Doing Away with Double Blind

Warning: academic rant.

Having taken a solid month six weeks seven weeks off after comps to ‘unwind’ (i.e. do everything I put off for 8 months), I’ve returned to my academic work.  One of my fall projects is to revise and submit for publication two papers I’ve been working on for a while.

Once submitted to academic journals, both of these papers will undergo a process known as peer review, which means that they will be judged by a couple of readers (experts in one’s field) who suggest to the journal whether or not they think the article should ultimately be published. In general this process is  double-blind, meaning I will not know who reviewed it, nor will the readers know whose work they are reviewing.

The justification for double blind reviewing is that it removes bias from the process of accepting papers into journals.  The paper will be judged solely on merit as opposed to seniority, affiliated institution, friendships, etc.  It is especially championed as integral for graduate students or new professors getting their feet in door, as well as for women, who still face resistance in academia.  In short, double blind peer review is an appeal to objectivity.

The process makes sense theoretically, but my gut, my politics, and my training in the history of science suggest double blind peer review isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Anonymous is rarely entirely anonymous, for one.  Often subfields are narrow enough that scholars are familiar enough with each others’ writing style and current projects that they know very well who they are reviewing.  Secondly, reviewing papers, like grading or scientific study, is never entirely objective, no matter how good one’s intentions.  Points of view and ideological theories differ, methodological approaches differ, writing styles differ, friendships matter, bad moods happen, labour relations are real, funding is relevant, etc.

These caveats strike me as enough reason to reconsider the process.  If double blind peer review is only obscuring subjectivity that is inevitably there, we are ignoring a rather large elephant in the ivory tower.  But let me be clear: my issue is not with peer review writ large (which should be the backbone of academia), but with the double blind element of it.  A more realistic but also productive peer review process would be one in which the process of reviewing is accountable, a process where scholars and their interactions are not reduced to words on a page.

Moreover, I think embracing the community aspect of academic work is politically important because it forces scholars to work on the power dynamics in academia that privilege some work and some scholars over others.  In other words, in open reviewing we would be forced to confront sexism, the problem of academic (un/der)employment and publishing, corporate funding of academic research, and more.

Some journals seem to be heading toward new peer review processes but often in the wrong direction.  Instead of doing away with double blind completely, some are considering a single-blind practice where the reviewers know the author but not vice versa.  If anything this further skews the balance of power toward the academic ‘establishment’ in the form of senior faculty and orthodox thought (not that they are always one and the same), for those are the folks most likely to be called upon to review.

That’s all for now.  I welcome all of your thoughts on the matter, for mine are hardly thorough, the topic is a contentious one and I’ve never gone through the process myself.

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Filed under Academia, History, On Human Connections, Politicking

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