are today raising questions about the purposes that peer review serves, and whether those purposes are being served as well as they might be by our current review systems.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Peer review is meant to accomplish a number of things: for instance, it provides a means of critical feedback for scholars in the development of their work, and it provides a means for selection among the work of many scholars. At times review processes are meant primarily to serve one or the other of those purposes, but most often peer review is intended to serve both, simultaneously helping individual scholars improve their work and enabling the selection for quality in publications, fellowships and grants, and employment.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 7 Peer review is meant to represent the best of scholarly values as they ought to be espoused. Blind peer review processes, for instance, have historically served as an instrument of meritocracy, cutting across divisions of rank, gender, class, and race in order to enable communities of practice to discover the best new knowledge being created in their fields. Peer review in the humanities, in particular, functions to forward the values of humane letters in producing original thought located in and against relevant existing literatures. In contrast with peer review in the sciences, which ostensibly serves as a means of verification of results or validation of methodologies, peer review in the humanities often focuses on originality, creativity, depth of argument, and the ability to communicate connections.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 However, it is clear that several unquestioned assumptions about peer review remain, assumptions that limit the role that peer review can play even within such admirable motives. The idea of the “peer,” most notably, has in recent decades been restricted to credentialed scholars, and even further, to those credentialed in one’s specific field or subfield, a very narrow and usually vertical community organization in which junior scholars must prove their worth to those who precede them. As a result, fields can often become self-replicating, as they limit the input that more horizontally-organized peer groups — including scholars from related disciplines and interdisciplines, and even members of more broadly understood publics — might play in the development of scholarly thought. In the age of the internet, however, as authors including Chris Anderson[6] and Kathleen Fitzpatrick[7] have argued, the definition of a “peer” is shifting from the meritocratic notion of “credentialed colleague” to a more technically-derived sense of a peer as any node on a network.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 This is not to say that, in the age of open networks, a “peer” is becoming “just anyone”; rather, it indicates that the status of peer might not pre-date one’s participation in review processes. A peer in this new form becomes a peer through the quality of his or her participation in networked knowledge exchanges. This shift in the understanding of the “peer” points to the need to rethink the dominant practices of peer review, particularly with respect to scholarship that originates or is published online.

  • [5] Diane Harley, et al., “Peer Review in Academic Promotion and Publishing: Its Meaning, Locus, and Future,” 2011, The Future of Scholarly Communication Project, University of California, Berkeley, Center for Studies in Higher Education,<http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1xv148c8#page-1>.
  • [6] Chris Anderson, “Wisdom of the crowds,” Nature Peer Review Debate <http://www.nature.com/nature/peerreview/debate/nature04992.html>.
  • [7] Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU Press, 2011), p. 32.
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