Ed Carr on Publishing, peer review, and how “only the senior faculty can save us”

Who can save us…from ourselves?  Who can put an end to the current fiasco that is academic publishing?  Since we are all so entrenched in this system, where can we look for a way out?  In a post about some of the issues that academia faces when it comes to the current politics of publishing and peer review, geographer Ed Carr over at Open the Echo Chamber makes the case that escape and salvation may lie in the hands of senior faculty.  Is he right?  He might be.

Carr starts off the post by expressing his concern that academia is using practices like peer review as a way to segregate itself from wider audiences.  He argues that peer review is, at heart, not a bad thing, since it provides a way of vetting ideas in an important way.  But, he writes:

the practice of peer review in contemporary academia has turned really problematic. Most respected journals are more expensive than ever, making access to them the near-sole province of academics with access to libraries willing to purchase such journals. The pressure to publish increases all the time, both in rising demands on individual researchers (my requirements for tenure were much tougher than most requirements from a generation before) and in terms of an ever-expanding academic community.

One of the deeper issues, Carr argues, is that peer review can be riddled with politics that end up “slowing the flow of innovative ideas into academia” because those ideas may “run contrary to previously-accepted ideas upon which many reviewers might have done their work.”  Ultimately, Carr writes, these issues with peer review certainly don’t do much to help with the public image of academia (although he is speaking more specifically to geographers here, this applies to academics in general).

Here’s Carr’s solution, or, at least, his ideas for a way to start digging out of this trench:

So, a modest proposal: senior colleagues of mine in Geography – yes, those of you who are full professors at the top of the profession, who have nothing to lose from a change in the status quo at this point – who will get together and identify a couple of open-access, very low-cost journals and more or less pronounce them valid (probably in part by blessing them with a few of your own papers to start). Don’t pick the ones that want to charge $1500 in publishing fees – those are absurd. But pick something different . . .

Again, although he is speaking directly to other geographers here, I think this proposal applies to and should resonate with the anthropological crowd as well.  For Carr, such a move would be a critical step for opening up academic publishing to wider possibilities, conversations, and collaborations.  I agree, and I think he is right that certain established faculty members are in an important position for inciting and promoting change.  It’s a matter of interest and desire.

At the same time, coming from the position of a graduate student, I can’t help but wonder how those of us on the, well, lower rungs of the academic ladder, can do to actively foster these kinds of changes.  Since we are all encouraged to publish publish publish, maybe it would be a good idea to start thinking more strategically about how and why we are publishing, and more importantly WHO we decide to publish with.  If every graduate student and new professor is constantly upholding the current regime by basically giving up the fruits of their labor (and effectively providing certain publishers with a never-ending stream of valuable products), why WOULD anything change?  So, in the end, I think that Carr is definitely right, but that many of these changes are going to have to start taking place on multiple fronts as well.

On that note, check this out.

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently writing up his dissertation, which is about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, Mexico. You can reach him at ethnografix AT gmail dot com or @publicanthro on twitter.

7 thoughts on “Ed Carr on Publishing, peer review, and how “only the senior faculty can save us”

  1. Carr is right and a journal like HAU came to light because a group of generous and concerned senior scholars decided to support the dream of having a peer-review anthropology journal with a strong intellectual agenda and vision yet freely available to anyone

  2. Ryan – Carr’s complaint that peer review can be a conservative force in academic publishing is an old one, and its force depends upon the discipline (Geography may be more hide-bound than Cultural Studies) and even the subdiscipline. I know people who would recommend rejecting any journal submission that was not conventional, and I know many other people who would insist upon innovation. This is often a matter of the editor exercising judgment rather than something that is necessarily built into peer review. The fact that politics enters into it may be news to geographers, but it ought to be Anthro 101 to us. As I remember it, the journal Cultural Anthropology original emerged as the innovative alternative to the more staid journals being published at that point — it may have routinized its cutting edge to dullness by now, but the point is that peer review can cut both ways.

    However that may be, the link to open access is murky. Presumably a high quality open access, online journal would also be peer reviewed, and thus subject to the same political forces. I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable linking these issues to the cost of access, especially the odd notion that we’re producing valuable commodities that we give away. Academic journals have always expected us to give away our work; any illusion that this work is suddenly valuable comes from the increased price of access, which suggests to me that access is valuable, not necessarily the commodity itself.

    The major benefit of a journal such as Hau appears to be the low price, which is great in some regards, but no guarantee of quality. The first issue is interesting but not especially brilliant, and if it peer reviews its major submissions we’re right back to Carr’s original concern.

  3. Ryan — I’d encourage anyone who is concerned about these issues to check out the Elsevier boycott — go to

    thecostofknowledge(dot)com

    for information.

  4. Hi Barbara, thanks for your comment.

    “Carr’s complaint that peer review can be a conservative force in academic publishing is an old one, and its force depends upon the discipline (Geography may be more hide-bound than Cultural Studies) and even the subdiscipline.”

    I guess I am not really too concerned about whether or not this is a “new” or old argument, I am wondering to what extent it still matters today. Carr’s argument seems to be that he thinks peer review often acts as a way of hindering rather than fostering communication and dialog. Is this more specific to geography, or does this also apply to anthropology? I don’t know…maybe some more people here would be willing to comment about that.

    “I know people who would recommend rejecting any journal submission that was not conventional, and I know many other people who would insist upon innovation. This is often a matter of the editor exercising judgment rather than something that is necessarily built into peer review.”

    But let me ask you this. If peer review is, as your examples seem to illustrate, full of all sorts of subjective and very human differences of opinion, doesn’t mean that these politics are in fact built into the peer review process?

