I started writing and publishing scholarly articles in the early 2000s, shortly after fully embracing the digital era. Somewhat of a laggard on both fronts – completing postsecondary education and technological adoption – I found that my introduction to academic peer review and internet culture happened simultaneously.
My very first research article, which I delivered in person to the managing editor in hard-copy form, meandered through a then paper-based review process. It was returned by regular mail with a rejection notice based on “Reviewer B’s” scant comments, which included incomplete sentences full of spelling mistakes and harsh language. Inexperienced at the time, I imagined that the comments were written by a far busier senior colleague who knew something I did not and had very little time to fully justify their observations and decision.
Fifteen years and several published articles later, my ongoing participation in academic peer review has paralleled the proliferation of cyberbullying and troll culture that remains a serious problem in other parts of the internet. Recently, a colleague approached me with concerns about reviews they received on their first attempt at a journal article. This time, Reviewer B went so far as to make assumptions about the authors’ ethnicity and made derogatory comments about the relationship between junior and senior authors. Rather than engage with the content of the paper and critique the analysis, they offered opinions based on their own agenda.
These “reviews,” although 15 years apart, shared common traits: an overall negative tone; snide, off-point comments based on erroneous assumptions and personal bias; and vague criticisms that lacked connections with those offered by other reviewers or editors. Finally, the reviews were hypocritical. That is, they could be criticized for the same issues they were condemning: unsupported claims, sloppiness and brevity. They provided nothing constructive to work on, indicating that the troll reviewer didn’t care about their role, the journal that provided them the service opportunity, nor their supposed colleagues – their counterparts in the review process.
The experience leaves me asking: what is the value of academic peer review in the social sciences? The process is intended to subject research to objective or at least arm’s-length inspection by other specialists. It is supposed to encourage work that meets high standards and thus provide assurances to readers and knowledge users that gratuitous claims and unacceptable analyses are not published without close review by qualified people. Review processes follow established protocols to guide criticism of content but also to structure the conduct of academic exchange.
After much consideration, I believe that current peer-review processes often do the opposite of what they are supposed to achieve. That is, the double-blind system provides no assurance to me – and, by extension, the readers – that reviewers are qualified professionals. The blind review process can reduce accountability, leading to poor-quality service work, which reviewers can no doubt still count on in their annual evaluations without having properly served their journal, their discipline or their colleagues. The blinded format can encourage boorish and unethical behaviour. To top it off, troll reviews waste an incredible amount of professional time and energy of authors, editors and colleagues who reviewed earlier drafts.
This experience has left me with many questions:
- Would open reviews improve collegiality and accountability?
- Do digital formats offer ways to tighten feedback between and among authors, reviewers and editors that can improve the quality and efficiency of peer-review (e.g., using online audiovisual platforms to critique and defend papers)?
- More broadly, if I am receiving these kinds of reviews from supposed colleagues who are members of a discipline, association or network of which I am part, do I really want to participate?
- What are some other ways to vet research, confirm soundness and quality, and communicate with our peers?
Now from a place of modest scholarly experience, I see that the internet and social media have simply enabled troll behaviour that has existed in academic peer review all along. Digital advances may have increased efficiency and the volume of papers in review; however, improving author-reviewer interactions so that they bolster knowledge still requires rethinking the purpose and format of peer review. As we continue to weigh advances in technology to improve review delivery options, it’s high time we scrutinize the academic peer-review process itself.
Ryan Bullock is an associate professor of environmental studies and director of the Centre for Forest Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Winnipeg.