Peer Review is Broken: Introducing The Peerless Review

Regular Americans are growing more and more aware that our universities are broken. Tuition costs are out of control. Lowered admission standards have collapsed academic standards. Too many degrees and credentials are awarded, diluting their value in the eyes of employers and the public at large. And all of this is to say nothing of the neo-Marxist, woke propaganda that masquerades as education and enforces intellectual and ideological conformity among students, faculty, and staff. But while the general perception of universities has soured recently, the typical American still holds some respect for the peer-review process.

Sadly, though, the peer-review process is also broken. The fact that a piece of published scholarship made it through this process is no longer a reliable indicator of the quality of the research, the truth of its claims, or its contribution to a particular field. This has long been evident in the humanities and social sciences, but it is now clear that peer-reviewed publications in STEM fields are not immune to these problems. Many of these problems are due to the Left’s ideological stranglehold on the universities, but the current system of academic publication itself also ensures the corruption of the practices that are meant to vet new research.

“Don’t Like It? Build Your Own Journal!”

For nearly fifteen years I have served as a professor of rhetoric at a large public university in Texas. I am an “out” conservative at my university and in my field of expertise. Since I study the use of persuasion in politics and public affairs, my scholarly writing often touches on matters that are considered “off limits” by the leftists who make up the vast majority of English professors in America. When I finished graduate school, I found immediate success in publishing my work in high-profile academic journals. But in the years following 2015, as the so-called “Great Awokening” began to unfold, the culture of my field became even more dogmatic, radical, and demanding. Increasingly, I found that my scholarly work was receiving “desk rejections” from the editors of the journals to which I submitted research.

In short, editors refused to send my essays out for peer-review. Often, an editor would simply say my submission was “a poor fit” for the journal. But isn’t it the job of the peer reviewers to make this determination? I suspected that these rejections were ideologically motivated—that editors could ascertain the political orientation of my work and didn’t want to risk a favorable response from peer reviewers (which would require publication of the essay).

After a few years of receiving these desk rejections, my suspicions were finally confirmed: the editor of the flagship journal of my field, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, admitted that she was rejecting my work on the basis of her own political commitments. I filed a complaint that documented her motives to the company that published the journal, and to my surprise, the publishers did nothing. Effectively, they were saying that it is fair game for journal editors to screen submissions to ensure the ideological purity of the journal. Only perspectives that affirmed the pieties of the political Left would be allowed.

I was faced with a difficult decision. On the one hand, I could change my objects of study and approach controversial topics in a way that flatters the beliefs of academic leftists. On the other hand, I could simply stop producing scholarly research: I have tenure and I could maintain my job simply by attending academic conferences. But I love doing research. I wouldn’t deny myself the joy of doing it, and I couldn’t respect myself if I compromised my voice or my ideas.

[Related: “Peer-Reviewed History is Dying of Wokeness”]

But I chose a third way: I built my own academic journal. Last week, I debuted The Peerless Review. It is a cross-disciplinary platform for scholars and thinkers to publish their research—especially work that might be perceived as controversial by the current academic standards. At its core, The Peerless Review is an experiment. It tests the assumption that traditional peer review is not required to ensure quality. While there are certain generic requirements that a submission must meet for publication (proper citational format, grammatical correctness, and a few more), there is no editorial assessment of the strength of an essay’s argument, the truth of its claims, or the value of its contributions to any particular discipline. Such judgments are left to the reader. This replaces the subjective elements of the traditional peer review process with objective criteria, ensuring that ideological concerns don’t enter the publishing process. Before providing more details about The Peerless Review, the corruption of the existing system of peer review must be exposed.

Peer Review Does Not Guarantee Quality

The primary purpose of peer review is supposed to be vetting: the process relies on experts to assess the validity, reliability, and quality of new research prior to its publication. For much qualitative work in the humanities and social sciences, these determinations boil down to the capricious judgment of peer reviewers regarding whether they found the work “interesting” and “well-executed.” It’s a largely arbitrary decision that cannot serve as an objective measure of quality. Even in fields where research is conducted using scientific measurements and data collection, there is much evidence that the peer-review process is not effectively ensuring the reliability and validity of what gets published. Look no further than the replication crisis in fields like psychology and sociology, where we are learning that the results and conclusions of vast amounts of published research cannot be reproduced. There is much evidence that peer review does not keep poor research out of journals (see the number of retracted articles). Neither does it ensure that the good research gets published. In short, peer review doesn’t do what it claims to do. The Peerless Review provides a home for the quality research that the current process inevitably ignores.

