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The Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand. Source: Wikipedia.
The Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand. Source: Wikipedia.

This is a commentary on: “How to fix the academic peer review system” by Alex Welte and Eduard Grebe published in GroundUP on 3 August 2017.

The authors immediately make their views on the use of peer review crystal clear by using terms such as “holy cow”, “demand”, “feet in fire” to characterize it.

They don’t like it.

Why?

Because peer reviewers can be “jealous old boys” hiding behind anonymity; and the process is “frustrating”, “contradictory”, “misses the point” and “result-diluting” and no longer ensures that published work is “of reasonable quality”.

They then conclude (without citing evidence) that:

  1. “Peer-reviewed journals are no longer meaningful filters.” and
  2. “Most academics don’t seriously “read” journals to keep abreast of developments in their field.”

Yes, peers can be nasty. But my, and most of my biologist colleagues, welcome comments, debates and reviews by peers wherever we can get it. This is because they can, and generally do, help us to sharpen our thinking. When journal reviewers misbehave, there are editors who can deal with (even ignore/replace) them. If reviewers and editors don’t do their jobs properly, journals lose their scholarly reputation; become repositories for the results of second-rate, even incompetent, researchers; and simply don’t get read.

In fact, when I or one of my students have a paper ready for review, we choose the most eminent, ‘toughest’ journal as its publication vehicle. Publishing in nature/science is the ‘golden ring’, with top discipline-related journals being ‘silver’ and local ones ‘bronze’. That’s how one develops a competitive CV, gets cited/challenged by peers and rises in the research hierarchy.

Also, I take the advantage of my institute’s and university’s world-class libraries and the internet to regularly read about 20 discipline-oriented journals as they appear – in addition to Nature, Science, et al. Without this, researchers become mired in the potentially mundane academic past and interact only with one or another bunch of ‘frustration-contradiction-free’ ‘old boys’ with whom they concur.

What’s the authors’ alternative?  One is to “self-publish” with a bunch of academically complementary (complimentary?) co-authors “capable of critical self-appraisal” and deposit manuscripts in “research repositories”. This allows “serious engagement” (with peers?) to discover flaws etc.

In this internet era, isn’t it wiser for researchers to first circulate their findings to respected ‘real’ peers to sort such things out before trying to publish? That’s what a paper’s acknowledgements section is for. The authors’ alternative simply side-steps editors and valid challenges from reviewers who they ‘fear’. Also, it creates the need to search a massive proliferation of ‘repositories’ potentially packed with ill-conceived manuscripts full of “fake news and dubious scientific findings” and needing more work.

How does one evaluate the work of peers? The authors’ answer (without guidelines) is that “you have to be savvy”… and “eventually the cream will rise to the top”.

Then, “funders and academic employers, groaning under the weight of the modern knowledge edifice” will implement (unspecified) “more nuanced evaluations” (by peers?) of your research. The will lead to the “collapse” of second-rate peer-reviewed journals.

The authors’ strategy is likely to produce a morass of mediocre ‘research’ that still requires review by peers – the already overloaded readers.

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Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class. He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.
  • jemevans

    I wonder if those Stellenbosch scientists are frustrated with the time that the publication process takes? Gutting the peer review component is the easy target of those available.