Peer Review in the Social Sciences and Humanities

From The Embassy of Good Science

Peer Review in the Social Sciences and Humanities

What is this about?

Peer review in the social sciences and humanities (SSH) differs from peer review in STEM disciplines. It is predominantly double-blinded, with the review process tending to last longer. Criticisms of the peer review system have led to ongoing discussions in the SSH community, and many have called for changes.

Why is this important?

The social sciences and humanities are, in part, characterized by significant epistemological and methodological differences both within and between their disciplines [1]. As a result, various publication outputs such as books and journal articles require different and multiple evaluation criteria [2]. Due to a lack of “a mainstream approach” to the evaluation of research in these disciplines [2], multiple and diverse guidelines for peer review exist. Some argue that a holistic approach would introduce biases. Nevertheless, it is argued that there should be “a catalogue of explicit criteria” and “each criterion should be rated separately” [3].

Since the traditional peer review system in SSH has been criticized for its risk of bias, delay and unreliability [1], some suggest that SSH disciplines would benefit from the appropriation of certain practices already present in STEM disciplines, such as open or post-publication peer review. According to the Publishing Research Consortium, 50-70% of the SSH researchers would support open peer review. However, that support would decrease to 35-55% if open peer review were to include signed reviews published with the associated article [4]. When it comes to post-publication review, the majority of SSH researchers are comfortable with it only as an addition to the pre-publication, double-blind review process. Most researchers consider the pre-publication, double-blind review model to be the ideal [4].

  1. 1.0 1.1 Derrick G, Ross-Hellauer T. Peer Review in SSH: In Need of Development? In: Ochsner M, Kancewicz-Hoffman N, Hołowiecki M, Holm J, eds. Overview of peer practices in the SSH. ENRESSH Report. European Network of Research Evaluation in the Social Sciences and Humanities. 2020. 10-14 p.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Kancewicz-Hoffman N, Ochsner M, Hołowiecki M, Holm J. Introduction: Aim and scope of the report. In: Ochsner M, Kancewicz-Hoffman N, Hołowiecki M, Holm J, eds. Overview of peer practices in the SSH. ENRESSH Report. European Network of Research Evaluation in the Social Sciences and Humanities. 2020. 6-9 p. Available from: https://enressh.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/OverviewPeerReviewENRESSH-1.pdf.
  3. Ochsner M. Evaluation Criteria and Methodology. In: Ochsner M, Kancewicz-Hoffman N, Hołowiecki M, Holm J, eds. Overview of peer practices in the SSH. ENRESSH Report. European Network of Research Evaluation in the Social Sciences and Humanities. 2020. 15-22 p. Available from: https://enressh.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/OverviewPeerReviewENRESSH-1.pdf.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Butchard D, Rowberry S, Squire C, Tasker G. Peer Review in Practice. London: UCL Press; 2016. Available from: https://ucldigitalpress.co.uk/BOOC/Article/1/57/.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

Shortcomings in the current system have led to discussions in the SSH community with the aim of addressing the challenges and implementing some changes. In February 2020, the European Network for Research Evaluation in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (ENRESSH) provided a report, an “Overview of Peer Review Practices in the SSH[1]. The report stressed that, in contrast to STEM, SSH disciplines are more heterogeneous in their publication outputs. This makes it difficult to define and evaluate research methodologies, which, subsequently, leads to a lack of consensus when it comes to the criteria for assessing the quality of research outputs [2]. The report states that copying the evaluation models that exist for STEM disciplines is not the best response [2]. However, some argue that certain practices, such as open peer review, could apply to SSH. The advantages of open peer review are that it would speed up the publication process and enable dialogue between authors and readers [3].

In order to speed up the review process, the report offers other suggestions, including, limiting the length of manuscripts, limiting the number of publications per researcher or institution and recruiting more reviewers [3]. In addition, the SSH community could learn from new peer review models in STEM subjects, and seek to apply them if possible [2]. Although SSH disciplines are heterogeneous, there is a call for general standards and principles for peer review [4], in order to ensure “timeliness, transparency and verifiability” [5].

Even though the SSH tend to be slower to respond to calls for change when compared with STEM disciplines, some journals and platforms have been adapting to recent developments in peer review systems, including 1) Kairos, which adopted a three-stage review process [6], 2) Palgrave Macmillian, which has trialed open peer review trial [7] and open publishing [8], and 3) Wellcome Open Research, which provides post-publication peer review [9].

  1. Ochsner M, Kancewicz-Hoffman N, Hołowiecki M, Holm J, eds. Overview of peer review practices in the SSH. ENRESSH Report. European Network of Research Evaluation in the Social Sciences and Humanities. 2020. Available from: https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.12032589.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Kancewicz-Hoffman N, Ochsner M, Hołowiecki M, Holm J. Introduction: Aim and scope of the report. In: Ochsner M, Kancewicz-Hoffman N, Hołowiecki M, Holm J, eds. Overview of peer practices in the SSH. ENRESSH Report. European Network of Research Evaluation in the Social Sciences and Humanities. 2020. 6-9 p. Available from: https://enressh.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/OverviewPeerReviewENRESSH-1.pdf.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kancewicz-Hoffman N. Review of guidelines and recommendations for evaluation. In: Ochsner M, Kancewicz-Hoffman N, Hołowiecki M, Holm J, eds. Overview of peer practices in the SSH. ENRESSH Report. European Network of Research Evaluation in the Social Sciences and Humanities. 2020. 42-29 p. Available from: https://enressh.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/OverviewPeerReviewENRESSH-1.pdf.
  4. Ochsner M. Evaluation Criteria and Methodology. In: Ochsner M, Kancewicz-Hoffman N, Hołowiecki M, Holm J, eds. Overview of peer practices in the SSH. ENRESSH Report. European Network of Research Evaluation in the Social Sciences and Humanities. 2020. 15-22 p. Available from: https://enressh.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/OverviewPeerReviewENRESSH-1.pdf.
  5. Butchard D, Rowberry S, Squire C, Tasker G. Peer Review in Practice. London: UCL Press; 2016. Available from: https://ucldigitalpress.co.uk/BOOC/Article/1/57/.
  6. Kairos. A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. [cited 2020 Sept 10]. Available from: http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/board.html.
  7. Palgrave Macmillan. [cited 2020 Sept 10]. Available from: https://palgraveopenreview.wordpress.com/.
  8. F1000Research. [cited 2020 Sept 10]. Available from: https://f1000research.com/about.
  9. Welcome Open Research. [cited 2020 Sept 10]. Available from: https://wellcomeopenresearch.org/.