Dumbing Down Peer Review

What if academic articles weren’t so long? What if they were like 10% or 15% as long? That’d be easier to read, sure, but equally wouldn’t convey much information. And what if they were published almost instantly? That’d be great, right? No hanging around for months or years after submission?

But what if they eschewed peer review as it is understood, though, and simply published after a couple of people recommended to do so, even if dozens of others had recommended refusal? What if their only criteria was whether it was readable? Would that still sound like a rigorous approach to academic research and publishing? Or blogging under a thin veil of borrowed academic legitimacy?


Recently I have begun receiving spam from Academia.Edu, asking me to peer review papers on a wide range of at best tangentially-related research.

Initially this confused me somewhat, because when Academia began, it presented itself as a kind of social media outlet for academics. However, this soon morphed into a variant of the ResearchGate/Scopus/Orcid model, wherein academics post their research online in the hope of disseminating it more widely.

Academia then introduced a pay-to-play option, which required subscribers to pay a fee to access most of the information which was useful to them, ie statistical information about who was reading their work. At that point, it began losing my interest, and I became less motivated to post my work for free to their site to make them money.

It’s still a useful site, especially for independent researchers, who generally lack affiliation to a university with library subscriptions to the big journal publishers. Like ResearchGate and the others, there’s a chance to find a pre-pub version of an article on Academia quickly when you need to check a citation. But they’re not satisfied with that.

Anyhow, obviously they’ve now decided that the peer-review academic publishing market is hackable, and have gone after it with zeal. What’s interesting is where they’ve positioned themselves.

I’ve written previously about the scam publishers who demand payment in return for publication. (I even scammed the scammers.) Though there are also reputable publishers who seek funding from researchers, there are many more who are not so reputable. The challenge for ECRs is in discerning between them. Academia, to their credit, have not gone into that murky market. By contrast, they’ve decided to dumb down peer review.

According to their pitch – for that’s what it is – they’ve launched something called “Academia Letters”, which they bill as “a new experiment in rapid academic publishing.” In practice, this means that micro-articles of 800-1600 words, on ANY topic, are submitted and then immediately sent, IN BATCHES, to potential reviewers. Hence my spam.

An article will be published as soon as two reviewers agree to its publication. There are two issues with this. Literally hundreds could recommend rejection and an article would still be published under this system, entirely defeating the main purpose of peer review. Additionally, the model overtly states that it does not accommodate revisions. It is not possible for a reviewer to recommend that an author revise or improve their work. It must be published as is.

In fact, such is their desire for sausage meat for their academic sausage factory, they openly guide reviewers that, even if they detect a need for improvement, they should still accept it for publication, so long as it is “rigorous and worth reading.”

The deciding factor of whether an article is “worth reading” is something that they set great importance upon. In fact, it’s the only question they want their reviewers to answer. Here is their list of criteria they want reviewers to consider in deciding whether an article is worth reading:

  • Is the article interesting or thought-provoking?
  • Is it novel in its methods or conclusions?
  • Does it counter current thinking?
  • Is it especially timely?
  • Does it address a longstanding question or debate in the field?
  • Would it change thinking on that topic, if it were true?
  • Is it rigorous and the argument logically sound?

That all sounds good, or at least, it doesn’t immediately raise too many alarms. But an academic article would not ordinarily be published just because it was “timely” or because it stubbornly and crankily ran counter to a consensus of opinion. Worse, Academia manages to lower the bar even further by noting that their site is read by people who include “curious members of the general public”, and hence articles should be assessed for whether ANYONE would want to read it.

In short, here is the dumbing down of peer review, a tragic tribute act run for the profit of a for-profit corporation, and enabled by the free labour of any academic sufficiently gullible, or desperate, to play along, either as author or reviewer.

Academia.Edu want to reduce the length of academic articles to that of the average blog post, replace genuine and fastidious peer review with a single “would anyone read it” criterion for publication, and eradicate the processes of recommendation, revision and resubmission, all in the name of … well, what, exactly? Efficiency? Timeliness? Or their own bottom line as they seek to drive more traffic, and recruit more subscribers?

I really can’t see an upside for academics in getting involved in any of this. It’s a total erosion of all existing standards. And yet, the spam keeps coming…