Traditional Model: Peer Review
If you’ve published a paper before, you’re familiar with the peer review process, with all its joys and heartbreaks. After an initial screening, journal staff sends your paper to 2 or 3 experts in your field, who comment on the suitability of your methods, the validity of your conclusions, and the importance of it to the field overall. Depending on their decision, the journal will either publish the paper, agree to re-consider or even publish the paper if the reviewers’ recommendations are incorporated or their concerns are addressed suitably, or simply reject it. This approach is so familiar to scholars in both the current and past generations, that you might simply think is, and has always been, the only path to publication.
Let’s take a step back. Back in the 1700s, there weren’t academic journals at all. Scientists took the results of their research to academic society conferences, and discussed the results with their peers. As science grew as a profession, expanded in fields and specialties, and spread around the globe, researchers needed a way to communicate with their peers in other countries, and not just once or twice a year. Hence the birth of the academic journal.
But in this mode, communication is fundamentally one-way. The scientist writes their methods and results, and their readers read it: there’s no dialogue. In fact, the peer review system was devised to create a dialogue: the assumption is, after candid and critical discussion of the research by people who know the most about it, what remains has real scientific and academic merit. However, the well-intentioned ‘gatekeeper’ role has adverse effects as well.
One is that it creates a delay between research discovery and dissemination: the average turnaround time from first submission to final publication ranges from 3 months to over a year! In the fast-paced world of scientific research, your findings may already be old news, or the field may have moved in a different direction. Another is that controversial research, or research that upsets the paradigm of a domain, may be rejected by peer reviewers who disagree with your findings for ideological reasons.
Moreover, the volume of written output requiring review is expanding at an alarming rate, proportional to the increasing number of students and scholars around the world. The burden of reviewing all these new papers is increasingly falling on the academics themselves. One of our Uni-edit Editors, a PhD researcher herself, puts it this way:
“Amongst my field research, teaching responsibilities, and writing up my own findings, I’m ‘on call’ for several journals as a peer reviewer. The logic is, as a member of the scientific community, I have a responsibility to ensure the research and methods and conclusions of my peers meet a certain standard of scientific rigor and high quality. In practice, this basically means I’m expected to review at least a paper a week. For free. I feel this is unsustainable in the long run, not to mention unfair.”
Enter the dilemma of modern academic publishing: lift the strict standards of peer review, likely letting faulty research in with the good, or continue with this approach, preserving a bottleneck that creates intensifying competition between all academics, old and new?
While peer review will (and should) never be abandoned, the future of academic publishing may increasingly incorporate two new models of publication: self-archiving, and post-publication peer review.