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.