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Ph.D. Octopus versus Peer Review

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The Ph.D Octopus (image by Parsiri Audcharevorakul)

Today we launched the official Ph.D. Octopus Facebook page. We’re finally entering the 21st century, I guess. Heck, we haven’t even really decided how we’re spelling Ph.D. But I guess it’s fitting that I contribute this post along with that piece of news, and the above image, which we’ve been hiding for far too long, crafted by the lovely and talented Parisi Audchaevorakul.

See, over the weekend I was having a conversation with my new friend Holger Syme, a professor of English at University of Toronto. Holger also has a wonderful academic blog called Dispositio. And so we discussed our blogs. Eventually, the conversation turned to the horrendous state of the academic job market (as it does) and then to the process of acquiring those disappearing jobs, and getting tenure, and to the process of peer review.

For those who don’t know, peer review is the process by which academic work is rendered legitimate. In practical terms, it means that when we submit articles to academic journals, the article is reviewed by two of our peers, that is to say, by two other academics in our field, two similar specialists, who might be able to speak the article’s accuracy, originality, and importance, and to the author’s general competence.

The goal of the system is for our peers to operate as gatekeepers. They are the ones who decide if the article is good enough to get in, and the number and quality of articles (and books) that we write determines the fellowships and jobs that we get, and whether we get tenure.

It’s not bad in principle. But there are problems. First, it’s never entirely clear that these two readers are actually experts in your field, or that their judgments are good. If your article is rejected by one journal, of course you can take it to another. But the reality is that two people may dislike your piece but a dozen other equally qualified “peers” might have loved it, and you have no way of knowing, because the peers are anonymous and the process is rather opaque.

Second, and perhaps more important, the process is painfully slow. Even if the two reviewers like your article, it might take weeks or even months for them to actually read it, then they send it back to you with the instruction “revise and resubmit,” and then the process repeats itself. Actually getting it to print can take even longer. Sometimes it takes years before the actual discovery or innovation that your work produces ever sees the light of the day, and that being the very dim light of an academic journal, which even at their most prestigious are read by very view people indeed.

What Holger did that so fascinated me was compare this peer review process to his own blogging. Because Holger has tenure, he can write (within reason) anything that he wants on his blog. He can share his academic work there. And so he does. And when he does, he gets responses in real time. If he provides a novel piece of research, say, a new analysis of one of Shakespeare’s plays, or even digital images of marginalia from the early 17th century, he can get comments, that is to say, peer reviews, immediately. Indeed, that is precisely what happened in the above post. Holger wrote it on December 21, 2011. Professor Martin Wiggins, of the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute, offered comments and corrections on December 22, 2011, the very next day. Then Holger edited the post, and thanked and responded to Dr. Wiggins in the comments.

Now, if Holger didn’t have tenure, and Professor Wiggins wasn’t a nice person, he could have stolen Holger’s work and done published it with more correct information, or simply published it first in a more reputable setting, and Holger’s path to tenure might have been thwarted. After all, we don’t get credit for our blog posts on the tenure clock. So for someone like me, or any of my non-tenured (or unemployed) co-bloggers, it might be academic suicide to publish our original research out here in cyberspace, rather than in a peer-reviewed journal, or in a book printed by a university press.

On the other hand, I wonder if, in the future, blogs such as these will sort of play the role that Sean Parker’s Napster did for the music industry. If we could all publish our work, safely, in real time, and have legitimate critics respond to it in  real time, and edit it in real time, wouldn’t that be a more effective way of advancing scholarship?

This is not to say that peer review should be done away with entirely. But it seems like a community of academic bloggers should at least have some effect in speeding the process up, and ideally in making it more transparent and democratic as well. For example, suppose Dr. Martin Wiggins was simply Mr. Martin Wiggins, amateur Shakespeare buff, who knew enough to provide relevant criticism to Holger’s post. Theoretically, as long as the scholarship is sound, it shouldn’t really matter where it’s coming from.

That’s precisely the point of William James’ 1903 essay, “The Ph.D. Octopus,” that we should not fetishize degrees, like the Ph.D., but instead evaluate work, and academics, on their scholarly merit. We’re not quite there yet, and I’m not quite sure where there is. But I think I’d like to get there eventually.

Written by Jenny Carlson

January 30th, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Posted in Main