Against Peer Review

Those employed in intellectual fields today live in contradiction: most of academia exists in opposition to the values of academics.[1] Many of these issues—the financialization of the academy, the adjunctification of the labor market, the rise of legions of deans and other administrators, the refusal of the NCAA to pay athletes, so the academic is laboring for an organization that is actively oppressing others—cannot be addressed except for through organized collective action.

But, at least within the humanities, there is one universal dislike that could be addressed: the creeping sciencification of the liberal arts. Admittedly, part of this sciencification is part and parcel of the rise of the administrative class within the academy, related to the move away from what David Graeber refers to as the guild mode of governance, where those who do a job organize and manage themselves, and so will also require collective action. The clearest example of this type of sciencification is the research proposal, an exercise in stupidity anyone who has pursued an advanced degree has encountered. In theory, the proposal should be relatively inoffensive. Part of writing a good essay is knowing what question you’re asking. But in modern academia, this is not enough. You need to have the answer before you write. But of course, this is impossible. The argument of a humanities paper is the paper itself. The answer to the research question cannot be hypothesized beforehand, like in the sciences. It emerges from the construction of the essay, from the transformation of research into words. Adorno recognized this sixty years ago, and the post-structuralists reaffirmed it.

         Relatedly, the proposals will ask for the methodology of the paper. Again, this is natural in the sciences, but should be foreign to the liberal arts (that it is accepted in so many subfields should force us to reconsider their value). Humanities papers are narratives at heart—when analyzing a novel or film or artwork, you are telling a “just so” story about it. To decide the structure of a narrative before understanding its content is to betray the tale you are trying to tell. For the liberal arts, methodology should be thus: one researches, and then one writes. To decide in advance what tools you will need is to abandon your job. As an aside, this is why I’m skeptical of attempts to draw a strong line between academic and literary non-fiction; as Tom Bissell notes literary non-fiction writers are those who attempt to reveal truth through the “force of their argument and their use of detail.” Academics do much the same; the difference is that the academic is constantly rethinking the very concept of truth as they try to find it.

         Because the research proposal is imposed by the administrative class, however, it is not what I want to discuss; to address it would require collective action. Instead, I want to look at what I think is a self-imposed sciencification of the liberal arts: namely, the rise of peer-review, and the accompanying insistence that academic essays should not take risk. I should clarify here that I am not against the principles behind peer-review; essays absolutely should be vetted before publishing, checked for obvious errors and failures. But in the liberal arts, this was traditionally done by friends and colleagues (for the latter category), and editors who caught any clear errors. In this system, individuality was allowed to flourish, at least to some extent. Adorno has caught lots of criticism over the years for his critique of Benjamin’s essays (some valid, some less so) but he never attempted to make Benjamin’s writing “normal,” to strip it of unacademic and risky aspects. It was critique, but it was not homogenizing, because he knew the author and recognized that protecting voice was important.

         Modern peer review, on the other hand, is adapted from science and hence relies on anonymity, a relic of the scientific insistence on reproducibility. But no essay is repeatable; as I’ve said, the content is always dependent on its representation. To strip the essay of its author (even while acknowledging that ‘author’ is a construct) is to empty it of one of its dimensions. After all, as Huxley noted, the essay is made up of three poles: the autobiographical, the concrete-factual, and the abstract universal. The anonymity of peer-review removes the first. And the way peer-review operates nowadays removes the third. Any claims about universality will be removed or critiqued, using exceptions to the general. But the great essay uses the concrete-factual to create tension with the abstract universal—only the laziest of writers believe that the universal is always true. The peer-review structure blinds us to this, however. Recently, I was sitting in on a friends’ seminar, where they were studying The Culture Industry chapter of The Dialectic of Enlightenment. The professor noted that such a chapter could not be  published today in any self-respecting philosophy journal—it would never get past peer-review, since it references others’ arguments without adequately summarizing, works across various disciplines and eras, structures itself to be in a non-linear form, instead taking the structure from the content it analyzes, and makes broad, critiqueable claims. Certainly, there are legitimate criticisms of the book, and that chapter in particular. But part of its power is in its failures, in how it forces a response, stimulates thinking, and more. In short, the essay is important not only because of its use of detail, but also due to the “force of its argument”—to use Bissell’s phrase—which points to a general truth and forces us to consider whether it even exists. While I have my problems with the chapter (I prefer Adorno’s later writing on culture, which is more dialectical in my opinion), there is no doubt philosophy, media studies, sociology, and numerous other fields would be much poorer if the work had been submitted to peer review as it exists today.

