In a recent discussion, Jon Tennant (@protohedgehog) outlines both the advantages of post-publication peer review (PPPR), or ongoing peer-review, and the main obstacles to its growth and establishment in academia. I would add to his list that the growth of PPPR is severely hampered by the fact that traditional, anonymous, pre-publication peer review is deeply embedded in the social contact of academia.
The traditional editor assigned, anonymous pre-publication review by two or three reviewers gives authors a knowable goal. They must satisfy a known, limited number of gatekeepers who will likely have quite specific requirements. Each reviewer has a limited range of expertise and hopefully, a limited number of pet peeves or idiosyncrasies. Once this limited number of reviewers, each with their limited expertise and tastes have approved a paper, it is published and counts as currency for the authors in the prestige economy of their disciplines.
Traditional review also gives authors a preview or a sample of audience reaction to their work. It acts as a safety net. It prevents major errors, which we can all commit from time to time, from becoming too public. It gives authors a chance to either withdraw a submitted paper (by not resubmitting), or to have it mercifully rejected.
There are few experiences more humbling than being read. Some of the advantages being touted for PPPR turn out in fact to be obstacles, because they don’t fit the existing social contract of academia. PPPR means that authors now have to satisfy an unknown number of reviewers with a potentially unlimited range of expertise and skill sets, over an unknown period of time, and more terrifyingly, an unknown and potentially infinite number of idiosyncrasies.
Worse, PPPR potentially opens up to examination and dissection the power dynamics that remain subtle and obscure under traditional peer review. Knowing how deeply problematic those power dynamics are, many, oppressors both conscious and unconscious, and oppressed both blind and enlightened, prefer to leave them unexamined, as long as they can be navigated in some way. The observable reluctance to fill the comments sections of journals that allow them with insightful and productive discussions is a clear indicator of this.
Tenant convincingly shows that PPPR is in every way better than traditional review for the growth of knowledge. But it will not become a standard until either it can be made compatible with the social contract of academia, or until academics see its advantages and form a new compact around it. So far, we have agreed to live with disadvantages of traditional review because they are known and we have adapted to them, and we have largely refused to embrace PPPR despite its advantages because it will require some fundamental rethinking of how academic careers work.