The problem with closed-access peer-review academia

Recently I’ve enjoyed reading two unrelated but stimulating discussions taking place. The first example you can read here and here. I would summarise Skinner’s concerns in the second post that in a democratised (and that’s probably not the right word) sphere, everyone feels the right to have an equal opinion, and it’s difficult to give expert opinions their due weight. The remedy is (and I’m not saying this is Skinner’s view), traditionally, to point to the process of peer-review. Publishing is the sifting and sorting process that lends publications their authoritative weight. It’s why academia is a closed shop, it’s what the PhD is for: proving you’re ready to take a seat at the secret-society of peers who know about such and such a field.

The other discussion I’ve been listening in on is in the area of Digital Humanities and calls for greater open-access to research, data, etc.. One correspondent pointed to two articles that deal with the natural sciences:

Ioannidis,  2005 “Why most published research findings are false“, and,

Burembs and Munafò, 2015, “Deep Impact: unintended consequences of journal rank“.

Now, while those are quite a different field to Biblical Studies or Classics, or any Humanities discipline, we’d be fools if we thought that similar problems arising from journal ranking, bias, social pressure, and confirmation bias, we’re going on in Humanities disciplines.

Peer-reviewed closed-access publishing is run for the profit of publishers, and it’s paid for by the unpaid labour of academics. Is rigorous peer-review a great thing? Undoubtedly. Ought it be the gate-keeper to the conversation? Probably not. We do live in a more democratised world, and although everyone probably would admit theoretically that the only guarantee that you’re reading something worthy of critical acceptance is to read it critically for yourself with the pre-requisite knowledge to evaluate it, we’re all lazy and would much rather see the imprimatur of authority and say, ‘good enough for them, good enough for me’. But the result of that is richer publishers, elitism in academia, and a circle of bias that diminishes the value of peer-review to zero guarantee of truth or quality.

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