The veil of anonymity: perils of peer review

‘This makes no significant contribution to the field’ was a comment I received on a recent peer-reviewed article. Pretty damning, right? This feedback, and other peer review comments, made me question the value of my work, and particularly the importance of the article I was working on. But it also made me reflect on the peer review process itself; is it meant to be so combative and destructive, with reviewers acting as ‘gate-keepers’ maintaining the status quo? (Kennison, 2016, p.70). I wish to explore here whether the traditional blind or double-blind peer review process is not only antagonistic, but in fact constrains the possibility for scholarly dialogue.

As Kennison highlights, there is a clear distinction to be made here between ‘peer review’ and ‘peer engagement’ (2016, p.69), with the former being more of a judgement as to the value of a written piece, and the latter more akin to a constructive and collegial process of development. As I see it, peer engagement is valuable in and of itself, but it should also entail a commitment to dialogue. The blind peer review process is typically monologic rather than dialogic; the submission is reviewed, feedback is given, and a decision is made whether to ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ the piece for publication. Whilst the authors can respond to reviewers’ comments, indeed it is often necessitated for resubmission to a journal, the response is limited to their acceptance or rejection of feedback received.

The anonymity of blind and double-blind peer review affords a certain ‘protection’ – from factors such as reputational risk and hierarchical structures – to both reviewers and authors, thus tackling potential issues of fairness and consistency in evaluating an article submission. But should we be less concerned with judgement and evaluation, and instead more focused on the educative potential of the peer review process? If we could reposition the peer review process as being part of the research rather than a judgement applied at the end of one’s research, upon submission of a ‘finished’ article to a journal, then arguably this would be more dialogic in nature. I am thinking here of open peer review, and in what follows I will draw on my recent experiences of the rather innovative approach to peer review developed by The Public Philosophy Journal (PPJ) in the US, the ‘formative peer review process’*.

In generating real scholarly dialogue which not only reports on, but informs current research, we must be prepared to have what Pinar calls ‘an ongoing complicated conversation’ (2012, p.187). This relates back to Michael Oakeshott’s well-known ideal of education, that it should initiate us into the ‘conversations of mankind’. Education, and the conversations characteristic of it, may be at times provocative, confrontational, and uncomfortable, yet edifying in equal measure. Such complex conversations can disrupt our current worldview, which in itself is unsettling, but in so doing opens up new possibilities of encountering the world and others in it.

Conversations can be educative, and as Nel Noddings has discussed ordinary conversation can act as a form of moral education. Noddings writes of this in terms of an ordinary conversation between teachers and their students, but the features that mark out its morally educative character can be applied similarly to the peer review process; it necessitates that there is respect and ‘loving regard’ between the interlocutors, and the other person in the conversation must be seen as more important than the topic or argument being pursued (1994, p.107). If the peer review process was targeted towards developing mutually beneficial collegial relationships between peers rather than assessing the ‘worth’ of a piece of academic writing, then this could not only foster greater peer engagement, but also enhance what is currently meant by the term ‘scholarly dialogue’.

Admittedly, facilitating ‘complicated conversations’ in an open peer review process could be both challenging and unsettling, but engagement in such dialogue may contribute to an increased sense of collegiality (Pinar, 2012, p.187). Yes, academia is competitive, but this does not negate the possibility of engaging with one’s peers in what the PPJ would call a ‘peer engagement network’. What I would like to call the ‘veil of anonymity’ in blind peer review is not necessarily as protective and productive as it may appear to be. Blinding both authors and reviewers in the process is supposed to protect everyone from bias, discrimination (both positive and negative), and enhance the ‘fairness’ of peer review, but I am questioning the extent to which this also precludes the opportunity for (educative) ‘ordinary conversation’ (Noddings, 1994, p.107).

Whilst the ‘veil of anonymity’ is a protective factor for both authors and reviewers, I do think that the lack of accountability for one’s feedback can create a kind of no-holds-barred approach, whereby the work is judged without regard for the position of the author. If a reviewer knows that their comments will not be linked back to them, then it’s easy to be critical in a way that they might not be if meeting the author face to face – this by no means applies to all reviewers but is a reflection of the blind peer review process itself. Could we reposition peer review more in terms of the way that feedback is given on papers at academic conferences? Engaging in what may be a ‘complicated conversation’ (Pinar, 2012, p.187) about one’s work at a conference allows ambiguities to be addressed, questions can be asked and comments made that prompt the author to see their paper from another’s viewpoint, which then enables its development. In this giving of feedback, identities are known and comments are made publicly; whilst occasionally these debates may be quite heated, such dialogue can be seen as educative in itself.

In moving away from traditional blind peer review, Tennant (2016) has argued for the value of post-publication peer review in scientific disciplines, stating that the increased transparency afforded by this approach will move us that ‘one step closer towards a fairer and democratic research process’. An alternative approach is that devised by the PPJ, their ‘formative peer review’ process brings together writers and reviewers in collaborative scholarship, with the ‘review’ happening alongside the development of a piece of research; reviewing is not something that is done before or after publication, but is part of the research itself.

The PPJ does differ from other scholarly publications in its engagement with interested parties beyond academia, but where it removes the ‘veil of anonymity’ this is geared towards the creation of what they term ‘thick collegiality’ (for more information on the formative peer review process, see: Long, 2017). The peer review process is meant to be constructive, collegial, and developmental rather than antagonistic. Reviews are made in reference to the PPJ’s four essential criteria: accessibility, public relevance, intellectual coherence, and contribution to scholarly dialogue. Once a review is carried out, this marks the beginning of a dialogue rather than its conclusion, and both the writer and reviewers are prompted to engage in what may be a ‘complicated conversation’ (Pinar, 2012, p.187), but equally it aligns with what Noddings refers to as ‘ordinary conversation’ (1994, p.107).

What I am arguing for here, whether we adopt a system of open peer review, post-publication peer review, or the PPJ’s original ‘formative peer review’ process, is a lifting of the ‘veil of anonymity’ in order to encourage greater dialogue between those writing academic articles and those reviewing them. Fears over bias and review retaliation (this is the concern that negative reviews will be linked to a reduced possibility of tenure, refused grant applications etc.) could not be accounted for if peer review was no longer blind, but academic integrity should prevail over such concerns. The debate over the usefulness of what I refer to here as the ‘veil of anonymity’ rests on what we perceive the purpose of peer review to be, whether it is used as a gate-keeping mechanism, or is informed by a desire to work collaboratively with others in one’s field. Academia is by its very nature characterised by rejection and criticism, but wouldn’t peer review be more educative if it prioritised collegiality and conversation over judgement?

*This post is informed by my current participation in the Public Philosophy Journal’s New Engaged Scholars Program.

References

Kennison, R., (2016), ‘Back to the future: (re)turning from peer review to peer engagement’, Learned Publishing, Vol.29, pp.69-71.

Long, C., (2017), ‘Practising public scholarship’, Public Philosophy Journal, Vol.1, No.1, pp.1-6.

Noddings, N., (1994), ‘Conversation as moral education’, Journal of Moral Education, Vol.23, No.2, pp.107-118.

Pinar, W.F., (2012), What is Curriculum Theory?, London: Routledge.

Tennant, J., (2016), ‘Breaking the traditional mould of peer review: Why we need a more transparent process of research evaluation’, LSE Impact Blog, Available at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2016/02/17/breaking-the-traditional-mould-of-peer-review/ [Accessed 04/03/18].

 

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