Peer Review and Other Problems

Carol Iannone

No doubt about it, the idea of peer review still has cachet. To be published in a peer-reviewed journal, to speak of a peer-reviewed article, to be able to say that an essay or book has been peer-reviewed, can still send forth a shudder of awe. The very term suggests an admirable aspiration to intellectual integrity, calm deliberation, and detached evaluation in the accumulation of human knowledge.

But what has happened to the honorable art of peer review in an academy so extensively debased and politicized as at present? We approach this seldom asked question in our special section for this issue, “Peer Review in the Politicized Academy.” In the first several entries, four scholars relate their experiences with the process as both subjects and participants. For his part, Mark Bauerlein—“Peer Review and the Productivity Era”—sees ideological trendiness as less a cause than a consequence of a deeper problem: In literary studies at any rate, the sheer volume of books, articles, and reviews that began to pour forth around 1999 has made proper evaluation of new scholarship virtually impossible, so much so that even the pretense has been largely abandoned. From the vantage point of the social sciences, Paul Hollander considers in “Peer Review, Political Correctness, and Human Nature” how political correctness can affect the process of disinterested evaluation, while Robert Weissberg in “The Hidden Costs of Journal Peer Review” considers cronyism as well as ideology as culprits in the corruption of the process. Expanding on “The Law Review Approach: What the Humanities Can Learn,” his Spring 2013 AQ article arguing for what he calls a “hybrid approach,” Alan Mendenhall tentatively suggests in “Bypassing Bias: How Law Reviews Circumvent Favoritism” that some aspects of law review evaluation might help in purifying peer review in the humanities and social sciences.

Of course, sometimes pronouncedly politically incorrect subject matter does pass review. None of our authors is claiming that the process is totally corrupt. But the case of Mark Regnerus, as presented in the last entry in our special section by Peter Wood, “The Campaign to Discredit Mark Regnerus and the Assault on Peer Review,” shows how the brickbats can fly nowadays when this happens. A tenured associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, Regnerus designed and completed a study that compared young adults (aged eighteen to thirty-nine) raised by same-sex parents with young adults raised by their married biological parents. The New Family Structures Study, as it is called, is by far the largest on the subject—including over 15,000 individuals. Regnerus’s article summarizing his results appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Social Science Research (SSR) in July 2012, and they ran decidedly contrary to the rather too rapidly developing scholarly consensus that there are no differences in outcome whether children are raised by heterosexual or homosexual parents. The campaign of vilification and intimidation that has followed is being waged not only against Regnerus but against his SSR editor, James Wright, and aims to discredit not only the study, but the peer review process that permitted its results to appear in that journal.

It probably comes as no surprise that political correctness has managed to cross the Pacific. In “Political Correctness in the Land of Conformity,” Bruce Davidson details the alarming encroachment of Western-style activism in Japanese academic life, which exacerbates “social tendencies and traditions that already work against rational scholarly inquiry” and “turns classes into forums for indoctrination rather than venues for intellectual debate and exploration.” Although the cultural proclivities he describes might seem redolent of the mass militarism of the World War II era, Davidson—who has taught for more than two decades in Japan, where he has lived for more than twenty-five years—can nevertheless refreshingly report that “many Japanese people are deeply grateful for the guiding hand of dedicated academic missionaries and other Western intellectuals who have contributed to the development of higher education in Japan since the beginning of Japanese modernization about 150 years ago.” As a result, reflexive anti-Westernism and charges of cultural chauvinism are rare.

In “Humanists in High Dudgeon: The CFR-ALSCW Standoff,” John Agresto ferrets out another kind of bias, the liberal arts snobbery behind the criticism with which the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers responded to a recent report from the Council on Foreign Relations. According to Agresto, the CFR report suggests healthy, common sensical improvements in our educational system to prepare students in more practical ways for an increasingly globalized world and humanists need not worry about a second coming of Thomas Gradgrind.

Over the past few years, AQ has been involved in what amounts to an ongoing investigation into the state of political science as a discipline. Lawrence Mead led off with “The Other Danger… Scholasticism in Academic Research” (Fall 2010), in which he argued that political science has lost its broader analytical outlook and descended into specialization irrelevant to the concerns of society at large. Robert Anthony Maranto and Matthew C. Woessner, “Seeking Relevance: American Political Science and America” (Fall 2012), countered Mead to some extent, suggesting that, especially given the state of scholarship in general, political science is healthier and livelier than might be thought, and they also offered some suggestions for further improvement. Now, in “The Ideology of Political Science,” Bruce Heiden, a classicist, offers an outsider’s perspective that contains some surprisingly stringent criticism of Maranto and Woessner. Heiden further suggests that political science as a discipline may be resting on false foundations altogether, namely, “that politics is amenable to scientific investigation in the first place.”

David Solway, “Breaking (and Healing) the Social Covenant,” examines the atomization of social and cultural life today. Solway finds that “our time is characterized by the breakdown of the social covenant that specifies our concern for one another as citizens of a polity, our curatorial obligation to the past, and our custodial responsibility for successor generations.” As Solway sees it here, the failures of our educational systems have taken place within this broader picture.

In a category we are calling “Considerations,” composer Daniel Asia muses on Aaron Copland’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures given in the academic year 1951–1952. The prestigious appointment entails a year’s residency at Harvard and the delivery of at least six lectures, which are often collected as books. Copland’s Norton lectures were published as Music and Imagination and advance his understanding about how we are meant to listen to, learn, and teach music, as Asia explains in “Copland—Music and Imagination: A Review and Commentary.”

Literary criticism comes into focus again in this issue with my review essay, “Weighty Matters,” of Adam Kirsch’s 2011 short book on the work and career of Lionel Trilling, Why Trilling Matters.

George Dent considers how Sonia Sotomayor’s background has shaped this Supreme Court justice, as conveyed in her memoir, My Beloved World, and speculates how it might affect her views of affirmative action in cases before the high court. William Casement fortifies what many an NAS member knows of the current state of higher education, but in his review Michael Toscano suggests that it may be recent college graduates who will understand more about their education when reading Casement’s Making College Right: Heretical Thoughts and Practical Proposals. And Robert VerBruggen adds his own insights into the different styles of campus conservatism delineated in Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, by Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood.

Robert Jackson contributes another round of Books, Articles and Items of Academic Interest, including a section on online education.

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