Peer Grading and Peer Review

There is an important connection between my thoughts on peer grading and my thinking on peer review. Peer review in the familiar sense of having two or three qualified scholars read and comment on a paper before it is published in a journal was once necessary because publication was a costly process and there had to be some fairness about who got access to the scarce resource of printed pages. The process had to be blinded (in my opinion) to encourage frank assessment of work and discourage nepotism that would have wasted valuable space. Similar practical considerations justify the traditional approach to grading, in which students submit a single copy of their essay and the teacher gives it a grade that is none of anyone else’s business. For centuries it was simply impractical to demand that students produced 25 copies (or more for larger classes) of their essays. But information technology has made the cost of publishing and making copies negligible. Or, rather, once a platform exists, the cost of publishing an additional paper or making an additional copy is essentially zero.

This makes it possible to imagine an “open” peer review system in which papers are posted online along with the reviews as they come in. I’m not against such a system but I’m not sure it’s actually necessary. To me, it seems easier just to have people post their work to their own website (which may be personal or hosted by a university, but should in any case link to an institutional repository to provide a stable URL) and see what other people do with it. “Publication” just means uploading it to a server and sending an email announcing it to your peers. All review in this world would be “post-publication”. That is, our ideas would be evaluated as we would, ideally, evaluate the results in published papers. Today, unfortunately, the “peer-reviewed” stamp has a tendency to discourage serious criticism of published work. That’s an important reason we’re in the middle of a “replication and criticism crisis”.

Now think of students and their grades. They work alone (or in groups isolated from the rest of the class) on papers they submit to the teacher. After some time they get a grade that passes some final judgment on them. They do of course hear about the grades their peers received on the same assignment, but how many of them then sit down and read those papers to learn what a “better” or “worse” paper looks like? No, once the grade is received, closure has (in the vast majority of cases) been reached. Just as too many researchers put their published work behind. it’s time to focus on the next assignment, the next grant proposal.

But we have long had the technology to make a completely different approach possible. In addition to their assigned reading, students can be asked to read each other’s work. They can be expected to “publish” weekly assignments to a class website, where their peers can comment on them. Here, they can teach others what they’ve learned from their readings and discuss the issues that have come up in class. And they can do so by way of acquiring the writing skills that scholars have. The peer-feedback can be as mandatory as the assignments themselves. And it, too, can be graded. Indeed, even the students can grade each other, trying to apply the same criteria that their teachers apply. And the can in turn be graded on their ability to do this, their eye for quality work.

I have long suspected that the culture of peer review is an extension, or continuation, of the culture of examination. There are many who argue that the peer review system is broken, or at least seriously bent. Perhaps we can only change the way we engage with the published work of our peers by changing the way we engage with the work of students, and the way we ask them to engage with each other’s. After all, today’s students are tomorrow’s scholars.

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