peer review

Since I’m getting ready to start my second year at UMM, and since I haven’t yet broken the publication drought (couple of near-misses, got two rejections on Memorial Day, and let me tell you that stung), I’ve been trying to get my publication record back on track. I do have a book chapter which I should be finishing within the next couple of months, but I haven’t gotten anything into a peer-reviewed journal in…oh, let’s just go with “a while.”

In my field, there simply aren’t very many journals. We have Music Theory Spectrum, Music Theory Online, Journal of Music Theory, and maybe 8 – 10 other online and print journals. (There are more music theory journals than that, but they often have a narrow focus like computing in music or Schenkerian theory – or they’re specifically designed for graduate students or people in a certain country.) The process is, as is standard, blind peer review. I would like to make the case that (1) peer review is likely not so blind, and (2) as it is currently constituted, peer review as currently constituted may not be an ideal gatekeeper. I would further like to make the case that this is ultimately bad for the discipline, as it leads to narrow foci and intellectual insularity.

As I mentioned above, this discipline is not particularly large, especially when compared to other disciplines in the Humanities. There’s a general kinship with each other. We’re Facebook friends. We get everyone’s Twitter feed. We hang out at conferences and when it’s time to read the AP exams. Many of us went to grad school together – more on this in a moment. We know, at least generally, on what subjects people are working. So when a paper crosses an editor’s or reader’s desk, it’s likely not all that blind. “Oh, this sounds like what so-and-so was doing.” As a friend further points out, if you write a paper on topic X there’s a pretty good chance you know exactly who is going to be reading it, even if the review is officially blind, because there are only so many people in the world qualified to read said paper. I do believe that blind peer review can be a good way to examine a paper, but I further believe nothing is truly blind.

The second point is a little darker. I mentioned above that “many of us went to grad school together,” and that may be the problem. There are a handful of schools that produce the lion’s share of theorists. These schools – good as they are, and they are very good – do have specific ideological and philosophical approaches to this discipline. They may have a decent variety of approaches, but they’re certainly not pan-philosophical. I am not saying the approaches are ill-formed or irrelevant, because they are not; I am simply saying that these approaches tend to dominate the rest of the field, to the exclusion of different ideas. When a discipline is limited to a handful of approaches, then no matter how well-developed or how reverberant those approaches are, the discipline’s ability to develop further is stifled. Format becomes formula. New – or potentially effective but not yet fully-formed – approaches are dismissed out of hand. With so few outlets for publication, and with those dominated by the handful of approaches above, it becomes more and more difficult for scholars who don’t easily fit into molds to get a fair hearing for their ideas. We hear people talk about what a friend who is on the editorial board of an academic journal calls the “fit” of the paper, but if the number of journals is limited, then there aren’t very many places where something might “fit.” (This has ramifications for the tenure process as well, but that discussion can be reserved for another time.)

Perhaps this is all sour grapes on my part, but I don’t think I am that bad. I believe my work has merit, I believe it can inform performances and understanding of the pieces I study, and I believe the discipline benefits from it being out there. I don’t want this to be about me, however; my beliefs are applicable to any number of theorists – young and old – who are outside the mainstream of the discipline. I have heard it suggested that we should get away from single-author papers as well, as the process of collaboration often works out the issues most brought up in peer review.

So what can we do about it? More on that at some point in the future, but you may have the answer right in front of you.

Postscript (courtesy of Mike Berry): It’s not just us.

WF

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