Peer Review, Retractions and Clicks
For science, peer review is the fuel that drives the system. For authors, peer review is quality control, and for readers, it is an assurance of reasonable validity. For the public, peer review in the health sciences especially could be the difference between life and death.
As I wrote in the SA Journal of Science (SAJS, 116 No 9/10), good reviewers i) constructively engage submissions; ii) enable improvements; and iii) refer authors to cognate studies that strengthen (or contest) their own arguments in a holistic mapping of the topic (https://www.sajs.co.za/issue/view/810).
The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) constitute the national research infrastructure. Quality, not quantity, increased research capacity, and global competitiveness, not parochial myopia, are the driving criteria of these institutions. These laudable objectives tend to get lost in the endless institutional need to balance budgets.
Peer reviewing is absent from performance management templates, even as community engagement, unless emphasised by the form-filler. This lack occurs because there is no “return” for authors and universities for anything but the discrete incentive-earning article, whether or not it is read, cited or impactful. The social contract needs fixing as reviewers are often non-responsive; don’t deliver or fail to engage submissions meaningfully. “How-to-get-published workshops” should be complemented with training in peer review. The ying cannot work without the yang.
The epidemic of recent article retractions - especially in the sciences - is indicative of potentially good science being managed badly. So bad that a former president of the British Science Association mischievously proposed limiting each academic to but one article annually. But this would bankrupt our universities given their dependence on the DHET publication incentive.
Voluntary editors and peer reviewers are unpaid cash cows enabling impatient South African authors to feed the subsidy millions into their universities and onward to themselves, depending on internal disbursement policies. That’s the institutional upside. The downside is that pro bono editors and peer reviewers labour after hours, with little recognition from their employers. Only production-line products - “accredited” of course - will qualify for research incentives and institutional recognition.
Peer reviewing is not gatekeeping, preventing publication or incentive earning. Rather, reviewers are skilled advisors who, while possibly rejecting an article, can be nevertheless helpful for enabling revisions.
The flip side is: does the author respond appropriately? South African authors are sometimes mystified and occasionally resentful when required to engage in extended dialogue with editors, sometimes over many drafts. And, hiding in plain sight, is the very high incidence of plagiarism within the 17 South African management journals, as identified by Adele Thomas, also writing in SAJS (https://www.sajs.co.za/article/view/5723).
Though imperfect, peer review offers the best current practice. When we fail our reviewing duties we fail ourselves, our disciplines, our institutions and the public. When university managements fail to acknowledge the fundamental value of peer review (and editing), they imperil science, conceptual and methodological progress.
ASSAf regularly debates different models of a peer review and places social value (readers) - rather than just the product and metrics - as key to academic citizenship. Such citizenship ensures a holistic and community-oriented approach where agreed rules of engagement are followed. But for academic auditors, peer review is not itself an income-earning activity. There’s the rub.
Getting published is just one component of academic citizenship. The September 2020 issue of SAJS (https://www.sajs.co.za/) on the topic of peer review addresses these issues.
Analogous, perhaps, is the Clicks furore.
The Clicks internal advertising peer review and research process must have involved multiple agencies and suppliers. The creatives who produced the advert and the marketers and executives who approved it may well be university graduates. Like with retracted academic articles, how did Clicks get this so wrong, especially in the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) conjuncture? That’s the pressing research question, in the context of studying the moral panic arising. What were the deeper psychological currents triggered by this advert that generated such anger? Shannon Landers’s semiotic analysis described Clicks as being “tone deaf”. That’s the specific issue that academics should be asking Clicks about. The government pension fund, the Public Investment Corporation, is Clicks’ largest shareholder, which meets Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) requirements. What, then, are the discursive mechanisms that guide Clicks’ marketing strategies, and why did they fail in this instance? Similarly, why do some academic articles require retraction? Is academic work that different to industry?
As interacting learning organisations then, we can look for solutions in addressing cultural trauma that manifests so intensely and so personally. Prevailing representations are internalised and reproduced by Black creatives as well - as the Clicks example illustrates. Representations need to be reframed, which is the social message to which Clicks should be responding. And, in what ways are university courses aware of the politics of representation? This is the urgent task ahead for advertising, marketing and strategic communication courses - in fact, all courses.
Keyan Tomaselli is Distinguished Professor at the University of Johannesburg, and a UKZN Professor Emeritus and Fellow, and a member of the SA Academy of Science.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.