(Originally published here on Inside Higher Ed.)
Part of our training in graduate school involves fine-tuning the skill of academic research. And a lot of graduate school programs will insist that the holy grail of publishing opportunities lies in the peer-reviewed publication, whether in article or book monograph form.
Upon completion of a graduate degree, if you choose to stay in an academic job with a research component, or find an industry job that requires publication as a metric of employee success, peer-reviewed articles continue to reign supreme among supervisors who need to rack and stack their subordinates against one another for raise and promotion purposes.
In the last 18 months of my job, I’ve had a number of conversations with colleagues about the merits and pitfalls of jobs that have such a narrow evaluation system. Here, I argue that we should value research and publication outside of peer-review metrics. I’ll also offer a tentative plan for advocating for the research that you want to do — rather than the institutionally prescribed format of peer review.
The Problems With Peer Review
The belief that peer-reviewed publications should be the metric for research success seems to stem from a three-pronged value system in which the following assertions are accepted as truths:
- A peer-reviewed publication conveys more research authority because its findings have been vetted and then accepted — at least to some degree — by other members of the discipline.
- The peer-review process is anonymized, more competitive and (supposedly) more objective in its selection process than other publication venues.
- Peer-reviewed publications are more prestigious than their alternatives and convey the expertise of the researcher.
A natural follow-up to those claims is the industry preference for certain peer-reviewed publication outlets over others. This is often visible in phrasing like “top peer-reviewed journal,” where members of the same field subscribe to the notion that one journal or press is more coveted than the others. We also see attempts to quantify the value of specific journals or presses with metrics like impact factor.
Why I Find Peer Review Limiting
Many researchers, me included, find the idea that you should only publish in certain venues limiting, frustrating and fraught with problems. The claims listed above are oversimplifications that erase the nuance of peer-review publication truths. Individuals in our profession would like to claim that if someone has good ideas and research that supports them, they will get their ideas published, but many of us know it isn’t that simple.
The peer-review process leaves the fate of someone’s research findings subject to the whims of two or three people who, like all of us, are influenced by variables including their own natural preferences for certain kinds of work. Additionally, some scholars who submit to English-language journals and grew up outside the Anglophone world have written about being subjected to editorial comments regarding “native English” proficiency that disregard the quality of the research the article is meant to convey. And university settings and academic fields are not free of nepotism or quid pro quo networks that facilitate the publication of an in-crowd of popular researchers who, frankly, can tend to retread widely accepted arguments.
Depending on the comparison you wish to make between peer-reviewed and alternative forms of publication, it is also a generalization to claim that peer-reviewed publications are always more selective or rigorous. (Admittedly, however, a peer-reviewed publication will almost always take longer to appear in print, which, for some people, adds to the genre’s perceived rigor.)
Perhaps the most important argument in favor of varying publication venues: peer-reviewed publications are simply not the only place where intellectual conversations are happening and where a researcher might want to share their ideas. In fact, non-peer-reviewed publications, especially the ones that don’t have paywalls, have the potential to reach far more people and result in a much more stimulating dialogue. Researchers concerned with social justice will also rightfully point out the elitism that peer-reviewed publication tends to reinforce. These publication venues reify notions of membership within intellectual communities and keep cutting-edge research in the hands of relatively few people.
My personal commitment to increased acceptance of non-peer-reviewed publication venues stems from a desire to engage the university — often regarded both as a presence in a community and separate from it — in a larger, more inclusive conversation. I also find writing for different groups of people, including my students, personally fulfilling. The peer-review pipeline can be disheartening, and writing for other audiences is a source of meaning making when your research might otherwise feel too niche or siloed to create a larger impact.
My students are more likely to engage with newspaper articles, YouTube videos or op-ed pieces that are related to course material than a peer-reviewed alternative. I publish in non-peer-reviewed venues and will continue to do so for the duration of my career for a whole host of reasons, and I imagine that many of you elect to do so for an even broader set of rationales.
Making Such Research Count
If you are in a job where your evaluation is rooted in success within peer-review publications, the next concern becomes how to advocate for yourself and your desire to publish elsewhere in your job. If there’s one thing I wouldn’t recommend, it’s quietly putting these research efforts on your evaluation paperwork or CV and hoping that your supervisor will have an independent epiphany about the importance of your public scholarship work. You should have a conversation about the value of non-peer-reviewed research before undertaking it.
I am in a tenure-track job in a department that previously only attached meaning to peer review. My strategy consisted of finding individuals on my campus and at sister institutions who were doing the kind of work I want to do. And I found that most of the people were creative types whose work wouldn’t make sense in many of the “top” academic journals that my department was touting. So I conducted a handful of informational interviews with those colleagues and asked them how their supervisors quantified or measured their research efforts — which were in the form of museum exhibits, performances, art installations, poetry publications and so forth. Helping my department chair to see how this important work is recognized in other fields or departments went a long way toward making my case.
I asked my chair if I could prepare a narrative describing why such non-peer-reviewed publication venues were important to me as a researcher and also made sense for my research objectives. I described the caliber, audience and potential impact of research that was made available in another format and persuaded him that this kind of work demonstrated similar levels of achievement as many peer-reviewed venues. I asked my chair to help me find a way to get this work in my tenure dossier and to be my ally in opening up a conversation with our dean about crediting alternatives to peer-reviewed publications. We put the agreement in writing, and I asked my chair and dean each to sign it.
Is our understanding bulletproof? Of course not. Will it help me to feel comfortable engaging multiple audiences and publication methods on the path toward tenure? Absolutely.
I hope that my efforts will lead other faculty members to replicate this process. And maybe one day, it will be easier to argue that an interview on CNN, a keynote address at a nonacademic conference, a viral YouTube video or a hard-hitting op-ed piece that shapes public policy are valuable research contributions worthy of recognition.