The Self-Serving System of Peer Review

Every civilization and every society within a particular civilization rests on a series of presuppositions. These presuppositions are considered sacrosanct by most members of the society. They are considered self-attesting, self-reinforcing, and self-evident. In other words, they take on the characteristics of a religion. That is because they are deeply religious.

These presuppositions are considered so sacrosanct that anyone who publicly challenges them, let alone refers to them as self-interested, risks becoming the target of a systematic program of reprisals: shunning, loss of employment, and ridicule. A person who challenges the fundamental presuppositions of a society is comparable to a person in Saudi Arabia who hands out gospel tracts for Jesus. He is not going to get away with it at no cost.

What I have said here regarding societies is equally true of every special-interest organization. Above all, it is true of a special-interest organization that seeks tax funding from the broader society.


This myth was used in Prussia to justify the independence of the faculty members in universities funded by the Prussian state. This began in the early 19th century.

It was used in the late 19th century by faculty members in American colleges to escape screening by the denominations that funded the colleges. The colleges often filled their faculties with retired pastors. Younger men wanted out from under this control.

The myth of neutrality undergirds the doctrine of academic freedom. Both doctrines have the same practical goal: to provide safe, secure employment for faculty members who do not share the worldview of the people paying their salaries. These faculty members want to convert the thinking of the next generation of financial supporters.

Tax funding of higher education increases the stakes. Anyone who seeks tax funding for his particular educational organization must do so in the United States in terms of the myth of neutrality. This myth undergirds modern American politics, so it also undergirds modern tax-funded education.

A person who comes to a state legislature in the name of sectarian truth is considered an outsider and therefore not entitled to tax funding. To provide tax funding for sectarian ideals would be a violation of the myth of neutrality. No such violation is allowed officially. The U.S. Supreme Court has so determined since 1960.

The fact of the matter is this: every system of truth rests on a denial of one or another presupposition of a rival approach to truth. The more widespread the doctrine of intellectual neutrality, the more intensely the purveyors of highly un-neutral worldviews will insist that their worldview rests on universal principles of truth that cannot successfully be challenged by purveyors of rival worldviews.

There was a time when the doctrine of moral and intellectual neutrality was not taken seriously by leaders of societies. When societies were self-consciously religious in outlook, they wound up at war with other societies that were equally committed to rival religious presuppositions. Religious wars escalated in the West in the 17th century. They culminated in the English Civil War between Protestants, 1641—49, and the Thirty Years’ War in the German states between Protestants and Catholics, 1618—48.

In reaction, critics of these religious wars turned to the doctrine of the myth of neutrality as a means of escaping from religious wars. They believed that reason is neutral. This neutrality, they believed, makes it possible to create entire systems of thought that rest on universally acceptable assumptions about the nature of political sovereignty, political authority, civil law, social causation, and history. As we look back on the wars of the 20th century, some of us regard these 17th-century dreams as remarkably naïve.

The dream still exists in the field of tax-supported education. In fact, without this dream as the official doctrine, educators cannot get their hands into the public till. Access to the till demands the public affirmation of the myth of neutrality.


In the field of higher education, the myth of neutrality is reinforced by a subordinate myth, the myth of peer review.

Every academic discipline has dozens of professional journals in every large nation. In those universities that pay the highest salaries, in order to gain tenure, an assistant professor must publish articles in a small handful of these peer-reviewed academic journals: the top dozen or so.

These journals are edited by individuals who represent the majority outlook of the members of a particular academic discipline. It is a sub-guild within the guild of higher education.

Every academic journal has an unofficial series of presuppositions and rules governing the publication of articles in the journal. These rules are never put on paper. The editor of the journal selects readers who hold doctorates in the field, and who have specialized in a particular area, to review submitted articles. The editor makes certain that each of the members of the reviewing committee understands the unofficial rules of the game. There is an acceptable range of discourse within the profession that must be respected. Any article that promotes a view of the topic under discussion that raises questions about the range of discourse in the guild will be rejected.

The reviewers are anonymous. They do not have to provide a reason for rejecting an article. They may provide reasons, which are sent to the editor. The editor may or may not pass on this list of reasons to the person who submitted the article.

The closer the article gets to undermining confidence in the received truths of the guild, the less likely the submitter will be informed about why his article was rejected. To provide the real reasons why the article was rejected would call into question the myth of neutrality; it would point out the existence of guild requirements within what is obviously a guild. This is simply not done.

That which is obvious to everyone by the time he is granted his doctorate is never stated publicly by any official within the guild. All of this is sub rosa. All of this operates behind the scenes. Everyone knows it exists. Almost everyone approves of it. Anyone who doesn’t approve of it has these choices: (1) find another academic journal to publish his article; (2) start his own academic journal; (3) write articles that do not lead to doubts about the fundamental presuppositions of the guild; (4) seek employment in a less prestigious institution; (5) enter the private sector — the closest thing to the doctrine of hell that academia has.

The widespread acceptance of this system was undermined by a book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1962. It did not receive a lot of attention until after 1965, when the worldwide student revolutions began, and the counterculture came into prominence. At that point, academic outsiders in what was known as the New Left began challenging the myth of neutrality in every academic discipline in the humanities.

There were not many New Leftists in engineering, chemistry, and physics, so these departments continued to operate under the old umbrella of the myth of neutrality. This is ironic, because Kuhn’s book focused on the natural sciences, especially the history of chemistry. But in the social sciences and humanities, the myth of neutrality came under attack, and the most important single document to justify this attack was Kuhn’s book.

