The problems and the blindness of peer review

A few days ago, I had reblogged a post at the Society and Space website about “the problems of peer review”. It is a very interesting piece, whose importance is primarily that of “disclosing” to the outside world some of the troubles and concerns of (good) journal editors. To those, like most young academics, who have no direct experience on editorship in big journals, the long times and, sometimes, obscure responses look like useless, tedious constraints put upon their efforts for advancing with their work.

But, when one thinks to the “exchange economy of peer review” and figures out that, in journals that receive dozens submissions a month, each submitted paper generates 2 to 3 (sometimes more) reviews and up to 10-15 requests for reviews, (s)he may get to understand what lies behind those long months of waiting. A crucial point is a generalised lack of disclosure about the process, the absence of information about the procedure from submission to response, the absence of information about real average timing (most journals state that responses are given within 2 months, which is rarely the case), the absence of information about total volumes of handled work (e.g.: n. of monthly received manuscripts, n. of reviews, and so forth).

But, recognising that an improvement of such procedural issues may help, I would like to move a step further. Although nobody contests the idea of “peer” review (i.e. research shall be assessed by researchers), in recent times the issue of “blindness” has been put into debate. The anonymous process is supposed to be a protection for young academics, so that the big name reviewing their paper (or having his/her paper reviewed) cannot exercise his/her “power” on the young author/reviewer. Bat there is a dark side of the moon: blindness means zero accountability. The only persons able to track who is a fair reviewer and who is not are the editors, and this give them an enormous power: which is not accountable – but for the overall quality of the journal. Moreover, the blindness is usually one-way only: reviewers get to know the author of the paper if it is published and it is not really hard to get to know before who is the author of a blinded manuscript – unless (s)he is making his/her very first submission. This piece by JP de Ruiter on Open Science addresses this issue with much bigger detail and comes to the conclusion that anonymous peer review damages science. A crucial question is why blindness is not removed on both sides once the process is concluded, so to ensure accountability and give the recognition to the work of supportive, constructive reviewers. This is something that some new services, like Publons, are trying to build.

For sure, and in times of radical transformation for academic outreach (think to blogs, open science, PLOSone style post-publication peer-review…), we may stop taking everything “for granted” and start re-thinking our role within academe and within society.

Unfortunately, it looks like strong resilience to debate – hence to change – exists in the places that could institutionally drive debate and change, this is the case of Horizon 2020 research infrastructure programmes, as Pandeli Perakakis puts it.

(Simone Tulumello)

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About Simone Tulumello

Post-doc researcher in Planning and Geography at ULisboa, Institute of Social Sciences. Keen in cities, (Italian) politics, photography, electronic music, and food. Lover of cities, especially Palermo and Lisbon, in a complicated relationship with Memphis TN.
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