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Diverse Conversations: Understanding the Peer-Review Process

071414_Steve_GoldenbergUp there with the tenure system, the peer-review process is perhaps one of the most baffling and convoluted aspects of modern academia. What is it, though, and how exactly does the process of peer-review work? How can you make it work for you and why should you bother?

To answer some of these questions, I spoke with Steve Goldenberg, CEO for Interfolio, who is involved with creating technology solutions that can help facilitate the peer-review process at various stages and levels. Steve has been a part of higher education for more than 15 years.

Q: To start with, how would you actually describe the peer-review process? What is it and how, in a nutshell, would you say it works?

A: First, I should say that I’m not an academic, so my experience with peer review is secondhand, but, very broadly, peer review is part of the system of shared governance that ensures academic quality—experts in a field weigh in to determine if a piece of scholarship advances knowledge and, if so, whether it should be published. There’s also an element of checks and balances that enables academic freedom: because it’s “blind” and outside the structures of an institution, peer review ideally controls for commercial, political, or economic biases.

Q: Why do you think so many people struggle to navigate the peer-review process? What are the biggest challenges, do you think?

A: It depends which side of the process you’re coming from. Peer review is a powerful tool because it’s a fundamentally human process—it really relies on the intellectual expertise of scholars and their collaboration toward a common goal. But for those who are on committees, even though it’s a necessary and valuable contribution to their field, peer review can be a tough addition to an already overfull schedule, and so there is a risk that the process goes on for longer than necessary.

For authors and applicants, peer review can be a hard process because it involves sending your life’s work and passion into a black box. You need—and value—the validation of peer review, but once you submit a manuscript, let’s say, you don’t have a lot of insight into how long the process will take or when you will hear back. Understanding that you can only submit to one publication at a time, this has more than just a psychological impact: hiring or promotion can be hung up on hearing back from editors and reviewers, which is deadly for young scholars.

Q: How involved and lengthy is this process for the faculty reviewers?

A: Depending on the publication, it could be six months to a year—some take even longer.

Q: Given these challenges, how is technology changing the peer-review process and what will the benefits be for colleges and universities?

A: First let me say this: I truly believe that peer review currently works as a system for advancing knowledge, so I don’t think technology should change it radically. Technological systems that challenge the underlying mechanism peer review risk quality. Technology has the ability, though, to eliminate some of the negative aspects of administering an efficient committee, while keeping the core principle of advancing knowledge intact.

More broadly, peer review reflects much of the work of academia: it’s one of the many peer-based decisions that add up to the collective creation of knowledge within an institution and across disciplines. This principle of shared governance is the architecture of all academia, whether it be in grant provision, promotion and tenure cases, graduate school admissions, scholarly conferences, curriculum development or publication. The most important decisions in academia come from groups of scholars working together, so technology should support this process, not try to change it.

The question, in my mind, is how do we develop technology that supports academic decision-making without undermining it?

It’s about streamlining the communication, goals, and documentation of the peer review (or really any) decisionmaking process in academia. In this sense, technology can hopefully trigger action on behalf of the reviewers and smooth their process somewhat so that some of the “dead air” of the peer review process for authors and applicants is eliminated. Importantly, our business is founded on working with the kinds of sensitive data that inform most academic decisions, so we also focus on making sure our technology can provide a blind communication pathway that is highly secure and confidential.

We believe the benefit to universities is that scholars, who are the driving force of academia — the folks sitting on the committees creating knowledge in various forms — get to spend more time on the aspects of committee-work that are most meaningful: discovering and refining new scholarship, meeting new colleagues, and producing new research.

Q: How do you envision the peer-review process changing in 5-10 years?

A: Hopefully in the future we’ll have pioneered ways to take the pain out of committee work a bit and make it a more seamless, communicative process — which in turn will make it easier on young scholars submitting work.

The goal for the future, however, is technology that doesn’t water down the important elements of peer review. I think the fear is that technological solutions represent a singular focus on efficiency in service to a bottom line — such thinking necessarily pits technology against scholarship, which is philosophical, considered, and of high quality. But if you can develop technology that values the thoughtfulness and rigor of academia, then it doesn’t have to “change” peer review at all; it can actually enhance academic decision-making at the same time it eases certain aspects of the process.

There’s no magic bullet here, but I believe technology can be a powerful, positive, enabling force for a system that, at its heart, works.

We would like to thank Steve for sharing his views on the peer-review process with us.

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