Paywalls and Peer Review

Photo by Helen Ngoc N. on Unsplash

What is the purpose of a university as an institution? This is one of the questions at the heart of what we might call a ‘post-truth’ politics. Anyone who has attended one for any length of time could probably come up with a definition like “to create and disseminate knowledge”, and it’s not a bad starting point.

But it only prompts more questions. How is knowledge created? By whom? By what means is it disseminated? To whom? And perhaps the overriding concern in these post-truth times: How can we be sure it’s trustworthy knowledge?

In my last post I took a look at the memetic spread of simple academic ideas that take on an extramural life of their own but abandon complexity. In a nutshell, that’s “dissemination”. In a way, the internet, and specifically social media, has usurped this part of the university’s purpose; not that universities have been particularly good at it for many years. In this post I want to consider the context and politics of the creation of knowledge.

Paywalls

Universities were paywalled long before paywalls were cool. The initial barrier to entry was class; only the scions of the middle classes could bear the costs of what the ancients called the vita contemplativa, an almost monastic existence in which basic human needs were met and the individual could devote themselves to ‘thinking big thoughts’.

In the 20th century and particularly the postwar era, this burden was reframed as ‘fees’, often offset by government scholarships for the ‘worthy’, but still operating as a barrier to the poor and marginalised.

Once this barrier was overcome, the real paywall kicked in — only those who could remain at study long enough to absorb and master the complex, protected vocabulary of their field could hope to understand the knowledge they encountered. Academics often use unfamiliar words that are not used elsewhere, or worse familiar words in specific and nuanced new ways.

For example, very few people know what “immunopatheogenesis” means (and I am not one of them). Even if we could probably take a guess, we’d probably be at least a little bit wrong, or miss some essential nuance. And that is just the first technical term seen in a set of search results on Google Scholar for “COVID-19”. Another example is “vaccine efficacy” versus “vaccine effectiveness”. It turns out these are not simple or interchangeable terms, and both have massive ramifications for our daily lives in this pandemic. There are millions of such technical terms, each requiring study within the field to adequately comprehend.

As another example, most people know what “performance” means, but how many people do you know who can confidently explain what Judith Butler meant by “performativity” in her influential 1990 book Gender Trouble? It took me 6 months to read and I feel relatively confident I’ve understood it, even if I am significantly less confident about a lot of other things in that book. Everyone knows the word “power,” but almost nobody really understands what Foucault meant when he said it, myself included — and I’ve got a lot of in-field knowledge and have read a bit of Foucault. This stuff is hard, and that difficulty operates as another paywall.

And in the contemporary digital epoch, there is one final, literal paywall: Academic journals, where most new knowledge is announced, are not free, and costly institutional access is required to avoid spending thousands on journal articles.

All of these paywalls prevent access to something important: the process by which knowledge is created, by which it acquires its status as knowledge.

Peer Review

The academy, like many professions, was established primarily through exclusion. This definition of professionalisation (from Tilly and Tilly, Work Under Capitalism), could equally apply to the establishment of universties:

Professionalisation usually occurs when two or more distinct groups of practitioners compete for the same clientele, and at least one enlists government support in securing a monopoly over some version of the service and some portion of the clientele. The struggle ends with either a division of the territory among different kinds of practitioners (all now professionally certified to some degree) or the condemnation of some unfortunate practitioners as quacks and incompetents (pp. 29–30)

In the case of Academe, the “service” is knowledge, and the “clientele” is hard to define, but for now let’s call it “the public”. And the “quacks and incompetents” are people without a higher research degree, kept at bay by a nearly insurmountable series of paywalls.

The most important part of this definition is that the initial group of practitioners define and identify themselves as being “right”, and enlist the aid of the powerful — the government, certainly, but also you and I and anyone else who cares about knowledge — to cement themselves in that privileged position. The threshold is not the quality of their knowledge, but their ability to convince others of that quality.

