Monday, February 22, 2010
Publish or Perish: The plague of academia
Over the last couple of weeks, there has been some discussion online about the worth of peer review. Is it valuable, or is it antiquated? As an Assistant Professor who goes up for tenure next fall, allow me to contribute my two cents.
I guess the real question behind this whole publish or perish (which leads to peer review) comes back to the idea that if a university is going to grant tenure to a faculty member, they want to ensure that the faculty member is actively participating in their field and contributing meaningfully to the field's body of knowledge.
Do we have a problem there? Not me, I'm good. I look forward to tenure and the security it affords me, so I can see it as a valuable right of passage for a faculty member.
The question behind publish or perish that I have a real problem with IS peer review. I agree with the questions that have been asked of late. Allow me to catch you up.
February 5, 2010 (my 41st birthday!): Cameron Neylon posts "Peer Review: What is it good for?" The basic premise of the article is that the process needs to be more open. Journals should publish which articles have been submitted as well as reviewer's comments. He thinks reviewers should be held accountable for their part in the process so they aren't purposely blocking others' work. He also talks about the cost associated with rejecting an article. I found his take interesting. The transparency of the process isn't the problem I have with it. I review articles for a couple of journals, and I always try to be fair. I think we ought to HELP each other share our ideas rather than try to prevent others.
February 17, 2010: Terry Anderson responds with "Journals as Filters and Active Agents." His article talks about the peer review process from a journal editor's perspective. It was actually very interesting. His main point: "So Peer review is certainly not perfect and does consume scholarly resources, but it serves to both filter and to improve the materials we use to build knowledge within our disciplines and (at least open access journals) to expose these ideas to everyone. Neylon’s ideas of just relying on happenstance and popularity ratings of posts, seem to be a recipe for compounding, rather than solving the challenges of utilizing relevant, interesting and important works." Honestly, I can see that. We have to have some sort of bar to meet as far as quality goes. Not all research furthers the body of knowledge, and those of us who make this our profession should accept this. And, heaven forbid, if our work doesn't do it, then we need to change topics!
February 17, 2010: Steven Downes chimes in with "On Peer Review." First of all, I'll say that I'm a big fan of Steven's, and I appreciate his hard work compiling OLDaily and reading his Half an Hour blog. In his response to the peer review debate, Steven wrote: "I don't think of knowledge and scholarship as static; I think of them as fluid, and therefore to me it seems counterintuitive to attempt to capture a paper and fix it as a definitive statement of fact (or knowledge, or findings, or however you want to represent it)." Further, he contrasts what he does with his blogging to publishing in academic journals, saying: "The difference between me, and an academic reviewer, is that I am held accountable for every harsh word, every appeal to an academic standard, every suggestion of a missing reference, every appeal to theoretical support. I can't secretly lobby for a certain theory, undercut an opponent or competitor, bias the evidential basis for a proposition, or any of the many other things that can and do happen in peer review." Well, AMEN, brother!
I guess this really all started coming to mind for me a couple of years ago when two posts I wrote on this blog, Have we reclaimed Instructional Design and Instructional Design in Academia: Where theory and practice RARELY meet, were listed on OLDaily. I remember being pretty excited about it--especially because Steven didn't completely rip on me! At any rate, I remember telling someone higher up than me here at the university about it, and the response I got was, "Well, it doesn't help you towards tenure!" So here something I had written was going out to 26,000 + readers, and these posts still get heavy traffic on my blog, but because they weren't in a refereed journal, they don't matter.
As many know, my major professor was David Merrill, and he always told me that one of the reasons he wrote so much was to be part of the conversation. He said he didn't mind writing something and having someone disagree, because he liked having to defend it. I think that blogging is just that--having to defend your thoughts and ideas. Now, I'm not in any way saying that blogging should be equivalent to refereed publications as far as tenure goes, but if something generates *real* conversation in some sort of quantifiable manner, then why not have some way to count it?
In his widely watched TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson said, "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original." Well, I agree with him. And that is the whole problem. The academic system rewards people who reuse data sets incessantly, others who run meaningless research studies, and others who just know how to get things published. And yet, as Downes mentions, they never have to defend a word of what they write. But I guess that's the underlying problem with the whole academic system: it rewards those who know how to play the game.
And that, my friends, is why I believe that peer reviews and the whole publish and perish mentality are the plague of academia.
So let me have it . . .