I’ve just finished writing the editorial to run in Volume 30 No 1. The editorial mentions a number of things happening with the journal, including this site and its aim. It ends with thanks to the referees who have done work for the journal in 2011, and will be followed by a long list of names. In the journal he edits, Journal of Historical Geography, long-time Society and Space editorial board member Felix Driver does something similar. The editorial is available open access here. Felix’s piece says rather more than I do about the role of referees in the effective running of a journal.
Felix suggests that despite the changes in publishing, “the humble reviewer remains at the heart of the project”.
The nature of the process may change, as indeed may the definition of expertise, depending on the field: but it is difficult to imagine how research activity could function effectively without some kind of effort at collective evaluation on behalf of the communities of interest which define fields like ours. Which is a longwinded way of saying that, in our view, peer review has been one of the great inventions of modern science; that its adoption and extension across the social sciences and humanities has been, broadly speaking, beneficial; and that at a time when ‘rule by metrics’ appears to be encroaching as never before onto the terrain of academic life, its values are our values.
It is easy to be critical of reviewers, and there are, of course, bad reports and bad referees. Getting reports on a paper, getting those reports on time, and good reports, is one of the biggest challenges for journal editors and managers. But the idea is one that is difficult to envision being abandoned. It is increasingly fashionable to complain about the review, production and editing process of journals, and to praise open access publishing and blogs as means of disseminating information. While there can be very good editorial standards in open access journals – in related fields, see, for example Surveillance and Society and Acme: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies - these are never ‘free’. They exist on the good will of editors, voluntary labour from others, and of course, on referees. If you think that the refereeing, editorial and publisher production process adds little, consider a journal that includes the next ten papers submitted to it, inappropriate or not, rough and ready, unedited and simply in the form they arrive, and compare that to the finished next issue of that journal. I can guarantee you are more likely to read the latter. Refereeing is an essential part of that process.
In his editorial, Felix makes the important, obvious-but-often-forgotten, point about peer review. Those who referee are themselves refereed, and the process is an exchange. Here’s Felix making the point:
The distinction between referees and authors is, of course, contingent rather than essential: indeed, that is one of the system’s great strengths. The person who holds the referee’s whistle at one point may in turn become a player, and vice-versa. In the discussions and debates over the future of peer review which periodically surface in academic, government, media and policy circles, this aspect of the process is rarely commented on. Yet it is surely what gives the system its legitimacy, and participants some of their reward: that sense of being part of a community, sharing the same values in principle.
When I wrote about informal exchange economy in Society and Space in the past (here), it was a plea to cooperate, for those who we request to write reports to actually do so. I firmly believe the default position should be to review, with exceptional circumstances dictating that you say ‘no’. In my over five years as an editor it has become clear that the reverse is actually the case – most people’s default is to say ‘no’. Yet we all feel aggrieved when the review process takes longer than it should; if the reviewers that end up delivering reports are perhaps not the ideal reviewers; or if reviews are obviously dashed off quickly or thoughtlessly. The same logic – those who referee are also refereed – means that there are some important guidelines for how to review fairly (see here for a recent example).
Just as you can learn as much from a bad seminar presentation or lecture as a good one, reviewing is an important learning process for reviewer as well as author. As Journal of Historical Geography and Society and Space pay tribute to those who have contributed their time and expertise to the finished output of the journals, it is worth dwelling on the words of a recently retired Professor. After spending some time a few years back discussing one of my papers over coffee, I thanked him for his time. His response was simple: “Commenting on other people’s work is the most important thing academics do”.