Peer review: where to now?

January 16, 1998

You launch your debate on peer review with the award of research grants. But the "fixers" are also at work at the heart of the increasingly bitter Cambridge promotions crisis. We have partly reformed our procedures. But scholars in our lengthy queue remain at the mercy of a blackball from fellow scholars with whom they may have tangled fearlessly in the review columns but who may freely draw power from the confidentiality of refereeing to get their own back.

The essence of peer review is equality and there is no equality between an academic who can say what he likes without having to justify it to the subject of his reference and the one whose career and reputation he can thus damage. Natural justice requires that an accused person should know what is said against him and has an opportunity to answer it. The law has not extended that protection to the subject of references because it has been deemed (in the UK) more important to ensure frankness. But perhaps respect and dignity are more important still; and they certainly lie at the heart of anything purporting to be the judgement of peers.

In Cambridge we are not interviewed for promotion. In a process that still, at its most crucial point, goes on behind our backs we are helpless at the hands of any who may wish to do us harm. I speak with feeling, having just discovered through our new feedback system that my own faculty having (at last) put me forward for a chair, appears to be placing unexplained question marks over the thick dossier of my achievements so as to make it very unlikely that I shall succeed.

G. R. Evans, Faculty of history, University of Cambridge

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