I do not see why we are highlighting the negatives of peer review, unless the editors of Times Higher Education have already decided that they oppose the current peer review system (“On the receiving end”, Features, 6 August).
As with any other personalised, discipline-specific process, peer review has its share of flaws, but in my experience it is fair, functional and constructive. That is to say, I have not always agreed with the reviewers, but they have almost without exception been helpful. The only rude review I ever received was for the very first article I submitted, and it did make quite a negative impression. But it was also a useful lesson, as it taught me how not to peer review, something that I have passed on to my own students and junior colleagues.
Moreover, in nearly 15 years of citing from journals in my field, I have never come across an article that I thought had no business being published in that context (that is, in terms of either quality or appropriateness to that journal’s readership). One could argue that the system favours the lowest common denominator rather than the heights of originality, but that’s the nature of scholarship more generally. It is an eye-opener to look back at reviews of works now considered seminal in the field and to see how often those works received lukewarm or even negative reviews at the time of their publication. Good scholarship stands the test of time by emerging at a moment when it is innovative enough to be original, but not so avant-garde that it is incomprehensible or irrelevant.
In the end, we are writing for others, not for ourselves, and thus the judgement of our peers is the best possible litmus test, imperfect though it may be.
Twice in my career I have received peer review that read, “This person is clearly new to the field, they need to read…”, followed by a list of material that I had written or edited. I have never been sure how to react to this. I suppose it is a sort of compliment.
Anglia Ruskin University
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