As Sydney Brenner Says…

Two years ago, I delivered a paper at the Modern Language Society annual meeting on blind peer review. I don’t much care for it, I said. Though I am uncomfortable with peer review as a whole, it was the “blind” part I was addressing particularly.

Perhaps I was too timid. Perhaps it takes a Nobel Laureate to go where I do not. Someone like Sydney Brenner, professor of Genetic medicine at the University of Cambridge. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002.

In response to an interview question, he says:

I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists. There are universities in America, and I’ve heard from many committees, that we won’t consider people’s publications in low impact factor journals.

Now I mean, people are trying to do something, but I think it’s not publish or perish, it’s publish in the okay places [or perish]. And this has assembled a most ridiculous group of people. I wrote a column for many years in the nineties, in a journal called Current Biology. In one article, “Hard Cases”, I campaigned against this [culture] because I think it is not only bad, it’s corrupt. In other words it puts the judgment in the hands of people who really have no reason to exercise judgment at all. And that’s all been done in the aid of commerce, because they are now giant organisations making money out of it.

I believe he’s right–and not only in the sciences. At another point, he says:

Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.

Right again… but, again, I would extend that far beyond the sciences. In addition, the reliance on graduate students by research faculty puts at a disadvantage those of us who teach at institutions without graduate programs. Without this “slave labor,” we have to work twice as hard to produce the work that, even for us, is more and more necessary for tenure and promotion–to say nothing of re-appointment. The problem, in other words, isn’t just one for the abused graduate students but for faculty unable to compete with the abusers.

We’ve got a long way to go if we are ever to get American universities back on track.

3 thoughts on “As Sydney Brenner Says…

  1. Given the number of adjunct faculty who would like to have full-time positions, those who have full-time positions are clearly lucky to have them. But, outside of a relatively small number of elite institutions, scholarly expectations have certainly increased even as teaching loads have also generally increased, especially in the humanities and social sciences. As a result, more and more service responsibilities are being shunted to full-time contingent faculty. The “do more with less” mantra is causing very serious strain in all directions.

    The emphasis on “quality” publications is somewhat delusional, especially if one considers the dramatic contraction in the number of book titles being produced by university and other academic presses. All of that required publication has to go somewhere. If not for the increase in scholarly journals, many of them digital, it would be even harder than it is now for faculty at mid-level institutions to meet promotion and tenure requirements.

    This devaluing of all but a very narrow range of scholarship published in very selective journals seems analogous to the devaluing of an “old degree” in an academic job market that has been very tough for a very extended time. When more than 100 very qualified candidates are applying for every available position, regardless of the institution, it is simply no longer fair–or even remotely reasonable–to ask, “Why hasn’t anyone hired this candidate in the four or five years since he or she earned a Ph.D.?”

    Another analogy is available in those faculty at very elite institutions who feel compelled to write op-eds about the negligible value of tenure. Given that many of us at other institutions repeatedly confront the reality that tenure is the last thin guarantee of any sort of academic freedom, perhaps those devaluers of tenure should step outside their own narrow, privileged spheres before making any blanket generalizations about the state of the profession.

  2. A different perspective, from mathematics and theoretical physics:

    Peer review is precisely what is needed for ensuring and uplifting the quality of research publication. For it is precisely our peers who review our articles for publication, and not the editors. The job of the editor is to find one or more expert reviewer for a paper and then follow the judgement of the reviewer(s); the editor’s judgement comes into play only in close cases or in treating disagreement between reviewers. As a reviewer, I take great care not just to say whether a paper is good or bad, but to make very specific recommendations for improving it, ranging from clarifying language to recommendation of examples, exploration of new areas, or reorganization of a paper. As a writer, I have taken to heart reviewers’ recommendations to include diagrams or clarify the physical implications–and have thereby found my papers much improved.

    When considering whom among scores of applicants to recommend to my department for hiring, I consider the quality of the journals the applicants have published in. This is not a matter of toting up impact factors, but simply taking as an indicator of value, the fact that a paper has been published in a journal whose reputation is high–for then I know that the someone else (the reviewer, as chosen by the editor) has passed on the value of the paper, someone of far more expertise than I in that particular field. (I don’t take it as a negative if I don’t spot publication in journals whose reputation I know; that is then an absence of information, to be filled by close reading of letters of reference describing individual papers.)

    Peer review in mathematics and theoretical physics is not blind; I have never encountered any objections on that account. I believe I treat all papers I review the same, no matter whether I know the authors.

    • The strength of what you describe is also its weakness. Reputation, for one thing, is a quality of the past–not an indicator of the future. When we rely on it, we rely on what has been, not on what could be (a much dicier proposition, but also one allowing for real discovery). Though we, as individuals, may be honorable and honest, the system will always seem aimed at impressing people whose glories are in the past. Applicants and authors, then, will be hesitant to try something really new or radical but will work to the strengths of their reviewers. A bottleneck like peer review is inherently conservative, valorizing what has been accomplished and making anything really new and “outside” suspect.

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