On the upcoming collapse of peer review

I just read Is Peer Review in Decline? (PDF warning!) by Glenn Ellison. Here is how the author starts:

Comparing the early 1990’s with the early 2000’s, there is a decline in the share of papers in the top general-interest journals (and the absolute number) written by faculty members from the Harvard economics department.

To follow the author, let us assume that the quality of the work at Harvard remains top-notch. If so, how do we explain this decline?

His general conclusion seems to be that there is fairly little to gain for a famous author in publishing in a top journal. Famous authors get citations and recognition no matter where they publish. They also get annoyed by the lengthier and more arduous peer review process.

He makes the following “prediction”:

The peer-review process may also be subject to unravelling: as more top economists withdraw from the process, the signal that publication
in a given journal provides is devalued and this may lead to further withdrawals.

Indeed, if this trends generalizes itself, if top authors stop playing the peer review game, by getting their papers through backdoors (invited papers, more specialized or lesser journals, and so on), why would the little guy put up with harsh peer review?

Disclaimer. I think peer review is absolutely essential and it is not going away. This blog, for example, is peer reviewed. If I write about something I do not know well, I can be sure to get comments criticizing my post. It happens regularly that someone will go out of his way and create another blog post to criticize my own. What is probably going away is the formal and lengthy process by which you go through to get a paper in a prestigious venue. Naturally, this will mean that your publication count will also become much less meaningful and you will have to find another way to justify the quality of your work. Seems like some top notch researchers are on top of this trend already.

See also my post Are we destroying research by evaluating it?

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

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