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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Peer Review: Consensus and Contradiction, a Qualitative Approach


Manuscript peer review is considered crucial to the selection and publication of quality scientific research, however, the practice is being increasingly challenged as a non-standardized process of unknown scientific validity with substantial weaknesses. Scientific disciplines appear to be confronted by a process of limited efficacy, resistant to rational maneuvers for its improvement, which yet continues to receive strong support from its practitioners. When a practice’s efficacy in achieving its goals is questionable and yet the practice persists, questions of its social functions arise which can only be addressed by qualitative research. This paper describes a normative model of peer review based on a qualitative profile of the attitudes of 72 peer reviewers towards the practice of manuscript peer review (obtained from extensive structured interviews). Masked by consensus amongst respondents about methods and goals were concerns centering on a series of contradictions inherent in the process. While at a practical level peer review was seen by respondents as a triage exercise, it was, at the same time, on a social level, valued as a mode of disciplinary discourse, important not only in the production of disciplinary knowledge, but also in the construction of the disciplinary identities of those who labor to bring that knowledge into being, i.e., the peers.

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