Private Editing and Peer Review

I criticized peer review for lacking transparency. I suggested the process should take place publicly. (I have no objection to anonymizing the discussion until the review process is complete to help reduce bias during the discussion. I’d suggest de-anonymizing it afterwards though.)

Do I ever have someone edit one of my draft articles in private? Yes. Why is that OK? What’s the difference? Why complain about peer review taking place in private but think private editing is fine?

Like most people, I generally only use friendly editors in private, not people with opposing viewpoints. It’s usually not much of a debate. If a specific issue became a debate, I might ask them to discuss it on my public forum.

Let’s divide private editing into two categories: peer and non-peer. If an editor has similar skill and knowledge to me, that’s peer editing. In that case, given a friendly editor who broadly agrees with me about philosophy, most issues can quickly be resolved with mutual agreement. Often, there are no difficult points for us in the whole essay.

For non-peer editors, they give comments and I don’t necessarily even respond or try to reach agreement. If they want to debate me, they’re welcome to do it after the article is public. If I want to ignore a criticism in private, and address it when it’s raised publicly, I think that’s fine. Being warned about the issue in private gives me the chance to address it privately, but there’s nothing wrong with turning down that chance. It’s the public debate which I consider important. Private editing is optional. There’s nothing wrong with publishing an article with zero private editors, so ignoring private editors is OK too.

What’s the point of private editing? I don’t want to waste most readers’ time with typos, confusing wordings, statements that some readers will misunderstand, lack of explanation addressing a misconception that some readers will predictably have, not preemptively addressing a common but incorrect objection, or various avoidable mistakes. Having some early readers helps the later readers get a more polished experience. I can also occasionally get feedback indicating that I need to consider an issue more (e.g. some hard but relevant questions that I hadn’t considered), which could turn into a forum discussion or just spending more time on the issue before writing a final article.

Private editing can also help me avoid saying something offensive. If I posted drafts on my forum and let anyone read and edit them, then some people would get offended, some people would search my history to find offensive quotes, and some people would read drafts and get confused (and sometimes stay confused after the final version, even if they read it, which they often wouldn’t – early readers usually don’t like to also read a final draft if it doesn’t have major changes).

In a better world, would I use private editing less? I suspect so, but it’s debatable. Also sometimes I use it at the preference of the editor rather than my own preference. (By the way, many of my articles have no private editors. I do most of my own editing.)

But here’s the key point: private editing is not meant to replace public debate. I don’t tell people the experts already reviewed and approved what I’m saying because I had some private editors. I often don’t even mention that private editing happened. I’m not asking anyone to trust me because smart people already privately raised their concerns.

When I finish editing the article, I treat it like I’m just now exposing it to critical debate, when I publish it, rather than claiming the debate already happened and you already missed it. I expect readers may criticize the article, and I have a forum to enable that, rather than thinking the pre-publication process was adequate critical review.

Peer review asks people to trust that adequate critical scrutiny already happened, privately, before the article was published. Private editing doesn’t ask for any trust due to something those people can’t read. Private editing isn’t used as an appeal to authority. Peer review tries to actually replace a lot of public critical discussion. No one says “Surely if that criticism was correct, one of his friends would have told him during private editing before he published that article.” But people do assume that if an issue was important then peer review would have addressed it.