John Naughton’s piece in today’s Observer is the latest broadside in the battle against peer review (Google ‘peer review’ for the story so far). He’s talking specifically about publication and the sciences (and mentions Tim Gowers’ commendable refusal to have any part of it) but it’s just the same across the academic board. I had lots of experience of peer review in my 10 years as a lecturer, as a writer submitting articles, as a supervisor encouraging students to publish, and as a peer reviewer myself. For young academics, especially PhD students, the first time you get your readers’ reports can be quite a shock. The reviewers will be senior academics with specialist knowledge of the topic. Sometimes these ‘readers’ (as they’re known) are generous and encouraging, but more often (in my experience) they feel the need to flex their intellectual muscle and hint all too arrogantly at the article they think the author ought to have written. Far too often researchers have to adjust their articles to something less original, closer to the requirements of an older generation, in order to get their work published. I very rarely encountered a proposed article by a PhD student that was not publishable with only very small corrections: the reviewers’ suggestions just led to a different article, rarely a better one.
At the root of the peer review system is a lack of trust: journals simply don’t trust academics to deliver the goods. But it’s not just the journals: the entire academic edifice is supported by peer reviewing of various sorts, from the Teaching Quality Assurance to the dreaded REF (a shocking waste of time and money both), and almost anything else you can think of in between (and I’ve done it all…). A lot of this is politically driven, of course – the government doesn’t trust the universities, but nor do the universities trust their own academics. The result is bland publications, a lack of risk-taking and an institutional mind-set that seriously inhibits exciting original research.
There is a remedy for this unsatisfactory state of affairs. Self-publishing is easy and sophisticated now: do it yourself. Better still, get together and enjoy each other’s work rather than have it torn apart by people who should have better things to do with their (unpaid) time. There will be mistakes, there will be the odd piece that should not have been published, but surely it’s worth it to get rid of this spurious obsession with ‘quality’ and the parasitical machine that underpins it. If market forces mean anything, the rotten academic apples will end up in the compost anyway.
Tim Gowers, who is Professor of Maths at Cambridge, was a chorister at King’s Cambridge, incidentally. I suspect he got his mathematical talent from his dad, the composer Patrick Gowers, who back in the seventies played keyboards with the Swingles, using a kind of multiphonic proto-synthesiser that he designed and built himself. He was a bit older than the rest of us (properly grown up, in fact) and we were in awe of his musical and technical prowess.