[Smt-talk] Peer Review Questions

JONATHAN W BERNARD jbernard at u.washington.edu
Fri Feb 24 16:05:00 PST 2012

Dear Daniel,

You are really raising two issues here: (1) the high cost of certain journals, owing to the unscrupulous pricing/bundling practices of certain publishers; (2) the question of who should be refereeing the prospective content of professional journals in our own field(s), and whether it makes sense for someone who does not hold a regular, full-time academic appointment to agree to do so.

I don't think issue #1 is particularly relevant to any field in the arts or humanities.  In music theory, for example, some might balk at the cost of, say, *Music Analysis,* but I can tell you that next to some of the journals in the sciences, the price of a subscription to MA is ridiculously small.  We're talking thousands of dollars here.  And one practice that Elsevier in particular has drawn a lot of (justifiable) flak for is bundling subscriptions, forcing libraries to take journals they don't really want just in order to get the ones they do want.  I don't believe this is much of problem, or a problem at all, outside the sciences.  In any case, many of the important journals in musicology, including music theory, are "flagship" journals for professional societies, a circumstance that places the subscriber's relationship to the journal on a footing distinctly different from what it would be if the journal were self-standing.

Here is a link to a recent article on the problem as it pertains to science journals, along with some suggestions for solving it.  You will see that their problems are somewhat different from ours.


As for #2, I would certainly be loath to suggest that anyone should feel obliged to serve as a peer reviewer if called upon to do so unless s/he has already agreed to serve on an editorial or advisory board for the journal in question.  Even then, of course, one can always beg off on the grounds of an overload of work, or not having much or any expertise to bring to bear on a particular topic.  I do generally try to find time to help out an editor who asks for my assistance in evaluating the odd submission (and some of them are pretty odd) even if I'm not on the board -- whether because I know him/her personally, or have recently published something myself in that journal, or simply out of a sense of duty, however nebulously defined, to the profession.  There is some enlightened self-interest involved here too: if the paper is good, and you can recommend publication and be fairly certain that your good advice will be taken, you've read it before it even comes out and are to !
 that extent ahead on what would be required reading for you anyway; if it needs work, you can help keep the thing from being published before it's really ready, saving yourself and who knows how many others a good deal of irritation at seeing something half-baked in print; if it's irredeemably bad, you may not be able to keep it from being published forever, but you can at least save some editor whom you like and respect a lot of embarrassment.    

I would no doubt feel very different about the whole matter if I were not full-time and tenured.  I would probably also feel very different about it if I had certain knowledge (or at least a well-founded impression) that the publisher of said journal was making a huge amount of money from it -- but most, maybe all, of the journals that would want such assistance from me do not fall into that last category anyway.

With best wishes,

Jonathan Bernard
University of Washington


On Thu, 23 Feb 2012, Daniel Wolf wrote:

> Recently, commercial academic publishing has received considerable  
> attention, with particular attention to the extravagant prices of many  
> journals and the use of free (that is, to the publishers) labor, including  
> a move to boycott one of the most prominent publishers (see here:  
> http://crookedtimber.org/2012/01/26/friends-really-dont-let-friends-publish-in-elsevier-journals/  
> ); to my knowledge, music scholars have not taken much part in these  
> discussions, although the online journal of the SMT is a very serious and  
> positive step towards a resolution of many of the issues of concern.  
> Perhaps this would be a useful topic for the future here.
> In the past week I received three requests from three different music  
> journals to review articles.  I recognize the added value of the peer  
> review practice and I have reviewed articles in the past. I'll admit to  
> being somewhat flattered to be recognized as a peer and I suppose I have  
> the proper academic traveling papers to justify this, but I am a freelance  
> composer and — as my wife pointed out — I receive no compensation for the  
> time and labor spent reviewing an article, and this plays out in real  
> terms for me as it's time lost forever without salary or contributions to  
> my health care or pension.  I suppose these things look good on a resume,  
> should I ever return to academe, but I doubt that it will carry the weight  
> of my own creative and intellectual work.  I now wonder to what degree the  
> service of peer-reviewing articles is actually expected of those employed  
> in Colleges, Universities, and Conservatories and recognized in their  
> hiring and promotions.  I was somewhat startled by the candor of one of  
> the editors who explained that she had sought me out as a reviewer  
> specifically because the stream of properly academics she had turned to in  
> the past had reduced to a trickle, especially among those with tenure. Is  
> this, in fact, the case?  If so, is farming out reviews to adjuncts and  
> folk like me (who are not ever near a campus, let alone employed therein)  
> a practice I ought to not only condone, but support materially?  And does  
> this say anything about the actual added-value of peer review in music  
> scholarship?
> Daniel Wolf
> Dr Daniel Wolf
> composer
> Frankfurt am Main
> djwolf at snafu.de
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