What’s the point of peer review again?

Given that most scholarly journals are now published in an online format, does the peer review process still serve a legitimate “quality control” function, or is peer review now all about crude “academic turf protection,” i.e. preventing new voices and new perspectives from being published in the most prestigious journals? What if it’s a little bit of both? In any case, it’s always fun to see what happens when you google the following question: “Does peer review actually work?

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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6 Responses to What’s the point of peer review again?

  1. Craig says:

    I don’t see a connection between peer review and the format of the output. I do see a connection between peer review and the quality of the output. Yes peer review can quash non-conformity but the benefits of “good” (critical) peer review outweigh the costs. “Public” (i.e., non-critical, emotional) peer review allows any content to be elevated to the status of something that is *at least worth evaluating*… this is how conspiracy theories survive. The fact that the internet has allowed/promoted widespread public/ignorant “peer review” is not an indictment of peer review or of the medium but of who is doing the reviewing.

    • Those are fair points, but I like to enphasize the “gate-keeping” function of peer review. After all, if you are smart enough to write a paper, who am I to judge “quality” of your work? Given that papers can be published electronically now, why do we need a gatekeeper function at all?

      • Craig says:

        I guess I didn’t make my point clearly enough… electronic publication (which I believe you are associating with low barriers) makes “gatekeeping” (i.e., quality control) an even more important function. Now, if some topics are not being published *at all* due to peer review, that constitutes throttling rather than review, which I would object to.

        To generalize, consider the function served by the major network evening news programs. They purport to offer, in 23 minutes, the most “important” events of that day — which is an impossibly subjective task, of course, no matter who attempts it. Really important things will never appear on TV news, because of the network’s gatekeeping function — if a story doesn’t entertain or stoke fear (i.e. elevate ratings), it won’t make the cut, even if the story is factual. However, a story that makes the network news carries more cachet than a story that appears, say, on my blog, since one (rightly) assumes that the network puts a lot more resources into fact-checking, etc., than I do. The bottom line is, I don’t think there can ever be enough resources to perform the quality-control function without also doing throttling.

      • I hear what you are saying, and I agree with your points in principle, but as an empirical reality, has peer review really done such a great job of quality control, even in the pre-electronic era? After all, as the saying goes, the four most dangerous words in the world are: “A new study shows …”!

  2. Craig says:

    Enrique, I have often talked about child-raising in terns of being at the wheel of a car careening down a steep winding road with no guardrails and your car has faulty steering and bad brakes… but in spite of that you (parent) dare not take your hands off the wheel! So goes peer review?

    • I love this analogy, or as Winston Churchill famously said about democracy being the worst system ever tried except for all the others! (As an aside, one of the legal academy’s dirty little secrets is that most law reviews — and by most, I mean 99% — don’t use peer review at all; it is students, not fellow faculty, who decide which articles to publish!)

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