University presses have also been peer-reviewed, but not nearly so tightly as the journals. University presses are run by editors who want to increase sales. So, they have a tendency to accept salable book manuscripts for publication that may be outside the accepted limits of debate within a particular academic guild. So, peer-reviewed academic presses tend to be more lenient than peer-reviewed academic journals.

A person is more likely to make an impact on his peers through a book published by one of the major university presses than he is by publishing an article in one of the major academic journals. The fact of the matter is, hardly anyone reads all the articles in an academic journal. A person may read a book cover to cover if the book is of interest to him. Rare is the scholar who owes his reputation in his guild solely to the publication of a few articles. There are exceptions. Ronald Coase is an exception. But there are not many like him.

When someone publishes a book, he opens himself to criticism. Specialists in the field may decide to review his book in a highly critical manner. He has an opportunity to revise the book in a second edition, if there is enough demand for the book to justify a second edition. He may write a second book that refutes the criticisms. The point is, the real peer review is from the public that reads his book. This public is much larger than the public that reads a specialized academic journal.


We cannot know everything. So, we specialize. But to keep things in perspective, we ally ourselves with people who share at least some of the fundamental presuppositions of our worldview. We hire people to screen information for us. We subscribe to a few journals. We read books published by certain publishers. We trust some screeners rather than others.

We want the specialists to do the screening in terms of the presuppositions we hold to. We understand that every special-interest group, every church, every academic guild polices itself in terms of certain interpretations of reality.

The problem comes when the organization seeks public support, especially tax support, which means that its members seek support from people who do not share their presuppositions. At this point, the deception begins. It is initially the deception of the general public, but over time it becomes self-deception on a massive scale. The beneficiaries of the tax subsidies really do come to believe that their narrow special interest represents the best interest of the public at large.

To deny this would mean denying the legitimacy of the quest for tax support. Those who become addicted to constant subsidies from the state are unlikely to abandon the fundamental presupposition that justifies their return to the government trough. So, the myth of neutrality is publicly upheld.

The legitimacy of peer review is also upheld. It is not upheld as simply a way for a special-interest group to screen those who provide information to the members. It is upheld as part of the prevailing myth of academic neutrality. Therefore, anyone who violates the game by denying the myth of neutrality is regarded in much the same way that a heretic was regarded in Spain in 1492.

There is nothing inherently wrong with peer review, but we should not be misled as to the nature and function of peer review. In today’s academic world, its primary function is to justify access to tax money. It is the justification for the academic welfare state.


The good news is that the World Wide Web is undermining the guild system.

The main barrier to entry in creating a new academic journal used to be the cost of printing in developing a mailing list. There had to be paid subscribers in order for a journal to become respectable within the guild. Today, however, the cost of starting a journal is much lower. There are no printing or mailing costs. As economics teaches, when the cost falls, more will be supplied.

For three centuries, the growth of academic journals has been high. The number now resembles a parabolic curve stretching to the heavens. Everybody wants to get published, so everybody has an incentive in seeing an increase of peer-reviewed journals.

The institutional problem, however, is that the increased supply reduces the leverage of the guild’s screening process that is basic for achieving tenure. So, the guilds have fallen back on the tried-and-true insight of George Orwell: all peer-reviewed journals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

The World Wide Web is also undermining the monopoly or semi-monopoly enjoyed by the University press system, and by the New York City publishing cartel. You can publish a book on the Web in approximately 90 seconds. I do it quite frequently.

Another reason why the Web is undermining the peer-reviewed journals is because, in the field of science, the law of success is “first come, first served.” The sooner you get your discovery published in a public forum, the more likely you will get credit for having made the discovery. Waiting 18 months to two years to get your discovery published in a peer-reviewed journal may prove suicidal if another researcher goes on-line with his discovery.

The peer-reviewed journals are now operating at a huge disadvantage within the scientific community. They are too slow. The early bird gets the worm. If the worm is important enough, the early bird either gets tenure or gets an offer at twice the salary from another university.

So, we are seeing the destruction of academic guilds. We are seeing something like open entry in the field of ideas because of the Web. This is hated by members of the guilds. They scream, “Unclean! Unclean!” They dismiss an innovative article for not having been published in a peer-reviewed forum. But the logic of the system in the natural sciences — of early bird gets the worm — undermines all such criticisms. It also enables outsider groups to call attention to the non-self-evident nature of the presuppositions of the existing guilds.

We are seeing the undermining of the legitimacy of the self-interested guilds who have their hands in the public till. The myth of neutrality is losing adherents. This process is going to accelerate.

This is the greatest single threat today to tax-funded education. The costs of providing alternative education are falling, and the last remaining barrier to entry is academic accreditation, which is the institutional handmaiden of the guilds.


Guilds fear one thing above all else: open entry. The main barrier to entry has been economic: the cost of printing, the cost of gaining accreditation, and the cost of gaining tax support. On all fronts, the academic guilds are under assault. This is going to increase over time. The cost of launching an assault is getting ever lower, and at lower cost, there will be increased demand to join one or another assault team.

The academic guilds are not used to open entry. They are not used to public criticism from non-guild members. If the public ever figures out that it can escape the clutches of higher education in the United States, which absorbs about a third of a trillion dollars a year, the game will end. The guilds will have to compete in a free market. They are not used to this. They will resent it. But they are going to have to learn to live with it.

Long live the Web.

July 7, 2008

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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