         The weird thing is that though every single liberal arts academic I have met feels at least somewhat queasy about the dominance of peer-review, the process continues. In the seminar mentioned above, a reoccurring theme across weeks was how few of the important philosophical works of the past two centuries would pass peer-review, and how damaging it was for the field of philosophy.[2] Often times, it is justified as necessary for reducing discrimination and destroying the cliquish nature of academic disciplines; if the reviewer does not know who wrote an essay, they cannot give leeway because they are friends, or punish them for being part of the “out” group. This is frankly bullshit and insults the intelligence of all involved. For one, whoever accepted the submission first knew who it came from. More than this, however, it cannot be “liberatory” or “diversifying” to insist on a singular way of writing, particularly one that is highly affected, as the academic voice is. Anyone not sufficiently coached in the language and tone of the discipline will be punished. And as we have seen again and again, one of the major advantages the privileged class in academia holds is tighter bonds with advisors, who help them navigate the labyrinth of what to say and how to say it. It also emphasizes the faddish aspect of academia; if you do not uncritically use the terminology that is in style, the reviewer can sink the essay.[3] Right now, race, gender, and post-colonial theory are “in.” This is an unalloyed good. But unfortunately, it may not always be this way, and the same structures that support these vital fields will be turned against it. Peer-review is not the friend of liberation.

         So why does it continue? I think there are three reasons. Primarily, it gives the liberal arts a sheen of objectivity, which helps when justifying our existence to administrators, and makes us feel more legitimate. We’re not making theoretical arguments, but rather working from the facts on the ground. But playing neo-liberalism’s game will not save us. The goal of those financializing the academy is to destroy the liberal arts. We should not help them, which means we should not accept their framing or their tools. Secondly, it makes both writing and research easier. An Adorno essay cannot be understood unless you closely read the whole thing, constantly working to understand the relationship of the individual sentence to the whole. With the peer-reviewed essay, however you can closely read the introduction to get a hang of the argument, then skim the rest, looking only at the portions useful for your work. The style will be the same across essays, meaning you don’t have to learn an author’s idiosyncrasies. The meaning of technical phrases remains constant, so you don’t have constantly think about what something means in the context of how it’s used. And it allows greater fragmentation and ease in writing. No longer do you have to make sure that each part relates to the whole essay, but rather to whatever section it is in. You don’t have to double back and reflect on your own claims, constantly taking one step forward and two back, like the “procession of Echternach” Adorno loved to reference. You don’t have to think about how you will structure the essay to reflect content, but instead follow a set path laid out by those before you. It is the difference between following a hiking trail and setting off on your own.[4] And finally, because administrators have done such a good job linking the standardization peer-review produces with some notion of equality, there is a threat that calling for the abandonment of peer-review will be cast as a call for discrimination, that you are “unwoke” for pointing out how this supposedly “liberatory” thing is anything but.

         This leaves us with the classic Marxist question: “What is to be done?” The most obvious action would be for faculty that run academic journals to admit that peer-review is not in anyone’s interest except administrators and refuse to indulge in it. Scrap the entire process. Instead, academics should review and critique each other’s work before it gets submitted anywhere. There should be less fear about criticizing friends and colleagues’ essays, instead understanding that this process is vital to the liberal arts. Disagreement is a site where the best knowledge is produced. Editors should trust their own judgement, as well as that an article that fails in some way will garner responses and not stand on its own. Understand that essays never stand on their own but are part of a larger discourse. Collaboration should be emphasized and the “race to firstness” abandoned. We should acknowledge that research and writing are hard work, that there are no shortcuts to conveying or understanding concepts.[5] And we must loudly reject any attempts on the part of the neoliberal academy to link sciencification to progressivism. Science and its processes are not inherently good or unbiased, as we’ve found time and again. Instead, we should emphasize how this project sets us back, limits us, and hurts those who are already oppressed. We should refuse to abandon our search for truth, and yet also recognize that, per Bissell, if “we learn the truth by comparing the lies, there we stand, liars all,” that a “truthful story that may not cohere exactly to what happened, because what literally happened is not always the best illustration of the truth.” We are writing narratives, not case studies. The very act of doing so is an abandonment of the “truth” of reality, since, as Bissell notes, “stories do not exist until some vessel of consciousness comes along and decides where it begins and ends, what to stress, and what to neglect.” To pretend otherwise is the greatest lie of all.

[1] I should note that I am not in academia; I tend to believe the phrase refers to those enrolled in PhD programs and above. I am not a professor, a PhD candidate, or anything else. Rather, I am a former master’s student planning to apply to PhD’s, with a great many friends in the field. I am writing from the position of someone not quite in and not quite out.

[2] This doesn’t even touch on the fact that the peer-review structure is naturally biased towards analytic philosophy and its desire to be a science.

[3] This essay is not driven by any personal resentment—I haven’t submitted anything to review in over a year.

[4] We might note that when trail-blazing, you are creating something new, but only through the destruction and trampling of a part of nature. The older type of essay is in the same position.

[5] This, in turn, requires collective action to push against the “publish or perish” model. Writing and reading should be a slow, tortuous process.