I see – thank you, twitter! – that Elsevier is planning to roll-out optional peer review for its journals in the next few years. Moves in this direction have much to commend them. The concept of unbiased evaluation of one’s work by one’s peers, in which impersonal objectivity goes hand-in-hand with anonymity, is one of the ideals that we all know to be problematic but collectively tend not to do anything about.

Let’s start with a basic distinction. I’m sure most of us have encountered – and can tell the difference – between reasoned, sensible criticism and its less substantiated counterparts motivated by factors such as personal preference, lack of interest in a particular approach, delaying tactics, and the like. We might call the former ‘constructively’, the latter ‘destructively’ negative peer review.

Publishing the peer reviews of accepted articles would mean that we could make our own judgement about how they stand in relation to these two poles. On that basis, we would decide how much credence to give to a negative review in forming our own opinion of the article to which it relates. Much the same goes for the positive counterpart of the above distinction – that between well-grounded and vacuous, gushing praise – and how it would shape readings of review and article together. If we were lucky, we might even be given an explanation of the reasoning behind acceptance in cases where reviews differed considerably from one another.

But what about the articles that are rejected? It’s not clear to me how they figure in the approaches Elsevier has been exploring so far. It is all well and good to make available the peer reviews of articles that are accepted, but in a sense it merely reinforces the status quo. We can now arrive at a view of the reviewing process – but only post factum, and then only in those cases where the outcome was a favourable one. I find this unsettling.

Would the possibility of their remarks being published be enough to dissuade reviewers who are contemplating the destructive approach? I am not sure. And besides, it is not that simple. Suppose, for instance, that an article were rejected by a journal after the views of its editors overruled a strong endorsement to publish in the external peer review. Should readers and authors know about this and have the chance to make up their own mind?

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There’s no easy answer. I am not sure that it lies in authors paying to be published immediately with peer review coming afterward (as in one initiative mentioned in the researchinformation.info article I linked earlier). The role of anonymity also needs reflection: will early-career scholars hesitate to be critical if they know they will be identified? (See here for a good account of such issues.) And of course, uncomfortable as it may be for the ‘open everything’ contingent, we need to remember that professional value judgements matter and to acknowledge that there is bad as well as good scholarship.

One to come back to, I suppose. Comparative and cross-language research on the Middle Ages isn’t always the easiest thing to place in the established scene, so thinking these things through is really important when it comes to creating forums – maybe the pipedream of a new online journal – to accommodate it.