Peer Review Has Been Weaponized

As journals in the humanities and social sciences become more explicitly devoted to political activism, agitation, and organization, the peer-review process has been twisted to advance these causes. Any publication of research that diverges from the dominant perspectives in a field would undermine the illusion that there is a total disciplinary consensus about matters that would otherwise be subject to heated scholarly debate. The public advocacy function of scholarship (“Research has shown that …”) depends on the appearance of this consensus, and thus editors use the system to ensure that dissenting research is not published.

The most common way that they achieve this is by selecting peer reviewers who can be relied upon to give a negative impression of the submitted work. So, if research is submitted that challenges left-wing gender ideology (for example), the editor can choose peer reviewers who will respond negatively (as indicated by their previous publications). Those reviewers conceal their biased judgment by talking about unquantifiable considerations like “fitness” for the journal, or the “readiness” of the research for publication, or its “contribution” to the discipline. The anonymity of peer reviewers ensures that the author can never irrefutably prove this discrimination because he usually doesn’t know who the reviewers were. With more controversial submissions, brazen editors will just issue desk rejections of quality work that goes against the grain, refusing to allow the peer-review process to begin at all. In practice, then, there are no rules at all that limit editorial power when it comes to what is published.

Incentives for Professional Advancement Poison the Well

“Publish or Perish” is a familiar slogan to the public. Those who secure a tenure-track professorship must publish a certain amount of peer-reviewed scholarship in a short period of time if they want to keep their job and receive tenure. For the already-tenured, further promotion depends upon continued publication. This system provides enormous incentives for researchers to parrot the dominant perspectives of their field, which encourages them to avoid topics and lines of inquiry that are uncommon or unpopular. Having chosen a “safe” focus for their work (one must maximize the chances for publication), they will rehearse the “safe” ideas on that topic. This severely retards the advancement of knowledge in any discipline. Further, it serves to reinforce the disciplinary (and activist) consensus on things. To a neutral observer, this consensus appears real, but it was actually forged through invisible incentives and indirect forms of coercion—which is to say that there’s no real consensus at all.

Peer Review Compromises Your Research

When it comes to qualitative scholarship, it is exceedingly rare that a peer reviewer will point out an indisputable, disqualifying flaw in the research design or methodology of a submitted article. Certainly, reviewers do voice complaints about these matters, but these are really matters of preference: it’s not so much that you can’t approach a particular topic in a given way, it’s that the reviewer would have preferred a different approach. Another common complaint of reviewers is an author’s egregious oversight in not citing Scholar X, Y, or Z. Researchers are forced to accommodate these arbitrary complaints if they want their work published. So, you are made to revise your study design, or change the method of analysis, and find a way to work Scholar X in somewhere. Of course, you probably had very good reasons for designing the study in the way that you did, and you may think that Scholar X doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but none of this matters. You make the revisions, and the article that is finally published often bears little relation to your vision for the project, completely compromising your creative and experimental agency as an independent researcher.

[Related: “Disrobing the Aboriginal Stalinists on a Canadian Campus”]

There is More Quality Research than the Print Journals Can Publish

Almost no one reads print academic journals anymore. An overwhelming majority of researchers access published scholarship online. The print journals are very expensive to produce, and they rarely turn a profit. These facts ensure that the number of journals in many fields is quite small. A given journal in the humanities might publish 25 full-length scholarly articles a year. In my field of rhetoric (for example), there are about 15 major journals. This means that about 400 articles will be published in the field in a year. But there are thousands of people doing research in this field. A conservative estimate would be that about 1,000 research essays are written in the field each year. Is it really true, then, that the 600 that are not published are of no scholarly value at all? Certainly, some of them are not ready for publication. But the limits and costs of the print medium ensure that only a fraction of the quality research that is produced is ever published. The Peerless Review provides a platform for the excellent work that can’t find a home. Besides, which individual is equipped to judge the “value” of a particular piece of research to an entire field? If only one person who reads a piece of scholarship finds it “valuable,” this can serve to advance the knowledge in that discipline. The Peerless Review leaves the question of value to the judgment of individual readers—not peer reviewers.

The Current Peer Review Process is Painfully Slow

It can take an individual researcher a year or more to produce and polish a new piece of scholarship. That essay can only be submitted to one journal at time for publication consideration, and the peer-review process will take about 4–6 months to complete. An acceptance without revision is extremely rare, so a request to revise and resubmit is good news. Revisions to satisfy the often arbitrary concerns of peer reviewers can take another 6 months, given the teaching obligations of many scholars. After the piece is resubmitted, another 4–6 months will be spent in the process of peer review. Once the essay is accepted, it is often a year or more before it appears in print. In other words, it is usually two full years (often much more!) after the researcher has completed a draft that the piece is published.

