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Peer review. Where next?

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A number of things have recently led me to wonder about the future of academic peer review. First there was George Monbiot on academic publishers I think he’s probably right that something has to give. Especially in these days where every academic has a website, and many papers are available on their websites, or on preprint servers like ArXiv and the PhilSci Archive. Indeed, Princeton has made its faculty put research in an open access site! And some have even gone so far as to suggest academics boycott journals who make it inaccessible. Michael P. Taylor suggests academics stop refereeing for publishers who put stuff behind a paywall.

So the question is, how will peer review change? Will the driver of change be the big academic publishers like Springer and Elsevier? No. I doubt it. As Monbiot points out, the current scheme suits them rather well. They have no incentive to change. Will it be the consumers? The libraries? Again, I doubt they are in a position to negociate. The academics they serve need the journals they pay for. So I find it hard to imagine that libraries could begin boycotting the publishers. I think the change will have to come from the producers: the academics themselves must do what they can to drive this change. This is more or less what Taylor seems to be driving at.

Of course, it’s a catch-22. The academics aren’t just acting as referees for these journals. They also try and publish in them. So even if Taylor’s suggestion of a boycott were taken up, the short term result would be a slow-down in the rate of publications. And this wouldn’t suit the researchers either.

So there needs to be some alternative scheme in place for quality research to migrate to before we can start to ween ourselves off the big publishers. I’m wondering what kind of form that alternative might take. There are already some good open access journals, like the Public Library of Science journals and (closer to home) Philosopher’s Imprint. There is also an interesting new project called Sympoze which should soon start publishing a philosophy journal, I believe. I am interested to see how these projects develop, and whether they will ever become mainstream. Until they (or similar projects) do become more common and more respected, I can’t see much hope of escaping the clutches of the big academic publishers.

Fun fact: Elsevier is named after the original Dutch publisher of Galileo’s books.


Written by Seamus

October 18, 2011 at 3:27 pm