What follows is a draft of one section of my next Short Guide, Peer Review. I approach peer review as primarily editorial labour with the goal of improving scholarship. I question the use of “gate keeping” as a metaphor for the role of peer reviewers in making recommendations to editors regarding publishing decisions while recognising that collectively peer reviewers and editors are doing important work to construct the boundaries of disciplines and fields of study. In the context of the commercialisation of scholarly publishing and increasing academic workloads, the voluntary nature of this work can sometimes be questioned. I address that in this section.
One of the issues that has become more contentious as commercial publishing has come to dominate academic publishing is the fact that the editorial work done by journal editors, series editors, and peer reviewers is voluntary. The payment of an honorarium (in cash or in kind) for reviewing book manuscripts does not change the voluntary nature of the task. The voluntary nature of this work has its origins in early scholarly associations and the idea of the university as a community of scholars and knowledge production as a collective activity. The tensions between academic ideals of openness and the free exchange of ideas to advance knowledge and commercial ideals of secrecy and competitive advantage affect the ways in which peer review works in contemporary academic environments where commercial logics are increasingly influential not only in publishing but in institutional rankings and government education policy. (See Fyfe et al for further detail about this history.)
Not only is this work unpaid, it is often poorly recognized within your institution either in workload allocation models or in hiring and promotion criteria. This makes sense when you consider that the work only indirectly benefits the institution that employs you (if indeed you are employed as an academic). Despite frequently expressed frustrations about the unpaid nature of the crucial scholarly work of reviewing manuscripts submitted for publications, academics quite rightly hold onto the value of peer review as voluntary labour that contributes to the advancement of knowledge. You fear that, if publishers (especially commercial publishers) were to pay market rates for this work, commercial values would threaten academic freedom and the pursuit of truth more than they already do. The desire to retain academic values and value the voluntary work of peer review without enabling commercial organisations to profit from it strongly influences the open access movement.
It is worth pausing to consider who benefits from your voluntary labour beyond the publisher. Looking to the origins of academic publishing in scholarly associations directs us to the ways in which scholarly associations still play important roles in contemporary academic life. You may be employed by a university or college, but your scholarly community is framed more by national and international associations of scholars in your discipline or field. Scholarly associations organize conferences and publish journals (or contract commercial publishers to publish journals on their behalf). They develop codes of ethics and may accredit university programmes, especially in professional fields. Scholars also develop their own formal and informal networks with direct and indirect relationships to official scholarly associations. These associations may have small paid staffs to coordinate activities but are also largely volunteer run.
Your peer review labour primarily benefits other scholars like yourself. This is why it’s called peer review. The primary way that you are rewarded for your peer review labour is through diffuse reciprocity. You benefit personally from the peer review labour of other scholars in these networks. The reciprocity is diffuse both in terms of the connections between you and others in the network and in terms of how this labour is distributed over time.
The voluntary labour you provide through peer review, your scholarly association(s), and your scholarly networks contributes to the collective advancement of knowledge in a field that you are simultaneously collectively defining. There will be times in your career when you have little to contribute and are mainly a recipient. At other times, you will face considerable demands for this type of labour and those demands will expand to include membership of editorial boards, editorships, and so on. Although, there is prestige value in these types of voluntary labour, and the possibility of personal influence on the shape of the field, seeing the value of this labour in terms of it’s contribution to knowledge and your field of study (whether defined as a discipline or not) helps you ensure that you undertake this work compassionately and ethically.
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