Peer review and research integrity: a furniture sellers’ tale

We’re kicking off our Peer Review Week series of blogs with an amusing take on the realities of a central plank of academic research publishing – the peer review process. As an independent, scholarly publisher, peer review plays a huge role in scrutinising, filtering, shaping, improving and – given this year’s Peer Review Week theme – assuring the quality and integrity of all our scholarly titles.

Many of those with a stake in academic book publishing – authors, collections editors, series editors, readers – have been on both sides of the peer review process, often simultaneously! Does that lead to a greater shared understanding of the pros and cons of both giving and receiving feedback on long form academic writing? We believe it does and that, despite the many controversies, peer review is still the optimum way to ensure that academic integrity and standards are maintained, even if sometimes even small improvements are hard won.

Dr Boris Jansen, from University of Amsterdam, has one such example in mind with his cautionary furniture sellers’ tale:

I am a buyer for a big furniture store and receive a package in the mail with a letter stating: “This is a fantastic table that your customers will absolutely want to buy!”. It is accompanied by a wobbly contraption of wood, with only three crooked, uneven legs with evidence of some wood rot in two of them, that very remotely resembles a table.

I send the “table” to two expert carpenters and ask them if they could please have a look to see if it can be fixed/improved to the point that it could conceivably be put on display in the shop for purchase.

The two expert carpenters spend many hours on identifying points for improvement and prepare a detailed list describing what could be done to transform this from a heap of junk into an actual table. The recommendations include: adding a fourth leg; making all legs an even length; sanding the entire thing to remove splinters; and cutting out the parts with wood rot.

I send the recommendations back and after three months receive a new version of the “table” with nothing changed except that one of the three legs has now been sanded. The accompanying letter goes to great lengths in thanking the experts for their input, and states that the advice was taken very seriously and, because of it, one leg of the table has been very carefully sanded.

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