Cowen argues that in a truly open-access system, the major motivation for doing peer review would likely fade away, that the reason why people do it now is essentially to build a small reserve of cultural capital that’s particular to an influential journal, that if you don’t do it for that journal, you’re afraid that you’ll be shut out of publishing in it later.
This doesn’t seem at all right in my experience. Maybe that’s because the humanities and some of the social sciences are more directed towards a fetish about the book, and have less of a sense that any given journal is a central reservoir of disciplinary prestige.
When I agree to referee, however, I really am not and never did think about building a relationship with that particular journal. I honestly think one of my motivations is just to do my share of a job I know needs to be done, to be a good citizen. (I’ll freely add that I must annoy the hell out of editors, as I’m frequently late on these tasks, partly because I say yes naively to many queries in the fall and then find myself so anxious about the to-do list that I get a bit paralyzed. YES I’M ALMOST DONE WITH MY REVIEWS, if you’re reading. This is just a little break. Really.)
My second motivation that I’m conscious about is that I’m often trying to help out a friend, a colleague, or some new person in the field who is the author of the article I’ve been sent. That still holds even if it’s a blind review: I’m aware that there’s somebody out there who needs this done, and I hope I can do it in a way that’s helpful. This does not mean I always write positive peer reviews, but I try not to be destructive or petty.
That, however, strikes me as being at least another major motivation that some people have to do reviews, namely, to exert a fairly tight-fisted control over their own disciplines or specializations. I suppose that’s a status-return of a kind, but it’s the kind that economists often have trouble understanding, because it is more about power and less about reward.
The closest thing to what Cowen’s writing about that I can think of is that very junior scholars may agree to peer review as a way of becoming a known figure in their disciplines. It’s not so much that you’re looking for the quid-pro-quo of access to the journal for which you review, but simply that you want to get your name into circulation. Peer reviewing when you’re a newly minted Ph.D. is also a kind of induction into the deeper mysteries of academic sociology, just as sitting on your first search committee can be. You learn by being a peer reviewer what goes on when you yourself are peer reviewed.
Finally, at least for me and maybe for other faculty at undergraduate-only institutions, peer reviewing is a way to stay in touch with work that is coming from graduate students and junior faculty, to get a sense of the movement of scholarly work in your field. The time lag in academic publication cycles means that if you wait until you read something that is formally published, it’s usually about six to eight years behind many conversations within research universities.