Peer review is a form of continuing education.

16 04 2012

By all rights, I should hate the academic publishing industry. After all, seven publishers rejected my dissertation before it saw print. One of them, who I shall not name here, sent the manuscript to two reviewers. The first one loved it. The second hated it for almost the exact same reasons. When I asked if we could get a third opinion, they said no. Apparently, I had to bat 100%. This process with this one publisher, by the way, took a year and a half to play itself out.

Therefore, you’d think I’d be thrilled by the prospect that Clay Shirky lays out here:

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

Instant publishing means no peer review (unless you seek it out yourself). Also, no publishing industry means no independent editing or proofreading and probably no indexing (at least in the non-computerized sense of that word).

If I expect these things as a reader (and I do), I should accept these things as an author. The existence of a few self-publishing millionaires does not justify the destruction of an entire industry. All these hurdles exist in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. In the broader publishing industry that difference is usually entirely commercial, but in academic publishing merit still matters. Market forces may be great for making some people money, but they aren’t particularly good at cultivating great scholarship.

I’ve come to think of peer review and the whole academic publishing process as a form of continuing education. The 28th reason not to go to graduate school includes a good description of what creating scholarship feels like even in your first years as a professor:

[A]cademic writing is especially difficult. It is difficult because it is (rightfully) subject to scrutiny, and therefore every substantive factual assertion that you make in your writing will have to be based upon evidence that must be cited meticulously. You will seldom write a paragraph that lacks a citation, meaning that you will rarely have the opportunity to indulge in an enjoyable, free-flowing production of words unimpeded by constant pauses to consult sources and record attributions. Academic writing can be agonizingly slow.

But if you pay attention to that scrutiny, it gets better. Really. Not every reviewer is a monster. Some of them have good things to teach you and one of the virtues of this profession is that you never have to stop learning.

More importantly, no book is an island. It looks like I have two books coming out relatively soon. Both have been peer-reviewed and are better books for it. I think it was Bobby Knight who said never shoot baskets in front of your players because they’ll never listen to you critique their shot again. I think the exact opposite applies to writing. You need to show students that getting beaten up isn’t just the norm; it’s practically a requirement to produce great work. You just have to have enough patience and confidence in yourself to adjust accordingly.


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