Is Peer Review Forcing Academics to Become Prostitutes?
July 29th, 2016
by Philip Pilkington
Recently I came across a fantastic blog entitled Rejection Letters of the Philosophers. It is a satirical blog in which famous philosophers are imagined to have submitted their manuscripts to their peers via the contemporary academic peer-review system. The humour lies in writing the rejection letter from a completely clueless and bigoted referee who merely want to defend already-existing ideas. (Sorry to be so analytical, I know that to explain the joke is to kill it, but I cannot assume that all my readers will go and read the blog).
After I read the posts, I sent in one of my own. In it I imagine a rejection of George Berkeley’s path-breaking, though largely ignored, essay De Motu by a Newtonian living around the same time that Berkeley published the essay. It can be read here.
I discussed the actual issue underlying the blog with the owner at some length via email. He directed me to this fascinating paper entitled Publishing as Prostitution? — Choosing Between One’s Own Ideas and Academic Success. It is written by an economist called Bruno Frey and, although it employs a utility-based analysis that I find reductionist, it nevertheless raises some very interesting points that I believe are worthy of further consideration.
Although it might seem strange to readers of this blog that a utility-based analysis might yield anything of interest I should say clearly that I do not think this is actually the case; rather I think that the author has cleverly bent utility-analysis to suit his own purpose, which is to criticise the Groupthink dynamic generated by the contemporary peer-review process. All the salient points that the author makes can be made just as clearly — and perhaps more forcefully — outside of a utility framework. That said, let us now turn to the substance of the paper.
The author identifies the fact that the peer-review process can often give rise to what he calls “intellectual prostitution”. The idea lying behind this is that the author trying to publish in a journal sells themselves by bending and altering their ideas to fit those that are considered to be “good” by their peers who are refereeing their paper. In an ideal world it would be expected that referees and editors, provided they see that the paper conforms to basic academic standards (clear argument, good format, references etc.), would then engage in “light touch” editing; that is, they would suggest possible improvements; where clarity might be enhanced; or suggest slight changes in layout. This, for example, is how the sub-editing process in a newspaper works.
Frey notes, however, that this is rarely the case. Rather the referee process is used to try to push group opinion on the author. Frey writes:
All authors would like to receive referee reports helping them to improve their paper. Alas, this is rarely the case. Normally, the referees want to see substantial changes basically altering the paper. Often, an almost completely new paper is demanded. At the very least, the author is asked to write things he or she would not otherwise have written. The more fundamental and numerous the changes demanded by the referees are, the less it pays to submit a paper and to engage in an academic career. (p208)
Frey is quick to note that this should not be considered a bad thing per se. As he notes with regards his analogy, it is possible to take the view that prostitution is a voluntary market act taken in line with a given monetary incentive that does no harm to anyone else and so has no externalities (whether one agrees with this evaluation matters little to the argument). So why then can we not view intellectual prostitution in the same manner? Frey writes,
Scholars are seen as performing a similar activity to artists, in particular painters who, since the Renaissance, are expected to express their own beliefs and convictions – which led to an explosion of creativity in the arts. The almost dictatorial demands advanced by the referees are difficult, or even impossible, to reconcile with authors wanting to publish their own ideas in economics journals. (pp206-207)
Frankly I think that in this passage Frey is bending his utility analysis until it breaks. He is clearly here making a moral or aesthetic judgment as to what “good” academic work should be. He cannot justify this on the basis of cold utility analysis. I could point out the flaws here in more depth but that is not my goal as I think that, while the form that the paper adopts is disingenuous, the substantive issues it raises are very important and the author’s contribution extremely interesting.
Frey goes on to identify what he believes to be the key reason that peer-review may lead to intellectual prostitution. He writes,
A useful starting point for a rational choice theory of referees’ and editors’ behavior is to acknowledge the difference between the two groups of actors on property rights to journals. Anonymous referees have no property rights to the journal they advise. They are not concerned with the effect their advice has on the journal. The absence of property rights must be expected to lead to shirking. The interests of the journal and the referees are not aligned… Many referees will be tempted to judge papers according to whether their own contributions are sufficiently appreciated and their own publications quoted. They carry, for instance, no costs when they advise rejection of a paper they dislike (e.g., because it criticizes their own work), even if they expect that it would be beneficial for economics as a discipline. (pp208-209)
I think that Frey is absolutely correct here. Hidden under the cloak of anonymity referees need not be neutral at all. Indeed, they can be as factional, subjective, authoritarian and nasty as they want and it will not do any damage to their reputation. This is, of course, precisely what often happens. If one is handed a paper to referee and one doesn’t like the ideas contained because they conflict with your own, you have no disincentive not to act like a child and demand that the author of the paper conform to your own narcissistic view of the world.
I say that this is true because, having trained as a sub-editor, I know that this habit has to beaten out of people. When you start sub-editing newspaper copy the temptation to insert into it your own views is enormous. You have been imbued with power over another person — over their thoughts, one might say — and while all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. This tendency persists even when you have recognised that this impulse is authoritarian, immature and tasteless. To take a truly neutral view of the material is extremely difficult. I believe that this is almost impossible for the average anonymous referee who has not gone through any such training process.
So, what does Frey recommend? Well, he says that we should recognise basic property rights. The owner of a journal is the editor and that editor’s reputation — unlike that of his/her referees’ — hangs on his/her journal. If the editor is forced to make the decision alone his/her reputation will be damaged if he/she is seen to be persistently engaged in bias. Personally I think that there is a lot of wisdom in this proposal. It is certainly better than the system we have now which is, as the author says, driving creative young academics out of academia and amassing power to an older generation unwilling or unable to change their minds on certain issues.
Finally I should say, given that this is an economics blog, that this does not just apply to the mainstream economic journals. I have not had a great deal of experience with the heterodox journals, but it should be noted that the two heterodox economists whose work is currently in vogue — that is, Hyman Minsky and Wynne Godley — largely did not publish in these journals. It should also be noted that the force that has popularised heterodox economics more than any other — I think of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) — has done so outside of established journals. This suggests, to me at least, that there may be something rotten in the state of Denmark, as it were. The market for ideas is quite manifestly in disagreement with the contemporary journals.
Addendum: I should note that while I believe I have brought out the salient points of the paper above, it is nevertheless worth reading as there is much else of worth in there. At some points the paper almost seems like a well-written satire; especially when the author discusses “born intellectual prostitutes” and “learned intellectual prostitutes” on page 211.