There is a lot of crap written about peer view and alternative publishing models. I am increasingly realising that many archaeologists neither appreciate nor understand multiple peer-review as an invaluable mechanism for appraising books and articles. Some simply see it as ‘gate-keeping’: a hurdle to be overcome rather than a process to engage with. I remain a fan and here are some of the reasons why.
As Honorary Editor of the Archaeological Journal, we guarantee referees are anonymous and we use multiple referees. This means that if an article is published, it isn’t endorsed by a single individual, and if an article is declined for publication, no single individual can be responsible for scuppering it. It allows referees to focus on the subject matter of the paper without concern that they will be harmed by the author knowing who is responsible for the evaluation. But the real benefit of multiple peer-review is that authors get to respond to, revise and improve their article ahead of publication, rather than being ‘published and damned’ by errors of fact and argument that might have been averted by expert scrutiny. Errors still creep through, but the point is that it gives multiple stages where errors and issues can be caught and dealt with. Almost all other journals do the same system and I think it works because it allows authors to improve their work and learn which venues are most suited to their research.
Yet this system gets a bad press for many reasons and it is open to abuse if referees ‘hide behind anonymity’ to pursue personal grudges and promote their agendas and interpretations of the subject. Like everyone, I hate getting rejected from journals and it is easy to claim referees are only being critical because of hidden agendas, inherent conservatism, racist views about the author, sexist biases against the author, ignorance of author’s brilliance and genius and other factors. I concede there are numerous flaws and biases to the system, and no two readers give the same judgement on an article, so editors and authors have to navigate between responses to any single submission. There are a raft of problems embedded throughout the system. However, in my view the system still works.
My first point is that most examples of bias I suspect as an editor and as an author are overcome by using multiple referees. In any case, in my experience, in most cases, referees are trying to be critical in a constructive fashion and sometimes they have to call it as they see it if they feel a piece of work is not yet ready for publication, or they feel it never will be. Often, it is about ‘best fit’: the article might be good, but it could be ill-suited to the particular venue.
Moreover, authors seem to frequently misunderstand peer-review, feeling they MUST agree or adhere to all the comments made by referees. Not so! Often referees are trying to challenge authors to clarify and improve their work, respond to, not necessarily agree with, their arguments or criticisms. Good editors are actually usually adept at hearing the author’s response and being sympathetic in guiding authors to publication in response to referees’ comments, some of which can be contradictory.
Furthermore, for most good journals, peer-review is not mechanistic but tailored and positive. Also, it should allow clear feedback to authors. Some editors ‘edit’ down referee comments to cushion the blow of criticism for authors. I disagree with this; authors need to see what was said and how it was framed. If authors don’t like the comments, they can withdraw their article and submit elsewhere. Whether accepted or declined, they agree to revise or to withdraw, authors can learn from referees’ comments and improve their work.
Being a referee is an important scholarly responsibility and one that only idiots take on lightly. To do so, a referee is offering expertise and time and this is invaluable. Yet to do the job properly, referees must rise above their own personal views on a subject and identify whether an article ‘works’ in relation to its own aims, objectives and parameters. In my experience, most academics take this very seriously and editors and most authors benefit from the process. Hence I remain a supporter of multiple peer-review.