The Challenges of Peer Review in a Cross-Disciplinary Journal

May 10, 2016 Gail Davies

Geography is a diverse subject; as others have pointed out, it's something of an "undisciplined discipline." As an academic geographer, I am used to working across disciplinary divides, with both quantitative and qualitative methods, and engaging the objects of both physical and social worlds. This is one appeal of the discipline: It is a good place to cultivate a restless curiosity about different knowledge practices and a commitment to working at the political and ethical implications of different ways of thinking about and knowing about non-human nature. Yet, there are challenges in processes of peer review in interdisciplinary research and cross-disciplinary journals. These are manifest in different ways in my work as an author, as reviewer, and as co-editor of Geo: Geography and Environment.

Expanding possibilities

Publishing is fundamentally a communication process, and to engage in cross-disciplinary publishing is to be reminded of how much community norms shape, facilitate or transform the relay of information and meanings. At times, switching roles between author, reviewer, or editor, can feel like traversing the squares of a JoHari window. The different aspects of our research practice, and the methods known to us and others, move in and out of focus, leaving blind spots and potential unknowns. If disciplinary research is when publication norms are known to self and others, then cross-disciplinary research is characterized through contexts and conventions which may be only partially visible to authors and reviewers: Situations known to the author may not be understood by all reviewers, and contexts recognized by reviewers may not be fully appreciated by authors. There is also the intriguing possibility of interdisciplinary research in which genuine unknowns can be considered or uncovered. In all interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research there is the demand for rigor in new knowledge production and the need to be open to new possibilities. Authors, reviewers and editors all have obligations to responsible knowledge production, through good peer review, but also to attend to what Stengers calls the "care for the possible." This translates into some straightforward advice for peer review, but also leaves open the potential for careful experiments with emerging practices.

Taking care of the possible

As an author writing for an interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary journal, the responsibilities are to arguments and materials, journal audiences and disciplinary fields, but also to the community of scholars already engaging the networks of thought, practice and materials connecting across disciplines. Interdisciplinarity is no longer new and, I would argue, authors cannot remain unknowing of existing practices. As Callard and Fitzgerald reflect in their interdisciplinary entanglements, disciplinary divides are often promoted, even in the process of overcoming them, by those with a particular bureaucratic imagination of the place and encounter between humanities, social sciences, and science. Care for knowledge production and the "care for the possible," for authors, means both engaging with established fields of enquiry, but also critically with the existing literature on interdisciplinarity in your field.

As a reviewer for an academic journal, you are already making a considerable and valued contribution to academic debate. The injunctions for reviewing cross-disciplinary research need not be additionally arduous. To be a good reviewer of interdisciplinary work involves:

  • curiosity
  • honesty – in applying your expertise to evaluating arguments and evidence, whilst acknowledging the limits to this expertise
  • clarity – in communicating constructively on both of these with editors and authors

As a reviewer, if you are not curious about a paper and cannot be honest in the review of it, there is probably limited value in proceeding further anyway.

As an editor situated in a changing field of knowledge production, the demands are possibly greater, but there is one advantage for editors in processes of cross-disciplinary review. Of all participants, you get to see through more boxes of the JoHari window. For Stengers, care for the possible means learning to examine situations from the point of view of their possibilities.

Pragmatically, for Geo, the journal I co-edit with Anson Mackay, this means commissioning multiple reviews for cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary work. This involves two or three reviewers often one recommended by the author, one or two working in related fields, and, for interdisciplinary research, one working within interdisciplinary networks. Our preference is for blind peer review, where the names of authors and reviewers are not known to each other, but where, as editors, we get to see the names of all involved in the process. While for authors, reviewer anonymity helps remove considerations of personal status or institutional standing from reviewers’ assessment of content, for editors, knowing the names of authors and reviewers informs judgements about which aspects of the work should be known by different constituencies, to address gaps, shape arguments, test evidence, as well as create new lines of communication in a cross-disciplinary field.

Unlocking unknown possibilities

As an editor, I am also excited about the possibilities of high quality, peer-reviewed and open access data sets to be made available via journals (Geo will be publishing data articles), as well as through data repositories and archives. Even as journals still play a key role in shaping fields of enquiry, they can never exhaust the possibilities that come with interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research, and careful experiments with data play a key role here. It is in the unknown possibilities unknown to authors and us as editors which still reside in data where we might find the most radical future possibilities for new forms of enquiry.


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