Peer Review Does Private, Elite Gatekeeping

Peer review prevents some ideas from being published. That’s a significant part of the point. What is published is supposed to already be filtered or gatekept to only be high quality ideas.

So the public doesn’t even get to see most ideas. A small group of people have a bunch of power over what ideas are published, and they use that power without transparency, accountability, checks and balances, etc. And most people seem to think that’s OK!?

That isn’t OK. We shouldn’t have a small elite with non-transparent censorship control over academic publishing, while alternative publishing (such as blogs) is much less respected and often isn’t taken seriously. At the very least, as a minimal change to the system, we should demand visibility into decision making about what to publish or suppress.

What if academic journals published a list of every article submission, with the full article text, as well as the publication status and the reason? They’d have to say what articles they rejected and why. Then if they rejected something really good, for bad reasons, someone could spot that and raise the alarm. If they rejected something bad, but for bad reasons, that would also be concerning.

There are difficulties. People might submit inappropriate, irrelevant articles as marketing for their business or just to troll. But I think these difficulties could be solved without ruining the system. E.g. you could have a separate page listing articles that were rejected as spam and leave them off the main page. Or the spam article list could only be seen privately, by request, so people could check for malpractice, but isn’t posted online. Anything halfway reasonable would go on the main rejected article list, so it’d be hard to fully censor any decent intellectuals. If someone knew they submitted a reasonable article and it didn’t show up on the rejection list, they could complain to a journalist and send him a copy of their article to prove it wasn’t spam. They could post a copy of their spam-filtered article on their website, complain on social media about what happened, and the journal’s reputation could be destroyed if it turned out they were abusing the process and spam-filtering articles that were clearly reasonable enough to go on the regular rejection list.

Do we want to use private peer review to protect authors from fear of embarrassment? I’m not sure such fragile egos or social-status-oriented people should be intellectuals. But you could allow authors to request they be left off the rejection list if rejected and that wouldn’t be a censorship problem. Self-censorship of failures has some problems, but it’s very different than a small elite using censorship to suppress ideas from non-conformists.

Academic journals also have a lot of more mundane biases. Much of what they censor isn’t really challenging to their power or to mainstream beliefs. They tend to want to publish exciting new results, not replications of previous results, nor failed replications of previous results, nor criticisms of detail errors in previous articles, nor complaints that some article didn’t come with raw data and didn’t explain its methods enough to check its correctness yourself.

There are also many enforcement mechanisms besides choices to publish or reject articles. Authors often fear that if they speak out and criticize a popular idea, they won’t get jobs or research grants. There are many other related problems to solve, but the non-transparent, elite gatekeeping by journal editors and peer reviewers is a problem. And journals publishing rejection lists on their websites is a candidate solution that could help.