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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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On the same day as I submitted my next book manuscript, I am pleased to be able to say that Reading Peer Review, my 7th academic book, has been published by Cambridge University Press. The book is open access and available at CUP or in BIROn.

Here’s the blurb:

How do you change the world of academia and what insight can peer review provide into this question? The study of academic peer review is often difficult owing to the confidentiality of reports. As an occluded genre of writing that nonetheless underpins scientific publication, relatively little is known about the ways that academics write and behave, at scale, in their reviewing practices. In this book, we describe for the first time the database of peer review reports at PLOS ONE, the largest scientific journal in the world, to which we had unique access. Specifically, this book presents the background contexts and histories of peer review, the data-handling sensitivities of this type of research, the typical properties of reports in the journal to which we had access, a taxonomy of the reports, and their sentiment arcs. This unique work thereby yields a compelling and unprecedented set of insights into the evolving state of peer review in the twenty-first century, at a crucial political moment for the transformation of science. It also, though, presents a study in radicalism and the ways in which PLOS’s vision for science can be said to have effected change in the ultra-conservative contemporary university.

The book doesn’t have any massive “shock” surprises about peer review, although there are some nice twists (we found a review that was longer than the paper on which it reported). In a way, it does the very prosaic and ordinary work of advancing our understanding of peer review through incremental advances (for instance: by documenting a taxonomy of the statement types that we found), documentation of findings etc. I think the takeaway point for us was that it is very, very hard to change ingrained behaviours, even when you ask academics to behave differently.

I note, also, that this was a short book. But it was also an incredibly difficult one to pull together. There were a lot of us working on it and the background work to do the research, tagging reports, building a consensus around issues of sentiment and subject, took a long time.

My sincere thanks, on this book, obviously, to all my co-authors, but also to Don Waters, Patricia Hswe, and Michael Gossett, among others, at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, whose funding made this work possible.