The people who end up “in” the academy become “peers” and participate in one of the most poorly-understood aspects of knowledge creation: peer review. Every academic work is reviewed by two or more “peers” — experts in the field who assess the new knowledge, suggest revisions, and ultimately decide whether to accord it the status of published.

So that’s how this all works — you work to convince your teachers that you are worthy of admission to the series of paywalls, and once there, you work to convince them that your knowledge is worthy of being called knowledge. This is the most distilled form of gatekeeping imaginable.

There are two key conclusions to be drawn here. The first is perhaps the most widely-applicable: institutions are just people. They are fallible like people, and just as open to influence.

The second is that the origin of knowledge is also just people. Assume there was an original cabal of scholars who recognised each other as bearers of truth (based on some metric now lost), and assume that in some specific historical moment they secured the support of the powerful to call themselves scholars. This of course never happened; or if it did it did so over many centuries, and has always been contested, but just for a moment run with it as an assumption.

If this cabal presided over new entrants to its ranks, then there is an implied hierarchy of peers; not all peers are equal. Every academic peer since that moment was admitted by an older peer who predated them and who assessed their work as the threshold for entry into the peerage. So then how was the peerage of the original cabal established?

There are only two possible answers, each equally troubling:

  1. The original peers had nothing to separate them from the people they labelled “quacks” except social standing and influence — “power” in the Foucauldian sense.
  2. the original cabal operated in much the same way as the later peerage, meaning that, at least conceptually, there is an original “peer” who established the truth status of some set of original knowledge.

So — academic knowledge is based either on privilege, or on what amounts to the word of god. This is not really news. After all, it forms the conceptual basis of almost every critique of academic knowledge. But in some ways it’s also a pretty flimsy foundation for ‘truth’.

So where does this leave us?

In my last post I talked about the problems of the memetic spread of ideas on the internet. In our historical moment it seems possible to simultaneously argue that the academy is a privileged and exclusionary institution that should be critiqued while also adopting and spreading academic ideas that could not have existed without it.

It is, in a nutshell, like this scene from Devil Wears Prada (2006), but with ideas not colours:

But I don’t want to let the academy off the hook. Like fashion, it is a privileged and exclusionary institution. However, there is a reason that more complex ideas don’t spread and it’s not “people are stupid”. It’s that academics and their allies guard the walls of the ivory tower and keep the gates in those walls tightly closed.

Both academic knowledge and “the internet” have their own methods of establishing truth. I can do academic truth, but I struggle at internet truth. I don’t know how to appear as anything but an over-educated, fusty middle-aged white man. I was bad at twitter and I can’t do video editing. For these reasons, I am incensed by the notion that a bad idea presented well is more “true” than a good idea presented poorly. I am the human equivalent of Anne Hathaway’s lumpy blue sweater.

But like Meryl Streep with Yves Saint Laurent and cerulean blue, I am often shocked at the superficial understanding of ideas like “power” or “emotional labour” that I encounter outside the paywalls of the academy. All of this leads me to decry the “explainer” threads and video essays I see on Twitter and Youtube, or the checklist inclusion of the latest buzzwords in every blog post or article as “all sizzle and no steak”. But this is my privilege — and it’s worth checking.

Since leaving the academy in 2018 I have become, internally at least, a huge critic of universities, even while I continue to value and defend their approach to knowledge. However, of late I am starting to realise that while the internet and the academy have different ways of establishing the truth-value of any given idea, both are deeply flawed and neither gets it ‘right’.

I want to continue to implore those who encounter ideas like intersectionality to resist its siren-like simplicity, to read further and deeper before they incorporate it into their worldview as a simple solution to a complex problem.

But I also want the academy to make it easier for all of us to encounter their more complex truths. Gender Trouble shouldn’t take six months and two degrees to understand — or if it has to, then we need to ensure access to those resources are equitably shared.

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PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.

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Nick Irving

Nick Irving

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.