There has been much discussion recently about whether peer review is still fit for purpose. However, the emphasis has usually been on whether it is fit for the purpose of establishing the reliability of new knowledge. I’m interested in the crucial role that peer review plays in academics’ careers.
It has been argued that academia functions as a “prestige economy”, in which the symbolic capital of reputation matters more than financial rewards. In that economy, peer-reviewed publications are a significant source of prestige. But who is in charge of deciding who gets published and who does not?
The actual intellectual work of peer review is done by academics, as editors, referees and editorial board members. It is widely regarded as a duty to the profession and the discipline, and our university employers allow us to do it as part of our paid employment.
But academics are not the only ones with a stake in peer review. In recent years, academic publishers of all stripes – learned societies, university presses and commercial firms – have become keen to proclaim their commitment to peer review and to announce their ambitions for higher standards, faster response rates, better feedback, more checks on data and images and so forth. This is not in itself surprising: publishers need to attract authors, and academic authors want the public validation provided by the most avowedly rigorous peer review systems.
But as a result of such initiatives, the process of peer review has come to be seen as the responsibility of publishers. Indeed, last September it was even reported that Elsevier had patented peer review – although closer reading quickly revealed that the firm’s US patent is actually for a particular technique used in managing online peer review. Such innovations are to be welcomed, but there is an important difference between managing peer review and taking responsibility for its intellectual quality.
Speaking in 1957, David Martin, who was then assistant secretary of the Royal Society, publisher of the world’s longest-running scholarly journal, Philosophical Transactions, was clear where that responsibility lay: “Scientific societies should be the guardians of the quality of scientific publication of original work in learned journals.”
Martin was writing at a time when Elsevier and Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Press had barely begun their move into the publication of original research, but he already feared that “the moment commercial gain begins to dominate this field, the welfare of the scientific community will suffer”.
Martin was undoubtedly invested in the system of learned society publishing, and although he actively sought to improve the efficiency and financial sustainability of that system, he never doubted that learned societies should remain the guardians of academic prestige. They were the institutional forms of academic disciplinary communities, and they were committed by their founding documents to support and circulate high-quality scholarship. Martin would have been astonished to see commercial publishers claiming so much responsibility for peer review, and to see so few learned societies fighting back.
Martin believed that commercial publishers had a valuable niche providing for the rapid publication of preliminary results and brief reports, but he found it difficult to imagine how publishers with no intrinsic connection to communities of researchers could provide an editorial process with the expertise or the moral authority to match that offered by the learned societies (or, possibly, by university departments).
What I find intriguing is not so much that commercial publishers have learned how to involve academics in peer review, but rather that the learned societies appear to have relinquished the intellectual leadership that Martin assumed was theirs.
With so many journals now being published by so many different societies, university presses and commercial firms, disciplinary leadership is more diffuse than it was 60 years ago and no longer obviously lies with learned societies. Based on ownership, the big four commercial publishers have a clear claim to leadership in the business of academic publishing. But these firms have no grounds on which to claim leadership in the provision of academic prestige.
Given current debates about how the future of academic publishing will be shaped by technology and open access, this matters hugely – and not simply because of the cost of access to research.
Whatever form academic publishing takes in the future, we will still need a form of scholarly accreditation, something that marks both the research and its author as having met the scholarly standards of the field. As well as being a means of securing academic prestige, such accreditation is also a service to readers in an age of information overload. For this, we will need communities of scholars. But who will lead those scholars?
During the 1940s and 1950s, representatives of learned societies and national academies from all over the world met in international conferences to discuss researchers’ needs for abstracting, indexing and classifying what they called “scientific information”. Such mechanisms for international cooperation between learned societies still exist – for instance, through the Unesco-sponsored international scientific unions. Perhaps one of them could become the forum for reshaping the system of scholarly communication into something efficient, financially sustainable and globally inclusive. We certainly should not exclude public access, but the new system absolutely must work for research and for researchers. Who can we trust to guard our interests?
Aileen Fyfe is reader in modern British history at the University of St Andrews. She is the lead author of a new report, Untangling Academic Publishing: A History of the Relationship between Commercial Interests, Academic Prestige and the Circulation of Knowledge, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and published on 25 May. It is available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.546100. Twitter: #UntanglingAcPub.