This is your conscience speaking
in peer review
by Christine Overall
Christine Overall is a professor
of philosophy at Queen’s
University. Her column
on philosophical issues
in the academy appears
in every second issue.
eer review is central to the academic
profession. That’s why, I suggest, it gener-
ates a variety of moral challenges.
Consider refereeing papers. Morally,
Suppose, first, that the journal does not have
anonymous reviewing, so you know the identity
of the paper’s author. You’re supposed to be
objective, but you’re only human. With luck,
the author is unknown to you, or you feel neutral
about them. More likely, however, especially
within sub-disciplines, you know the person and
have opinions about him or her. She is the protégée of a good friend of yours, or he is someone
you deeply admire.
On the other hand, maybe the author is
someone who wrote a nasty review of your last
book. Or someone who publicly criticized you
at a panel discussion. Maybe he is with a department that chose not to hire you.
Isn’t it tempting to act on those feelings? How
easy it would be to recommend for publication
the paper by the person you like, overlooking
the paper’s faults. How easy it would be to disparage a good paper by an academic whom you
The absence of anonymous review creates
conditions in which unethical behavior is all too
possible. It need not even be completely con-
46 / www.universityaffairs.ca / January 2011
scious; we’re all capable of self-deception.
Even with anonymous review, some moral
problems remain. A few years ago, a journal sent
me a paper to review, a paper that I found simplistic and poorly written, to the point that I
suspected it could have been submitted by an
undergraduate student. I reviewed it, but also
contacted the editor to complain: Could she not
weed out the weakest of the papers, those that
didn’t remotely meet the journal’s high standards, before sending them to reviewers?
The editor conceded that the paper was a
non-starter, but said it had been submitted by a
junior professor at a struggling university in a
poverty-stricken developing nation. The editor
wanted to give the author every possible opportunity and encouragement.
Unfortunately, at that point I had submitted
my review, and it was highly critical. I don’t think
it could have been very encouraging to its author.
In any case, I felt oddly compromised. Why was
I being asked to review a paper that was not pub-lishable? If the goal was simply to encourage the
author, then I should not have been refereeing
it but rather giving the kind of feedback I’d give
to an undergraduate.
Refereeing brings out my besetting intellectual sin: being too critical. I suspect I’m not alone
in that. A family member who is not an academic
claims that what professors are really saying
when they comment on each other's work is:
“You didn’t do it my way. My way is the right way.”
There’s some truth to that claim.
On the other hand, an author who pays no
attention at all to one’s comments can be annoying. Once I recommended against publishing a
paper in applied philosophy, but I offered the
author extensive recommendations for improving the paper. I even provided citations to the
Just a month after I submitted the review, I
was contacted by a different journal with a paper
to evaluate – it was the exact same one that I had
just reviewed. Not a single line in the paper had
been changed. Needless to say, I informed the
In a short column like this one, it isn’t possible
to survey all the issues that may be raised by
refereeing. But, in sum, this clearly is an area of
potential moral concern, and for three reasons.
First, as academics, we’re committed to creat-
ing knowledge, and failures or inadequacies in
the creation of knowledge are sometimes fail-
ures of professional ethics.
Second, refereeing requires the moral virtues
of honesty and fairness, along with a commit-
ment to intellectual integrity.
And third, refereeing affects the well-being
of all the persons involved. Universities, in effect,
delegate part of their decision-making about
appointments, promotion and tenure to journals
and publishers. When we serve as referees, we
may be helping to determine someone else’s academic future.