Of course, this assumes that the essay is eventually accepted at the first journal to which it was submitted. It is not unusual that an author has to go through this process at a number of different journals, meaning that five years or more can go by before “new” research appears in print. Over those years, an author may have done four or five major revision cycles in order to satisfy the divergent whims of various peer reviewers. How much more new research could this scholar have produced over that time if he could have published his essay immediately upon completing it? The Peerless Review significantly speeds up this process, potentially saving researchers years of revision that do not substantively improve the value of the contribution. Further, The Peerless Review allows other readers to provide commentary and feedback after publication, ensuring that researchers can still make revisions, improving and updating their work as they see fit.

You Must Submit

For years, scholars have had no choice but to submit to the broken system of peer review and the distortions imposed by the old process of publication. Obviously, early-career professors should publish in legacy journals until they receive tenure, but advanced professors and graduate students often have quality, unpublished work sitting on hard drives that could be valuable to other researchers. It is already clear that the legacy system of publication will be displaced. In the meantime, the digitization of research and publishing allows for experimentation and new prototypes that will fill the void when the legacy system collapses. The Peerless Review is one such option—I invite submissions from scholars in all fields of the humanities and social sciences.

Authors retain their rights to their work, and they can remove their work from the archive at will. Every new publication will be promoted on social media, and all work will also be added to the collection of scholarly work at Researchers.One, a similar platform which generously serves as the submission portal for The Peerless Reviewand a number of other start-up journals.

In addition to the scholarship available at Peerless, the website also hosts all episodes of the podcast entitled Whither the Looniversity?” In each episode, I interview high-profile, non-woke academics about their experiences in higher education and their ideas about how it might be reformed. The first dozen episodes feature innovative thinkers and reformers including Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars, Erec Smith of Free Black Thought, Jenna Robinson of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, John Staddon, Charles Negy, and many more.

If you are a professor, a graduate student, or an independent scholar, Peerless is seeking your contributions—conference papers, seminar essays, new drafts, full-length articles, completed studies—in short, any knowledge that you wish to share with a broader community of scholars. Publish with Peerless and take back your ownership of your work, your independence, and your scholarly vision.

Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston - Downtown, where he directs the graduate program in rhetoric and composition. He is a frequent writer for outlets like Human Events, American Greatness, Quillette, and many more. Follow him on Twitter @DoctorEllwanger or on Parler @TheHereticalTruth. Email him at ellwangera@uhd.edu.

3 thoughts on “Peer Review is Broken: Introducing The Peerless Review

  1. Clear Mr. Ellwanger doesn’t know how the peer review system actually works. Having been an Editor-in-Chief (EIC) in the past of an IEEE Transactions for 6 years I can speak with some knowledge.

    Journals have an EIC and a set of associate editors (AEs), each an expert in a sub-field of the technical area the journal covers. The AEs are responsible for finding reviewers. Once the reviewers submit their review, the AE makes a recommendation to the EiC who then informs the corresponding author of the paper about the final decision (reject, revise-and-resubmit, etc.).

    An author originally submits his/her paper to the journal. The administrative assistant makes sure the paper is “ready” in the sense it has a suitable format, figures and figure captions are legible, etc. No technical review is made; only a format assessment is made at this point. After that it is forwarded to the EIC who assigns it to an AE to coordinate the review.

    Mr. Ellwanger complains about desk rejections. Sorry, but it is the job of the EIC to determine if the paper is a fit for the journal and immediately reject those that do not, without sending it out for technical peer review. It is always the first step of the peer review process to see if the paper technically falls within the scope of the journal. There is no point—and a complete waste of everybody’s time—to assign a paper to an AE for a paper that clearly is out of scope.

    As the EIC I had to make two or three desk rejections each month. It is how things are normally done.

    1. Patti,
      Attend an AERA convention – or ACPA – sometime and you will see how much of an outlier IEEE is…

      AERA is ed research, which I could drive a double winged snowplow through.

      1. Outlier? Hardly. The IEEE is the world’s largest technical professional organization and IEEE articles are the most highly cited in US and European patents. Consequently, when they set publishing standards/policies, that has a far, far greater impact than what is done by some convention. Your conventions are the real outliers.

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