The Problem with Peer Review: Creativity is Punished and Conformity Rewarded

Getting a paper accepted for publication these days is so formulaic. If you adhere to the formula, you are rewarded. If you deviate from the formula, you are punished. We have internalized, either explicitly or implicitly, the normative structure of academic research. This wouldn’t be problematic if the normative structure were useful and value-adding. Unfortunately, what we have agreed collectively as “good” research inhibits the development and advancement of knowledge.

It’s not just that most academic articles are written in a way that is largely inaccessible to the lay-reader, although that’s part of the problem. It’s not just that most academic articles are written using the same (or roughly similar) headings and sub-headings, with predictable paragraphs unfolding unoriginally one after the other. It’s that conformity to these structural norms is rewarded, and deviation from them is punished. Of course, another word for deviation is creativity.

You could counter-argue that the formula is tried and tested. We introduce the topic, explain why it is important, briefly highlight a gap in the literature (most of which is greatly exaggerated), briefly show how our paper fills that gap, more extensively review the literature, spell out the methods, report the results, and discuss the key findings and theoretical and practical implications. But you could also argue that this formula is a prison from which there is little opportunity to escape.

Maybe the problem isn’t so much the standardization of paper structure as it is the fact that we have to use the theories and methods that are en vogue at the time. There are “popular” theories and methods championed by peer review and there are more obscure or esoteric theories and methods that are feared or rejected by the academic establishment.

“We have to use the theories and methods that are en vogue at the time.”

As a consequence of these normative pressures, I feel—as an editor—that I’m reading slightly different variations of the roughly the same paper over and over again. At the moment, most of what is submitted to journals in my field are moderated mediation analyses that were probably the umpteenth model run that finally gave an interesting (i.e., statistically significant) result. What’s more, just a handful of theories are used to frame the methods.

If a researcher submits a paper that breaks free from the mold—either methodologically, theoretically, or structurally—the peer review system either gently or violently re-directs all three deviations toward that which is considered normative. It’s a simple choice: follow the formula and get published, or go rogue and get rejected.

This is a pity, because the real advances we’ve made in knowledge have been made by people that went so rogue that their brilliance helped to re-shape what we consider to be normative. It does make you wonder: what if all of us are capable of pushing true innovation in our fields, but most of us are too afraid to go against the grain and incur the wrath of reviewers?

And so, my fellow academics, keep an open mind. Allow for unique, non-standardized approaches to academic research. Embrace the weird or unusual. Reward creative innovations, no matter how uncomfortable they make you feel.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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