Adventures in Peer Review Land: The Micro-structure of Academic Intellectual Property Transfer

I serve on the editorial board of several journals. In one such journal, the custom is to circulate all the articles that passed the external review process so that the board can officially give its approval for publication. We get to see the final version, the reviewers’ reports and whatever additional statement the author provided in explaining whatever revisions were made. Usually this is little more than a ritual that marks the board’s taking collective ownership for what is published in the journal.

In one recent case, I remarked of an accepted piece that it could have been written thirty years ago – not because of the references (which were up to date) or the argument (which was at the relevant level of technicality and did not miss out any recent relevant data) – but simply because I seemed to recall that the article’s argument was being made thirty years ago, albeit with different references. Sure enough, one of the my fellow board members whipped out an article written thirty years ago, and even published in the same journal, that fit the bill!

Nevertheless, it looks like we will publish the newer piece because it has successfully passed through the peer review process, and those ‘peers’ are supposedly closer to the article’s topic than we sitting on the editorial board.

So what is going on here?

At one level it looks like a failure to take the full measure of past knowledge prior to embarking on new inquiries. This is how I have written about the phenomenon in defence of more epistemically scrupulous literature reviews. But on further reflection, this apparent collective amnesia on the part of academic knowledge producers, whereby we continue to reinvent the wheel, may be based on an empirically false assumption, namely, that academic knowledge production is cumulative and progressive. On the other hand, if we shifted to a more ‘steady state’ model of knowledge production, then the phenomenon becomes one of a (intergenerational) transfer of ownership over a domain of inquiry from one network of people to another network of people, as reflected in the replacement of key authors and an associated shift in their citation patterns. The knowledge domain itself is settled, but it requires the regular reproduction of the settlement, which is to say, a reproduction of the relevant positons and oppositions as well as standard resolutions.

In the more theoretical reaches of the humanities and social sciences, this may even be the standard mode of academic knowledge production, a mark of ‘scholasticism’. To be sure, one can imagine some intellectually interesting variants. In particular, the transfer of intellectual ownership may occur not through an act of conscious succession (e.g. by students replacing teachers) but through one research network seizing ownership of a field that had been previously defined by another research network. (Continental philosophers often complain about analytic philosophers in this manner.)

I’m still against the phenomenon I’m describing, but at least I think I now understand it better.




Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education, Social Theory

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