Friday, December 8, 2017

What professional responsibility comes with being an editor-in-chief?

Bill Benzon at New Savannah posted some time back a blog post, "Is formal peer-review really useful anymore?", HERE. The post highlights formal peer-review versus "review by peers" (a much less formal if not completely informal and speedy form of review), and the question as to what purpose review by peers might serve as a "weeding out" mechanism of sorts.

Citing Timothy Gowers of TLS, the post mentions how review by peers before formal peer-review can establish "reliability" in addition to "weeding out the chaff" and "providing feedback to authors." These in the name of determining what scholarship is more valuable than other scholarship and justifying "quick judgments" regarding authors' ideas in certain journals versus others. I should note Benzon's own position here is rather neutral and so I am addressing Gowers moreso than I am Benzon, despite Benzon's post where I initially encountered this thought.

My own perspective is that when it comes to open access journals especially, in the name of the democratization of knowledge formal peer-review instead of review by peers would be the preferred route of review. That is, much like Rawls' veil of ignorance in his theory of justice, blind peer-review (the formal component of it) pretty much eliminates the worst of what inevitably occurs with the worst of review by peers. While there is still the chance of nepotism and the channeling of a journal or book series into ideological organ based upon content, at least authorship is depersonalized and the quality of content, i.e. scholarship, becomes focus. I say this because from my experience political agendas and gate-keeping has come into play on more than one occasion. But I'll come back to that in a moment.

As THIS article points out, titled rather succinctly "Many academics are eager to publish in worthless journals," many open access journals out of desperation abandon formal peer-review in favor of review by peers not to ensure expediency in decision-making, not to better categorize papers as either fitting the journal's theme versus not, nor even to "weed out the chaff" and separate quality scholarship from the rest; but rather to continue an ideological agenda, push or return favors, or simply maintain someone's "spot" (and the corresponding pecking order of their acolytes). This all in the name of weeding out the chaff, which results to not much more than empty gesturing. All too often those whom the editors simply dislike or have decided to blackball from their small neck of the woods (usually some highly specific corner of field x in the philosophy of y) are cut out despite the quality of their scholarship. Had formal review been in place the editors would have been forced to confront their own prejudice and that prejudice at least become visible to others involved in the process, but that hardly ever occurs. It is no surprise that given the review by peers landscape is advantageous to those who happen to have grabbed the vetting power, it is often the preferred form of review in cases where charlatanism and cronyism are rampant anyhow. In short, review by peers over any formal sort of review is a sure-fire way to establish and then secure someone's level of importance or influence beyond what it would be in reality had some other process been going on, or in some cases it even allows philosophers to continue on in a game of charlatanism and dupe others into believing that x "make believe" philosophy exists when in fact it doesn't (again, speculative realism is an excellent case in point).

Returning to speculative realism for a moment, as my post concerning the Edinburgh University Press Speculative Realism Series from several weeks ago HERE has indicated (a post which netted around 750+ views as expected), it appears that the problems concerning a lack of objectivity and professionalism extend far and beyond what many might even realize. My experience was not with Edinburgh but rather Open Humanities Press (a different series within Open Humanities mind you, as I published with OHP anyway but decided to work with another editor who I found to be eminently more professional and actually, you know, fair in their decision-making). However, as I stated in that post, the editor whom I initially was going to contact at OHP wouldn't even agree to receive a manuscript proposal simply because I was the person who wrote it! This without really even knowing me personally, without ever even having spoken to me. So if that's not review by peers rather than formal peer-review I don't know what is. Fantastic to believe, I know. But it is true. Yes, this particular OHP editor refused to read a book proposal before it was ever sent to them, before this person even knew what it was about, before they ever even knew a title, a length, a subject, etc.  Based strictly on my name and the fact they did not like me for whatever reason, and nothing else. Not the level of my scholarship, not my talent, not the quality of my work - but upon what amounted to gossip and hearsay, second-rate information that they "heard" and formed an opinion of me which had no basis in reality and turned out to be false anyway. So, obviously that's a huge problem if that editor, whose job it is to be a consummate professional and behave as much, especially if someone is made editor of a series that has even an iota of pretense to be willing to look at submissions from anyone (even critical submissions - yeah right), or any pretense at all to having a fair or objective review process that would give them or their series credibility. That's what is lost with so-called review by peers. (Needless to say, many years later as this person went on to become the editor for other book series/journals one has to question: how can their judgment be trusted now? Afterall, clearly decisions weren't being made in virtue of the quality of work but rather someone's identity alone. What reason would one to think that that has changed? Further, what does this say about the work that they have agreed to edit? Was it because of that work's quality rather than political ties? We'll never know.)

To sum, Brian Leiter's post (mentioned in mine earlier) references an open access journal Open Philosophy that explicitly claims it does not tow party lines or push specific political agendas, however that is the sort of wait-and-see claim which I suspect will result in disappointment, much like the case of the Edinburgh University Press Speculative Realism series has or PhilPapers and its editorialship has (again, the Speculative Realism series at PhilPapers has had its fair share of specific authors' work going missing or just never even being acknowledged as a submission, supposedly due to "technical errors" - how convenient! And to think, a book whose title is Speculative Realism: An Epitome is nowhere to be found in PhilPapers given that "Speculative Realism" is a category and the book has that same title. Now that omission is really convenient, wouldn't you say?).

But, you get the idea. My point here isn't that I have some axe to grind or am upset that my own work has been subjected to such silliness. Given that I would end up publishing the book anyway and that it has since been acknowledged and reviewed (quite positively in many cases) by those in that particular area of study, as well as is said to be one of the more objective (as is possible) commentaries on the topic, which is a rarity, I wouldn't be complaining about my situation personally or about any one editor, series, or person individually. My point simply is to address how dangerous and fallible a "review by peers" process can be and that more often than not its intention of providing expediency while at the same time maintaining fairness is more or less, a pipe dream. I have gone at lengths to support this claim with my own experience regarding the situation, that's all. But it is a situation which is much too common.

There is much, way too much, peer review that isn't much more than cronyism, and it needs to stop. One needn't look much further than speculative realism and its world of publishing as a good case in point. But obviously given the fallible nature of the process itself, given human nature, it occurs most times where formal peer review isn't taking place. And that is something which I believe needs to change.