    “…but the point is that peer review can cut both ways.”

    Totally agree with you on that point.

    “However that may be, the link to open access is murky. Presumably a high quality open access, online journal would also be peer reviewed, and thus subject to the same political forces.”

    Maybe, but maybe not. Is traditional peer review the ONLY way to produce a high quality publication? It may be one important way, but my guess is that there are also other possibilities out there. Still, Carr isn’t really arguing against peer review per se–at least that’s not how I am reading him. He is arguing that it might be a good idea to rethink how the current system works, and the role that peer review plays in the process.

    “I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable linking these issues to the cost of access, especially the odd notion that we’re producing valuable commodities that we give away.”

    But isn’t cost a key concern when we are talking about the actual public accessibility to particular publications? How could that not be an important consideration?

    And, while I would argue that the knowledge produced by academics is meaningful and therefore valuable, I would not necessarily want to think of publications strictly in the commodity sense. The value of academic ideas goes beyond dollars and cents, if you ask me.

    “Academic journals have always expected us to give away our work; any illusion that this work is suddenly valuable comes from the increased price of access, which suggests to me that access is valuable, not necessarily the commodity itself.”

    Again, that’s not what I am arguing at all. You’re only looking at this as if it’s a matter of prices and money or something. I am not making the argument that since publishers are now charging exorbitant rates, then the articles themselves must then be “worth more” in an economic sense, and that therefore we as academica should be getting a bigger cut or something. The point is that academic work has value in the public, educational sense, and these pay walls and high rates basically make it possible for wide audiences to access what academia (supposedly) has to offer. I mean, isn’t the whole point of doing academic work to give something back to society, or knowledge, or humanity, or, well, something?

    “The major benefit of a journal such as Hau appears to be the low price, which is great in some regards, but no guarantee of quality.”

    See, maybe we are just looking at this differently. To me, the major benefit of HAU is that I can access it whether or not I am affiliated with University A, B, or C. If I have some sort of internet access, I can access the ideas and conversations of this publication–which is far superior to MANY publications that are buried behind ridiculous, if not outrageous pay walls. As for quality, you already mentioned above that peer review is full of all sorts of human vagaries, so *nothing* is really a guarantee of quality, in the end. So we might all have to remain engaged and active when it come to our academic dialogs (Rex makes a good point about this in his recent post about Wikipedia vs Encyclopedias).

    Also, thanks for the link about Elsevier. Another important issue. Apologies for the long comment–this is a pretty fascinating and important issue to me, especially considering how obsessed the whole world of academia is with the importance of publishing.

  5. Ryan – apologies if I misrepresented or misunderstood your note. My point about Carr’s revelation regarding the politics of peer review was simply that many disciplines take it for granted that peer review is political (how could it fail to be?), and depending upon editors, can be conservative, cutting-edge, indifferent, etc. Experiments with alternatives to peer review have been going on, a few in anthropology, many more in other fields, and there is no obvious greater benefit to any alternatives that have been tried so far, but that’s no reason to stop trying. I assume, for example, that the Current Anthropology ‘treatment’ – the commentaries — was originally an innovative effort to transcend the limitations of peer review, though it did not replace peer review in that journal. And my additional comment about editors alluded to the common experience that the editor’s role is more significant than reviewers in terms of the politics that Carr mentions: editors select reviewers, and in my experience are able to exercise a high level of control over the politics that way; editors can ignore reviews with which they disagree; editors can invite authors to respond to reviews and can persuade editors that a review is off-base.

    I may have been led by Carr’s focus on “low-cost” journals and his comment about $1500 publishing fees, etc, to assume that your comment on value was a reference to monetary value. And the debates over open access usually foreground cost and price as major issues. The notion of a “pay wall” refers to the price of access, not to the tuition you had to pay to acquire sufficient familiarity with a discipline to understand the periodical literature being published in that field. My comment about no obvious relationship was about no obvious relationship between peer review or quality on the one hand, and the price of a subscription on the other. Is our work valuable in other regards? Maybe. All of the recent studies of citation suggest that the vast majority of work published in journals in any field is not especially valuable, but of course there are multiple ways to think of “value”, many of them not accessible to easy measurement.

    What’s wrong with thinking of value in monetary terms here? If our discipline could find an inexpensive way to produce journals of high quality with no (or low) cost of access, wouldn’t that be a resolution to much of our current concerns? To what extent is our worry about ‘closed’ access a displacement of our worries about the job market? Many of our students will not get academic jobs and will find themselves separated from the field in which they have spent years in training, and closing off access to the major journals is not simply a practical limitation: it’s also a symbolic neutering of one’s potential to be professionally productive. Open access doesn’t have much to do with quality, but it makes the sting of un- or non-employment a little easier to bear.

    Carr’s proposal to create a low-cost, open access journal with high quality work is his suggestion for breaking out of the conservative bind that he believes peer review creates. I’m still not sure I follow the logic, since he wants to preserve peer review, but seems to think that if a wider audience has access to journals in geography then that wider audience will push geographers to be innovative rather than conservative. Maybe – but those expensive bundles of journals that academic libraries now buy means that a wider (academic) audience already has access to geography journals that we didn’t have in that past, and I suspect that any influence will have more force when it comes from other disciplines with which collaboration is possible. Look at climate science research – climate change deniers seem to have pretty good access to the journals, and invariably distort findings, ignore facts, selectively cite data, and simply fail to understand the complex science involved. Is that the kind of wider community that will push climate scientists to change the work they publish in journals? I doubt it, though it might encourage some of them to produce more popular work.

    At this point I’m rambling – more coffee needed….

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