Establishing a peer review accreditation scheme would also help incentivise higher standards, says Arfan Ghani
The “publish or perish” culture that universities across the world have adopted in recent decades makes entire academic careers dependent on peer review processes. Yet while academics are subjected to exacting assessment based on the supposed quality of the journals in which they publish, very little research has been done on the accuracy and consistency of those journals’ editorial practices.
Peer review will only improve if journals’ decisions are audited – Times Higher Education | Research and academic publishing have been mutated beyond recognition by an obsession with quantity at the expense of quality and the transformation of academia into something akin to a sausage factory. Peer review stands at the cornerstone of supposedly quality research publications. But as this Times Higher Education item discusses, has anyone ever really thought about whether peer review is doing its job? Are junk science, shonky and poor papers and the products of paper-mills being blocked? Are quality and insightful papers being published? Perhaps it is time for a rethink in our approach to research outputs? The same questions could be asked of our research grant processes.
Sometimes the inconsistency between the verdicts of the expert reviewers is so great that the whole process appears ludicrous: one reviewer is happy to accept the manuscript unchanged, while another is unwilling even to offer an opportunity to revise it. Sometimes such malice is motivated by a desire to slow down the publication of a rival’s results – perhaps so that the reviewer can beat them to it.
Sometimes reviewers don’t even take responsibility for their own reviews, passing manuscripts on to their PhD students to review. While, arguably, it is not wrong to ask postgrads to give their feedback, leaving the final judgment to them, without any oversight, is not acceptable.
The question is how to make peer review more consistent, quantifiable and transparent. The scale and gravity of the problem means there is no quick fix, but that does not mean we should not try to improve the system.