Why peer review matters

I’ve been around academics for a pretty long time. It’s getting on nearly 30 years since I took my first research assistant position for Professor Terry Clarke at the University of Chicago. I’ve been educated and taught at big time research universities and small liberal arts colleges.

I think I speak from experience, then, when I say that I’ve heard and debated issues of academic scholarship for a long time, and two that often come up when I discuss academia with those outside of our profession are tenure and peer review, both of which are usually understood to be absolutely essential to the academic enterprise.

I’ve followed the controversy over the EAC reports with some dismay, because of the implications that some are making about scholarly research, and whether such research needs to be evaluated for it’s “political” leanings.

Many may not understand the nature of the double blind peer review process, but here’s one way that it matters to this debate. When you subject scholarship to peer review, in most–not all, but most–cases, your work is being scrutinized by the best and brightest in your profession, without regards to who you are or where you work or what are your political leanings.

Yes, of course we all can tell stories about articles where we knew the author but still reviewed it, or where friends give positive reviews to other friends. But in my experience of reviewing dozens of papers and a few books annually, I seldom know for sure the authorship, and even if I do, if I don’t believe that I can give an unbiased review, I return the article.

And I have never thought of reviewing pieces with an eye to their “partisan” leanings–nor do I even have a sense of what this might mean.

All this takes us back to the EAC: of course they should be releasing any studies that they commission. There is nothing wrong with the EAC issuing their own public statements regarding the conclusions reached by independent consultants, but the best way to assure their own role as a non-partisan clearinghouse for information is to follow the practices and protocols of the NSF, the NIH, and the academy.

Release the findings. Shine the light on the research. Believe me: the active community of scholars, reformers, and political activists will scrutinize the findings.

It may not be the only way, or the perfect way, to scientific truth. But it’s the best way we’ve figured out, and scholars have been doing this for a few centuries.