Notes and Commentary: Activist Academia Destroyed Scholarly Peer Review

Phillip Magness:

The reputation of academic publishing depends upon peer review – the practice by which other experts vet submissions to scholarly journals. A properly functioning peer review process flags potential problems before they appear in print. An anonymous referee might notice complications to a thesis that an author failed to account for, prompting another round of revisions to improve the piece. If an author misrepresents evidence for a claim, an anonymous referee might alert the journal editor to the problem. Usually, the author will be asked to address the issue in a revision. If the problem is severe or intentional, the piece might be rejected outright.

But what happens when academic peer review breaks down? What if an anonymous referee flags serious problems in an article such as misrepresented evidence or basic errors of fact, but the journal’s editor chooses to run the piece anyway? What happens when the same problems are then noticed by other scholars after the article appears in print? Surely a formal correction of some sort would be in order.

Factual corrections used to be a regular practice of most scholarly journals, whether in the form of a short comment or a longer point/counterpoint exchange over the disputed claim. In the hyper-politicized state of academia today, a growing number of scholarly venues no longer see a need to attend to basic standards of factual accuracy in their pages. Factual errors – even egregious ones such as misrepresented evidence and manipulated quotations – are now apparently allowed to stand unchallenged, provided that the error aligns with a politically fashionable viewpoint. This was my own experience after a frustrating year and a half long effort to seek basic factual corrections to an unambiguous error in an article in a journal published by Cambridge University Press.