Academics embark on their scholarly careers for a variety of reasons. Often they want to pursue their personal research agenda. Sometimes they even want to teach. I was an “accidental academic.” But in the twenty-first century, regardless of the reasons for pursuing the academic life, there is a requirement to disseminate one’s research. Over the past century, that dissemination has been largely confined to ensuring that our peers favourably reviewed our work. Today, that is often not enough. Even many research grant-givers, especially those who are affiliated with government agencies, look for more transparency and wider dissemination – even to the lay public.
When this is coupled with the fact that we are increasingly faced with open-access predatory publishers – illegitimate to their core – and increasing numbers of PhD’s hoping to find places to publish their work, it may be time to consider how self-publishing models might be used to, at the very least, supplement, traditional publication.
But if peer review is so important, how can it be incorporated into a self-publishing model? I begin this discussion with an excerpt from my new eBook “The Twenty-First Century Scholar’s Guide to Self-Publishing.”
What is Peer Review and Why is it Important?
Of course, simply stated, a peer-reviewed publication or presentation is a journal, press or conference in which publication or presentation (an often subsequent publication in the conference proceedings) is dependent upon external review by a number of the author(s)’ peers. Those so-called peers would consist of individuals in your field who have been chosen by the editors or conference organizers. But does this process itself ensure quality of publication? In a word, no, but before we get to that, let’s take a brief look at the history of this now well-entrenched activity.
According to an historical overview of peer review titled “The ups and downs of peer review” published in Advances in Physiology Education by a group of academics in 2007, the first real evidence of peer-review can be traced to 1731 when “the Royal Society of Edinburgh published Medical Essays and Observations, the first peer-reviewed collection of medical articles.” Prior to that time, although there had been publication for the purposes of dissemination, those publications had not had the benefit of having been refereed by peers.
It is important to begin to consider the extent to which peer review equals quality, real or perceived, and whether or not this is changing. The authors of the peer-review history say the following: “The Royal Society of Edinburgh recognized that the stamp of peer review did not necessarily mean the work was better than non-peer-reviewed publications. The purpose of the journal was solely to disseminate creative and important ideas; a disclaimer was provided stating that peer review did not guarantee truthfulness or accuracy.” This truth seems often to have been misunderstood or deliberately ignored by academics in the evolution of thought about how an individual’s work might be measured. Anyone who disagrees with this perspective needs to be firmly reminded of the cases when peer-review was clearly unable to determine the accuracy or truthfulness of the research being reported.
In 1998 the Lancet published a paper by the now-infamous Andrew Wakefield and twelve other authors that linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. When it was finally retracted years later, the damage had already been done: a veritable cottage industry focused on destroying vaccination efforts had arisen led famously by a contingent of celebrities most notably the seriously scientifically-challenged Jenny McCarthy. [For further information about this situation, see “Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent” in the British Medical Journal ] This has been one of the most high-profile of the examples of where peer-review went wrong, but it is by no means the only one.
The importance of peer review lies not in its clear-minded ability to ensure that only the best work is published (we all have horror stories about our work being rudely reviewed by rivals whose identities were teased out despite the so-called blind reviews); rather it is one of the ways that, in an ideal world, we might have one measurement of the quality of a paper and one way to disseminate important research and ideas to the wider world…
How, then does peer review related to the potential of scholarly self-publication?
Peer-review and Self-publishing
… there are many scholars who wouldn’t touch self-publishing with a ten-foot pole and will continue to consider anything that is not held to their gold standard of traditional peer review with disdain. In the twenty-first century, we need to be open-minded to the benefits that can accrue from non-traditional approaches to dissemination of our work. But before we get to that, perhaps we should make the argument that self-publication can, indeed, contain an element of peer review anyway.
The truth is that if you choose to self-publish some of your work, you can ensure that it is peer-reviewed.
This will not be in the traditional sense, however. For example, self-publishers recognize the benefit of beta readers. A beta reader is simply someone who is tasked with reading a manuscript prior to its publication and providing feedback. It’s a bit analogous to a pilot test. A fiction writer might engage several beta readers who represent the target readership as part of the developmental process during the writing. A scholar would likely select a peer or peers to review the work prior to publication. Indeed, a circle of like-minded scholars might consider doing it for one another (more about that approach later).
Another peer-review possibility is the fact that anything that you make available electronically can be formatted to have the benefit of feedback. Feedback from your peers (and others) provided voluntarily at this stage can be critically important. Anyone who has received blind feedback from peer reviewers through traditional publication might argue that this kind of public reaction could prove more useful to the work in any case.
It’s interesting to note that these days, academic book publishers are at least as interested in how much money your academic book will make as they are in its contribution to your field. It could be argued (and has) that the bottom line is even more important. This significantly changes the role of peer review in book publication at least. So, although you will have colleagues who will consider your self-publishing ventures to be sordid to say the least, you can be assured that there are cracks threatening to become large chasms in the traditional publishing process…
[This post was originally published on my profile on LinkedIn.]
“The Twenty-First Century Scholar’s Guide to Self-Publishing” is now available on Kindle at Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Twenty-First-Century-Scholars-Guide-Self-Publishing-ebook/dp/B01N5S4DA1/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1485188546&sr=8-1&keywords=scholars+self-publishing
 Benos, D. et al. 2007. The ups and downs of peer review Advances in Physiology Education. Vol. 31 no. 2, 145-152 DOI: 10.1152/advan.00104.2006 [http://advan.physiology.org/content/31/2/145.long]
 Benos, ibid.
 Godlee Fiona, Smith Jane, Marcovitch Harvey. Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent BMJ 2011; 342 :c7452 http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.c7452