Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Peer Review as Shadow Cancelling

If you think academics can avoid abuses by keeping out of politics, think again.


Fake reviews, vindictive editors, ignorant reviewers, “moderation” without reading, rejections for want of “a critical theory lens,” retention of submissions for a year without review, and defamation. If you think I gathered these abuses of peer review in only “woke” fields, think again. They’re problems in the hardest of sciences. And if you think academics can avoid these abuses by keeping out of politics, think again. Submissions are being rejected for their subjects or conclusions.

I received more stories of abuses than were released for publication, because of fears of professional retaliation. I will publish here only stories from academics prepared to go on the record, including myself.

Economic incentives

Both traditional subscription journals and open-access journals have a business incentive to protect the consensus. Traditional subscription journals are selling to potential readers. Open-access journals are selling to potential authors. In both cases, the consensus is the largest segment. Journals of both types also rely on volunteers, which adds a different economic incentive. Why would you review for free? One motivation might be to cancel whatever you don’t like. And even if a reviewer is not censorious, a volunteer is not economically motivated to review attentively.

All this helps to explain rising evidence for inattention at best, bias at worst. A hilarious test of the process found that psychology journals only realized that three out of 12 resubmitted papers had already been published! Of the nine that were reviewed, eight were rejected. Given that the two researchers had changed the papers’ authors and institutions (with such silly names as Tri-Valley Centre for Human Potential), they offered the results as evidence of bias against less prestigious institutions.


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