Why Referee?

I agree with Henry Farrell’s skepticism about Tyler Cowen’s view of the motivation for doing peer review.

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.

This entry was posted in Academia. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Why Referee?

  1. topometropolis says:


    I work in mathematics, where journal articles are the only coin of the realm, but my motivations for refereeing are very close to yours. It’s work that needs doing, and I have to do my share, especially since I publish pretty heavily and so generate a lot of refereeing for others to do. Also, refereeing can be a good excuse to carefully read a paper that looks interesting but is just collecting dust on my desk.

  2. Cosma says:

    Not for the first time, Cowen’s expressing a view so strange to me I wonder if he’s not reporting from Bizarro Academia. In my experience (physics, statistics, machine learning), if people thought you could build up credit with a journal by refereeing for them, that would in and of itself serve to discredit that journal. I’ve heard colleagues justify reviewing by reference to every variation on professional obligation, as well as a general desire to “promote virtue and suppress vice”, but never a suggestion that it was a direct help to getting published oneself.

  3. Doug says:

    Tim, Ingrid’s next post at CT seems close to your specialty. Any thoughts?

  4. peter55 says:

    As a computer scientist, another reason for refereeing is to see what is being written in your area. The field moves so quickly, one wants to be up with whatever work is being done by others in the area, and if possible, to do so as the work is written, rather than when it is published. Someone once advised new PhDs to try to become connected to the informal-paper-paper-passing networks that (used to) operate. Refereeing is a way to achieve this state.

  5. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    Of course Cowen must really be talking about social capital not cultural capital. And I think the world he is reporting from is not so much Bizarro Academia (alas) as mainstream rational-actor economics–where I suspect all our protests to the contrary don’t matter much since the question is whether the model works not what the actors say.

  6. peter55 says:

    “as mainstream rational-actor economics–where I suspect all our protests to the contrary don’t matter much since the question is whether the model works not what the actors say.”

    in a domain where “works” is understood as meaning “has elegant deductive-mathematical properties” rather than (say), “passes pre-specified statistical tests of goodness-of-fit against real-world data” or (say), “exlains some real-world phenomenon previously unexplained”.

Comments are closed.