Submitted by Jim Brown on June 10, 2011 - 11:49am
A couple of weeks ago, during the Computers and Writing Conference in Ann Arbor (as an aside, this was a superbly run conference by the folks in Ann Arbor), I was part of a Town Hall discussion entitled "The Future(s) of Computers and Writing."
I took that opportunity to bring up what has become my pet issue during the last two years: the unbearable slowness of peer review. This is something I've taken up in a previous Blogora post, and I'm sure people are sick of hearing me complain about it. But I still can't quite figure out why it takes folks so long to set aside a few hours to review a manuscript. As Managing Editor of Enculturation, I ask reviewers to respond within 3-4 weeks. When I mention this timeline to anyone, I get raised eyebrows.
Recently, I've been working on revisions of my own manuscripts and helping some colleagues work through their own revisions. It occurred to me that having to wait 4 months to get a response from a journal completely changes the way we address writing and revision. We are put in a position not unlike the punched card computer programmers of yesteryear, programmers who had to hope and pray that they'd debugged their programs and who would have to get to the back of the line to re-run the program. We send off our manuscripts and/or our revisions, and we wait…and wait. Instead of writing, compiling, looking at bugs, writing, compiling again…we write, submit, and wait.
Perhaps this approach to writing is supposed to be useful. After all, some programmers (and Computer Science professors) would prefer that programs be perfectly crafted (or at least as close as possible to perfectly crafted) prior to compilation or execution. But I'm just not sure that's how most people write. Writing is like hacking: You try something out, see what happens, and then readjust. But our current peer review infrastructure does not allow for this.
Regardless, during the Town Hall in Ann Arbor, I began to think that maybe moralizing isn't the best way to approach this problem. In conversations about peer review, I continue to use the argument that it is our responsibility to provide prompt peer review feedback. And I insist our field's inability to do so is inexcusable. We put article reviews on the bottom of the pile, and I don't know why.
But this argument doesn't seem to be working. Someone in the audience of the Town Hall responded to my complaint by saying that "life happens." That is, sometimes other stuff just gets in the way. And that's just the way it is. Frankly, I find this argument infuriating.
However, I can be as furious as I want. It's not changing anything. So, I'm beginning to think that we just need to completely rethink peer review. The Ann Arbor discussion raised possibilities for collaborative peer review in which reviewers team up and write the review together. Others suggested various crowdsourcing alternatives. I'm open to these kinds of options, but I'm still trying to wrap my brain around how some of them would work.
And part of me thinks that these solutions are still just a way of avoiding the central problem: When it comes to peer review, we don't treat one another very well. I know everyone is busy. I know that life happens. But we somehow find ways to get our other work done, to get our kids fed, to get episodes of The Wire watched. For the life of me, I can't figure out why our discipline is not bothered by 4-month turnaround times on article manuscripts.