This week’s Chronicle of Higher Ed notes an experiment in open peer review of articles by Shakespeare Quarterly was viewed by the authors as most successful. Here, a selection of submitted article drafts was opened for comment by readers and invited reviewers, all of whom were invited to put their name to their comments (though it appears not all did) and the authors received what they largely believed to be constructive comments and citations which improved their drafts. As the editor put it, it was a controlled editorial process just not the typical controlled editorial process. The merits seem to be that authors received more comments than they might have expected from the blind review process that is typical of journals. This, if anything, points to an understated problem in the production cycle of many contemporary journals which results in reviewers offering little detailed feedback (and we’ve all had those!). One suspects that expert reviewers often exploit the blind aspect of the process to cover up their lack of investment in the activity. Having to put your name to your comments seems likely to encourage greater content and (one hopes) more thoughtful reviews too.
The downsides are real. The editorial work is extended, the decision is more open to scrutiny, and it appears from this example at least, the presence of senior reviewers stating their opinion tended to quiet some junior faculty reviewers who were concerned with presenting alternative views. It seems a sad indictment of the tenure system that one might actually pay a price for openly and intelligently holding alternative views but be rewarded by staying quiet. One hopes that is limited to some schools and faculties only.
Interestingly, the Shakespeare Quarterly results were more positive than the earlier findings by Nature which drew similar conclusions about some faculty unwillingness to participate with little on the plus side to balance this difficulty. Nevertheless, there is increasing interest in opening up the process of review and for me, the most practical one is to improve the quality of reviewing which in this field’s leading journals and conferences often leaves something to be desired.