Peer review and academic credibility – barriers to self-publishing

The fly in the ointment

For aspiring novelists, self-publishing is a smart new way to get the attention of agents and ultimately publishers – it’s a great calling card. In reality, then, quite often a self-published novel is not the end product of literary effort but rather a means to achieving the ‘real’ end, which is to be accepted by a publisher.

The situation is different for scholars. Generally speaking, if the publication route chosen is self-publication, then this is the end destination, the final act.

Given that there are lots of good reasons to self-publish and the prospects for conventional publishing don’t look too good anyway, why aren’t academic authors in their droves rushing off and self-publishing their work? Unfortunately, there is a fly in the ointment: academic credibility. How to guarantee the quality of this published scholarship and hence receive the stamp of quality and approval that a scholarly press or journal confers on its books/articles?

In my next post, I shall look at self-publication as a riposte to rejection by a publisher. But first I wish to explore the mechanism most likely to lead to such a rejection – peer review – and understand the effect it has as a measure of academic credibility and what this means for the self-publisher.

A lousy system, but …

Peer review is the process by which a book publisher or journal subjects a scholarly work intended for publication to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field. The process has a value in itself but what is crucial is that a kind of certification of quality is conferred.

Despite persistent criticism of peer review for being elitist, prone to bias, overly slow, etc., and calls for new forms of ‘soft’ peer review, to date the system holds sway in the academic world. What Churchill said about democracy applies equally to peer review: it is a lousy system, but to date all the alternatives have been even worse.

(Peer review is much more than this and the issues are much wider – as can be seen in a separate post –  but this is all that we need concern ourselves with here.)

A problem for the self-publisher

But if peer review is the only show in town, where does this leave the self-publisher? With a problem. Because the effect of peer review is to put a stamp of quality and approval on a work, the result is that publications not peer reviewed are usually seen as being of inferior quality (and even regarded with suspicion) by scholars and professionals in their field. Moreover, such works are more likely to be excluded/disregarded when:

  • The author’s publications list is assessed;
  • Selection boards and tenure committees make their hiring decisions;
  • Research councils and other funding bodies decide on funding applications;
  • Assessors carry out the research evaluations on which institutional funding is often based; and
  • Citation indexes decide on which works to include.

Does this matter?

Does this discrimination matter? Only if such exclusion/disregard is of little importance to you should you consider self-publishing. That in turn depends on what your aim is in self-publishing the work and what your measures of its success are (the subject of a later post).

Meantime, let us move on to consider rejection – normally a result of the peer review and a common reason prompting authors to choose the self-publication route – and why this should be thought through carefully when self-publishing.


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