Peer Review in the Humanities and Social Sciences

January 10, 2017 Gareth Watkins

magnifying glass.jpgMuch of the debate around peer review focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, resulting in humanities and social science (HSS) fields often being overlooked.
What are the similarities and differences between the disciplines’ approaches to peer review, and what can they learn from one another?

Regardless of discipline, peer reviewers are generally asked the same questions of the research they are evaluating:

  • How original is it?
  • How persuasive is the argument?
  • What does it add to existing
    work in the field?

In other words, the aim of peer review is the same whatever the subject.

One notable difference is that, in most HSS fields, authors publish their most significant work as (or in) books, so the emphasis on journal articles is considerably less pronounced than in the sciences. Another key distinction is that HSS journal articles tend to be much longer than scientific articles, meaning peer reviewers are generally investing more time per manuscript, though perhaps less often than the average STEM reviewer.

The vast majority of HSS journals use double-blind peer review. The pros and cons of this model have been much debated, but in theory the benefits are clear: reviews should be honest and
impartial; authors should not be influenced by any prior knowledge of the reviewers’ work or opinions. However, this falls down in certain fields, where everybody knows what everybody else is working on. This issue is magnified in certain humanities fields thanks to the practice of presenting draft work at conferences, so reviewers could find themselves presented with a paper they’ve
already heard part of and know precisely who wrote it. It has been argued that this lengthy round of presentations and discussion constitutes a form of open peer review, with the formal ‘double-blind’ review happening at the end.

Different models

While there are a number of innovations around the peer review model within STEM publishing, the pace of change is slower in HSS, partly due to the fact that there is perceived to be little demand for change within the communities. There are some pioneers, however:

  • Kairos, an online journal on rhetoric and technology, uses an interesting three-stage review process. First, editors make an initial assessment of a submission, then submissions that make it through this stage are discussed by the editorial board for one to two weeks. Finally, if necessary, the editors assign someone to ‘mentor’ the author, working with them to get the manuscript to a publishable standard.
  • The Open Library of the Humanities is a project which provides open access publication in humanities subjects with no author-facing publication charge,
    and whose peer review process is modelled on that of PLOS.
  • Palgrave Macmillan recently conducted a pilot trialling open peer review for monographs. The authors and reviewers involved were very positive about the experience, citing the appeal of an ongoing conversation about the work, something which blind peer review prohibits.
  • Many law reviews (law journals) now use a platform called ExpressO, which enables authors to submit to multiple journals at the same time. Once a journal accepts a manuscript, the author can notify the other titles considering the piece, giving them the chance to accept it too. The author then takes their pick from the offers they have received. This method would not be suitable for
    science, however, where confidentiality is often key.

While the fundamentals of peer review remain constant in any discipline, the processes and practicalities do vary between them. Anyone reassessing their own peer review requirements could gain
some valuable insights by looking outside their immediate field for inspiration.

What do you see as distinctive about the peer review process in the Humanities and Social Sciences? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Image Credit: Getty Images/Takashi Kitajima

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