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Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

the history of peer review

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 It would be worthwhile, however, to explore several of the assumptions we make about the benefits of peer review, to avoid clinging to our present ways of working out of the mistaken sense that, as they have ever been thus, so they should remain. In fact, peer review as we currently know it has a different history than we might assume. Very little in the way of investigation of the historical development of peer review has been done, and the few explorations of peer review that attempt to present some sense of the system’s history by and large cite the same few, brief texts.[1.11] Moreover, nearly all of the texts exploring the history of peer review focus on the natural and social sciences, and almost none of them mention peer review in scholarly book publishing.[1.12] It is, unfortunately perhaps, beyond the scope of this chapter to fill in all of those gaps, but it is worth noting a few wrinkles in the history of peer review as it is conventionally understood. Most often, authors date the advent of the thing we’re talking about when we refer to editorial peer review today – the assessment of manuscripts by more than one qualified reader, usually not including the editor of a journal or press – to the 1752 Royal Society of London’s creation of a “Committee on Papers” to oversee the review and selection of texts for publication in its nearly century-old journal, Philosophical Transactions.[1.13] A number of authors complicate this history by pointing to the existence of at least one earlier instance of formalized peer review in a scientific journal: the Royal Society of Edinburgh seems to have had such a system in place as early as 1731.[1.14]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 However, Mario Biagioli argues in “From Book Censorship to Academic Peer Review” that a deeper excavation of the genealogy of peer review suggests that its origins may, significantly, lie in seventeenth-century academic book publishing, and that peer review of journal articles formed a much later stage in the process’s development. Biagioli ties the establishment of editorial peer review to the royal license that was required for the legal sale of printed texts; this mode of state censorship, employed to prevent sedition or heresy, was delegated to the royal academies through the imprimatur granted them at the time of their founding. The Royal Society of London, for instance, took on that imprimatur by passing a resolution in December 1663, one year after its founding, which stated that “No book be printed by order of the council, which hath not been perused and considered by two of the council, who shall report, that such book contains nothing but what is suitable to the design and work of the society” (qtd. in Biagioli 21). The purpose of such review, as Biagioli emphasizes, is more related to censorship than to quality control: “As in traditional book licensing, the review was about making sure that a text did not make unacceptable claims rather than to certify that it made good claims” (Biagioli 23). Because the members of the royal academies were, if not literally part of the government, certainly dependent upon the state for their livelihoods, the concept of “peer review” in this instance indicates an early ambiguity between review by one’s peers and review by a peer of the realm; as Biagioli suggests, “because of the ‘pre-disciplining’ of academicians, the simple requirement that manuscripts had to be reviewed by the whole academy or by a committee made it almost impossible that anything controversial would go to press” (15). Gradually, however, scholarly societies facilitated a transition in scientific peer review from state censorship to self-policing, allowing them a degree of autonomy but simultaneously creating, in the Foucauldian sense, a disciplinary technology, one that produces the conditions of possibility for the academic disciplines that it authorizes. Though peer review may have shed “its negative symbolic connections to early modern absolutism,” as Biagioli concludes, and instead become “the new symbol of the relationship between science and liberal societies,” and though its work today “is now about technical accuracy, not legal approbation” (32, 34), its roots in early modern book censorship are revealed by its continued appeal to the imprimatur it grants.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 Peer review thus long pre-dates the invention of the scholarly journal, originating with the formation of the royal academies themselves.[1.15] Membership in these societies required scientists to demonstrate their bona fides in the form of publication, experimentation, or invention in order to be eligible for election – arguably subjecting their work to a form of peer review.[1.16] Further, early scientists circulated letters amongst their peers, or read papers in society meetings, thus reporting the results of their investigations with the explicit intention of eliciting response.[1.17] The application of peer review processes to scientific journal publishing thus becomes a further extension of society business – reviewing and discussing the reports of work done by the society’s membership. Moreover, Drummond Rennie argues that early journal peer review processes were less focused on quality control than we would now assume:

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 systems of peer review, internal and external to journals, were put in place by editors during the eighteenth century in order to assist editors in the selection of manuscripts for publication. It was appreciated from the start that the peer review process could not authenticate or endorse because the editors and reviewers could not be at the scene of any crime… the journals from the beginning threw the ultimate responsibility for the integrity of the article squarely upon the author (“Editorial Peer Review” 2).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Early peer review in scientific journal publishing was meant to augment editorial expertise rather than to exercise more conventionally understood modes of quality control. Moreover, as Jean-Claude Guédon and Raymond Siemens indicate, while peer review developed in order to augment the expertise of the editor, the process “nevertheless rested on procedures that put the editor-in-chief in absolute control, albeit in an acceptable way” (18), via editorial control over the selection of reviewers. Thus, while we attribute the arbitration of value in scholarly publishing to the review process to which work has been subjected, that review process was not early on imagined to guarantee the quality of the publications that appear through it, nor did it wholly diffuse the authority of the editor.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 On the one hand, peer review has its deep origins in state censorship, as developed through the establishment and membership practices of state-supported academies, and, on the other, peer review was intended to augment the authority of a journal’s editor rather than assure the quality of a journal’s products. Given those two disruptions in our contemporary notions about the purposes of peer review, it may be less surprising to find that the mode of formalized review that we now value in the academy seems not to have become a universal part of the scientific method, and thus of the scholarly publishing process, until as late as the middle of the twentieth century; Science and The Journal of the American Medical Association, for instance, did not vet manuscripts through outside reviewers until the 1940s.[1.18] The history of peer review thus appears to have been both longer and shorter than we may realize. And yet, because of the role that it has played in authorizing academic research – because we ourselves, as Biagioli suggests, are both the subject and the object of its disciplining gestures – it has become so intractably established that we have a hard time imagining not just a future without it, but any way that it could conceivably change.

  • See, for instance, Fabiato, Meyers, Rennie, and Spier, among others, all of whom draw heavily from David Kronick’s two-page “Peer Review in 18th-Century Scientific Journalism.”
  • Given the overwhelming focus on the institution of peer review in the sciences, it might be worth asking whether the adoption by the humanities of this same mode of assessment is further evidence of the desire to transform our fields into “human sciences,” no doubt as a defense against claims – put forward with the greatest impact in university budgets – that our work is insufficiently rigorous and serious to be considered “research.”
  • Prior to the establishment of this committee, the selection of manuscripts was in the sole hands of the society’s secretary; this moment of transition was important both in the history of the society and of academic publishing, as this was the first time that the society made a public claim of its affiliation with and responsibility for the journal.
  • See Kronick, “Peer Review.” However, note that Kronick indicates in Devant le Deluge that more than 20 percent of the attributed papers published in the journal while Alexander Monro was editor (1731 forward) were in fact written by Monro himself (181).
  • Spier argues, in fact, that the first known description of a peer review process may be found in a late 9th-century medical text.
  • See Kronick, Devant le Deluge, 96.
  • See Kronick, Devant le Deluge, in which he suggests that the letter “represented a form in which a scientific article could be disseminated for comment and may be considered equivalent to reading a paper at a scientific meeting before submitting it to a publisher or editor for peer review” (268).
  • See Burnham and Spier; see also Weller 3-6 for a suggestive list of scientific journals and the moments and modes in which they adopted editorial peer review.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/one/the-history-of-peer-review/