• Paul Keil

Peer review as sharing

Some quickly composed, opening words for a small workshop on peer-review held at the Institute of Ethnology, Czech Academy of Sciences last year (may as well leave them here, instead of being forgotten on my harddrive)


I was trying to think of a broad concept through which I could think about the peer review process as a social relationship, as well as reflect on my own experience participating in this process

I have only done about 8 peer reviews. And perhaps because I am still a relative beginner at this academic game, I still retain the memory of first being invited as a peer reviewer. For me, it felt like a moment of mutual recognition – where my efforts and expertise were being acknowledged, called upon, and responded to by those I respect, and in turn I was asked to look upon, assess, and influence the work of another in my field. For myself, participating as a peer reviewer was a significant step in strengthening my identity as a fully-fledged member of an academic community AND initiated me into new relations through which I could co-contribute to the trajectory of my chosen discipline.

I don’t think I ever received any formal or informal guidance on how to be a peer reviewer, apart from being reviewed myself. Even now, I feel that I am still coming to terms with the expectations placed upon me in that role. The obvious role is the reviewer as gatekeeper of research quality. The English term “referee” - sometimes used interchangeably with “peer-reviewer” - captures the position of advocating for a paper or arbitrating whether the paper conforms to methodological and logical rules of the discipline.

Of course, being a peer reviewer is more than being a filter, more than disciplining knowledge by making the author run a gauntlet of criticisms in order to reach the goal of publication.

Peer review is also the expectation and possibility to help improve the paper. Nolas and Varvantakis propose the idea of peer-feedback rather than peer-review to encapsulate this relationship, They suggest a change in term and also process will help foster collegiality and care, more positive interactions and critique, and minimise toxic commentary. Exploring the review process as a feedback loop between author and peer, can help grasp how reviewing and revising a manuscript can be one of working together.

Of course, the rules, roles, and structure of the peer-review process, does not necessarily mean that this mutual interaction is mutually beneficial. Reviewing is a form of labour that one individual does for another. We are asked to volunteer our immaterial resources, a transfer of our valuable and hard-earned time and knowledge towards someone else’s paper. Perhaps we do gain a sense of satisfaction, but these efforts often remain anonymous, and we do not reap any public rewards.

In the days leading up to the workshop, I was toying with the notion of “reciprocity” and the role it might play in maintaining the peer review system. Some have argued that there is a distributed or reciprocity at play, whereby the productive evaluation you give to an author on one day will someday be returned to you. And that we as academics do understand that the system of peer review – which I assume we all highly value - relies on each academic giving some of their time and effort towards this process. If everyone expected reviews but never gave them, the system would fall apart.

Although the term reciprocity, particularly as it has been understood through anthropology of gift-giving, does not really capture the peer review exchange. Particularly because of the double-blind method, anonymity prevents the account-keeping that determines whether the number of reviews returned are equivalent to those received – I am technically not obligated to reciprocate. Anonymity also means that I cannot accumulate status through doing a high-quantity of or high-quality reviews!

Perhaps the form of mutuality that is peer-review sits somewhere between strict reciprocity and what Widlok refers to as “sharing”. For Widlok, sharing is distinct from reciprocity in that there can be an imbalance of transfer (some people can give or are asked more regularly than others); that our giving can benefit a wide circle of people beyond our own kind; and that sharing is a form of exchange that preserves autonomy. Peer review has more akin with the qualities of sharing than reciprocity.

Mostly, sharing and peer review both work on the strong mutual expectation that – and Im quoting Widlok now – the strong mutual expectation that “ everyone would need to share if they find themselves in the position to do so despite the common experience that some find themselves in that position more regularly than others.” I must admit, when I have been asked give-up my time to do a peer review, I find it difficult to say no, even when I am busy. Surprisingly, I have spoken with academics who are far far busier and much more in demand than myself AND who say a similar thing. Through peer review, like with sharing, we bond over our recognition that we participate in a social system in which we all have the opportunity and right to request this form of labour from each other.

I only consider forms of mutuality as a possible way of looking at peer review - I do acknowledge this is a briefly considered, simplified, somewhat naive, and overly-positive conceptualisation of the process, an analysis that fails to include the broader logistical complexities involved and fails to foreground politically problematic aspects of this exchange and most fundamental of academic tasks.

Still, I draw attention to mutuality because it captures some important social qualities of the peer review, and helped me to think through the ways it has shaped my identity and practices as an academic, but also because it gives me an opportunity to segue into expressing my tangential belief that this workshop is also a positive opportunity for mutuality – to engage in a productive exchange, to give-up our precious time in order to come together as a community, and to listen and learn from each other’s experience!