By Bruce L. Cook
As an author you may be aware of (or have participated in) a publication that is peer-reviewed. For those who have successfully avoided this academic category, it may be useful to understand how it works.
Itís all about peers - those who share some exclusive standard. For example, journalists. If they wrote peer-reviewed stories, they would check with other journalists before releasing their final draft. (And, frankly, thereís a good chance that journalists write with other journalists in mind; readers not so much.)
More to the point, think of the Journal of Applied Gibberish. This would be an academic publication, and its editor would be required to submit each article to at least three other academics for evaluation against a tough set of standards like relevance, style, grammar, etc. Once the reviews are obtained, these would be sent to the writer, who would then be required to revise the article and/or explain to the journal editor why recommended changes were not made.
What about thin-skinned authors? (These are writer who, like most of us at times, become quite sensitive when criticized, likely to become defensive in response to criticism.) However, for the sake of completion and eventual publication, the writer makes revisions and submits the manuscript again. And now, upon the editorís approval, the article is published.
What about personal animosities? For example, an author may read a criticism but just dismiss it because it came from the University of Gibberish where the writer has many enemies. Or perhaps the writer will respond with a blistering attack on the reviewer.
To avoid this very real problem, a blind peer review system is usually employed. Here the reviewer has no idea who wrote the article, and the writer has no idea who has written the reviews. This helps to keep the process objective.
In the case of academia, this has become the standard system for journals and some textbooks and trade books. There is little question whether it improves the quality of articles, at least from an academic standards point of view. However, since reviewers are typically given no compensation, the process is slow because unpaid reviewers are notoriously problematic when it comes to meeting deadlines
Would it work for journalists? Probably not, for main news stories need immediate publication. It could be done for feature stories, though.
Would it work for fiction? There is a chance that it already does, although the process is far less transparent. Here a manuscript is submitted and, if lady luck is on the writerís side, it is referred to reviewers who read an excerpt and make recommendations to the publisher.
One problem with academic publications is that they are written for academics, not readers. For example, seldom will a textbook publisher ask students how they like the book. Instead, they ask the teacher. Thatís because the teacher makes the buying decision. This is a marketing decision, not an editorial one, but it dominates the process.
But academic publications are a product. And, like other products, could become vulnerable to the recommendations of the quality control movement starting with Deming in the late 1980ís. This movement made it clear that producers of goods need to assess quality at the customer level.
If this thinking ever finds its way into academic publishing, thereís a chance the publishers will begin to add student evaluations to their process, for many will argue that books are made for readers, and readers should have a say in the process. As a counter-argument, textbooks are made for teaching, and the academic standard which underlie them are part of the studentís learning.
In any case, on the basis of this short essay, anyone reading a blind peer-reviewed publication can open their eyes and understand what went into its development.
- Bruce L. Cook