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The Importance of Peer Review

At this time of year, I am reminded of the need for students to be taught the peer review process.

I must admit that I am still repeatedly surprised by how deeply some students resist the notion of peer review. That said, I am cognitively aware of American culture, including the predominant assumption that individuals act independently and should thus be evaluated independently. Yet, at a more visceral and emotive level, I remain taken aback by the presupposition apparent in some students that the entire notion of peer review deserves rejection, in terms of being antagonistic to the very idea that one's work could and should be evaluated by others. Reflecting on why some students have managed to arrive at the college level still holding to this assumption, I concede that at least one factor could be the failure of the educational system to adequately inform students of the merits of peer review. To help rectify this problem, I will explain why peer review is so crucial.

First, I will begin with the importance within the research process, and second I will address the importance of peer review for other career pathways, most notably with 360 reviews in business. Third, I will address why peer review is important within study learning, as part of preparation for the reality of non-independent evaluation in life after primary, secondary, and higher education.

The Importance of Peer Review in Research

Peer reviewing is an essential part of the research process, as it is the way that both the scientific and artistic elements of research are advanced. Part of science is the ability to imagine, to think beyond the limits of what is immediately obvious, and to consider other ways that it may be. We scientists must theorize the order behind reality, to presume what must be so based on what is. In social science, we refer to this crucial aspect of the research process as social theory. Quality research must begin with quality theories that explain why social reality exists as it does. The key here is that to have quality theories, a collective process is absolutely essential.

It is not enough for one person alone to hold a theory, or for a research project to be informed merely by the conjectures of a single person. Rather, quality in theory-making occurs through the process of refinement and revision over time that results from peer review. Theories are postulated, and theories are confronted, rejected, changed, supported, nuanced, and otherwise evolved for the better. This process is never complete, as reality continues to change. New theories will always need to emerge, and these theories too will need to be vetted by a community of scholars that considers the merits of the theories, both in terms of their logical feasibility and in terms of their applicability and usefulness in helping to explain some aspect of social life.

Likewise, peer reviewing is also important within the scientific aspects of research. Indeed, scientists rely upon collective evaluation to form hypotheses, to collect valid data, and to accurately interpret the meaning of quantitative and qualitative results. As we test and retest ideas, our knowledge about empirical reality improves, and we can refine theories with data. It is impossible in scientific endeavors to avoid the potential for bias. Research is a repeating process.

We are socially and politically formed creatures, who must discern reality through limits of our own pre-conceived notions. Yet, together we can aid one another in limiting the ramifications of personal biases, especially when our scientific works are vetted through a diverse set of peer reviewers who consider the data and theories through multiple viewpoints and reflecting perspectives across gender, age, race and ethnicity, and a wide range of cultural backgrounds.

For these reasons, Oxford University Press compiled a list of quotes from scientists in a range of disciplines explaining the importance of peer review. See: "Why Peer Review Is So Important."

The Importance of Peer Review in Practice

Peer review is also important in many career paths, including especially within businesses that rely upon 360 reviews. If you are unfamiliar with 360 reviews, here is brief video explanation:

360 reviews can be an excellent tool, especially in businesses that rely upon positive experiences to ensure ongoing customer loyalty. However, there are only as a good as the feedback provided. The Managing Talent team at the University of Michigan identifies several problems with 360-Degree feedback. Specifically, problems with the feedback arise from having inexperienced raters, especially when raters are not held accountable for the quality of their ratings.

This peer review opportunity loses its potential when raters are not discriminatory. If raters are overly concerned with being "nice" and give everyone high marks, their ratings are meaningless. Conversely, if raters are too concerned with their own relative position and thus give everyone low marks, then their ratings are also meaningless. The key is to strike the right balance, providing critical feedback that identifies specific areas of: (a) strengths and (b) needed improvements. Everyone can benefit from this kind of comprehensive feedback from multiple sources, but only if the people providing the feedback are adequately prepared to provide quality peer review.

The Importance of Peer Review in Learning

For all the reasons above, it is important that students learn how to become quality peer reviewers while in college. Practically, students will invariably need peer reviewing in their future pursuits. On an even deeper level, it is my hope that students come to value the merits of peer reviewing not simply for its utilitarian ends within future jobs but also for its own ends as a valuable process.

This requires students to respect the viewpoints of their peers, not as mere opinions that can be discarded after a required peer review assignment is completed, but rather as valuable sources of information about how their works are interpreted by others. Each student within a course represents some segment of the general population. Some represent larger segments than others, and some are more vocal about the views they represent than others.

Many academics advocate for the integration of peer learning in higher education. For example,

David Boud, Ruth Cohen, and Jane Sampson wrote a book called Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning from and with Each Other (Routledge, 2014). In this book, the authors state:

"In everyday life we continually learn from each other." They continue by saying: "The advantage of learning from people we know is that they are, or have been, in a similar position to ourselves. They have faced the same challenges as we have in the same context" (p. 1).

Moreover, in a teaching and learning seminar at Stanford University, Boud shared that:

"Students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers. They develop skills in organizing and planning learning activities, working collaboratively with others, giving and receiving feedback and evaluating their own learning. Peer learning is becoming an increasingly important part of many courses, and it is being used in a variety of contexts and disciplines in many countries." (Source: Stanford blog)

Thus, I adopt a pedagogy of teaching that values and emphasizes peer review in the learning process. My most typical mode of implementing peer review is to have classmates provide feedback to each other on class presentations. My presentation assignment guidelines state:

"Peer review is an important part of the research process. Part of presentation grades will be providing quality peer-review for each classmates’ presentations. This includes not all high and not all low ratings, but accurate feedback that constructively suggests ways to improve presentations. Students must be present in class to present and to provide feedback."

I am curious - how do you implement peer review in university classrooms? True to form, I welcome a peer review process in even this matter of teaching peer review and encourage you to contact me to share tips and other feedback on this post. (Contact Me)

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