Is Peer Review Mostly Butt Sniffing?

The outfit worn by an American teenager has been subjected to rigorous “peer review.” Likewise his hairstyle, his lingo, and what he passes off as his opinions. In fact, we might say that he is, in toto, the product of the “peer review process.”  Or what anxious sociologists used to call “peer pressure.”

Academic peer review is engineered somewhat differently, but its purpose and effect is the same. It produces conformity, or what we are told to call, with intonations of reverence, scientific consensus.

I am not saying that the propositions presently endorsed by the “scientific consensus” are always or exactly like the coquettish rips that presently enhance the blue jeans of young women, but that they are often much more like those tears than you may suppose.

In other words, a lot of peer review is just “butt sniffing.”

I use this vulgarism to demean the august phrase “peer review,” to “knock it from its pedestal” and turn out its “seamy side.” I am not a great expert on this matter, but I have written academic articles and edited academic journals, and so over the last thirty years have read hundreds of “peer reviews.” And in these the probing snuffle of butt sniffing was by no means a minor note.

What I mean by “butt sniffing” is, of course, the canine method of identifying a member of the pack. Applied to the academic world, it denotes the method of ascertaining who is “one of us,” a good one, a member of the tribe. In the narrow world of peer review, butt sniffing is evident in a fanatical focus on eccentricities of jargon, solecisms in the bibliography, or quibbles over methodology.

All of these are telling, since, in academic writing, few things are so transitorily fashionable as the jargon, bibliographic entries, and approved methodologies. All of these things change, the point of peer review being to ensure that everyone changes them together and all at once.

Just like girls with coquettish rips in their blue jeans. Or like a flock of starlings whirling through the sky. Or like a pack of snuffling dogs.

My experience is, of course, limited to a marginal field in which the standards are not especially rigorous, and my opinion is no doubt colored by the fact that, upon sniffing my butt, my peers have been inclined to snarl with mistrust.  But I don’t think my view is entirely the result of a life spent glowering at sour grapes in a third-rate vineyard. I think it is the result of the fact that peer review is mostly butt sniffing.

11 thoughts on “Is Peer Review Mostly Butt Sniffing?

  1. Pingback: Is Peer Review Mostly Butt Sniffing? | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Is Peer Review Mostly Butt Sniffing? | Reaction Times

  3. Dear JM: The Alan Sokal hoax on Social Text pretty much set the Q.E.D. over your thesis. It little matters, I’d say, that nowadays the proof of the submission is the familiar whiff it carries from the point-of-olfaction of the editorial board and its bevy of sniffers, er, readers. No one consults academic articles, except the writer of the next academic article, who needs a “works cited” to make it look “professional.” I’ve seen stats that put the average readership of an ac-art as low as two, which I quite believe. Serious public discussion has migrated to the Internet, where the nose-to-the-tail types have no power to keep things out, and where, as it were, discerning people decide the merit of what they read without the help of blue-nose intermediaries. Speaking (so to speak) of whiff, I advise the genuinely critical-minded to avoid anything that calls itself “professional.” Or approach it only with a strong nosegay in place.

  4. Peer review comments on an article I did were accidentally sent to me (via a “reply all” mis-click). One asked which side of the issue a source I quoted stood on? Another asked is that source was on “our” side. Butt sniffing exemplified.

    • Lefty academics need a website that checks for conservative citations in the same way that Turnitin checks for plagiarism. Individual works cited could be graded as Super Sound, Sound, Suspect, and Seriously Evil, and the paper itself given an overall score. There could also be a “dog whistle” feature that highlighted the phrases that betray a Scholar of the Dark Side. If I were running such a site, think I’d call it Orthodocs, or maybe Safetext.

      What field were you publishing in?

  5. My field at the time was numismatics. The institution publishing the paper was as obscure. Its posture in my area of expertise had been set by a wealthy eminence grise. Had it not been known I had seen the private peer review correspondence my paper would not have been published.

  6. We should be mindful, too, that this is not limited to those spheres in which we do not ourselves traverse. We do some sniffing of our own all the time — or at least I do and I’m quite convinced that I am not alone in this on our side. It is, as you say, how we identify our allies from our enemies in the world of intellectual battles. It is how we discover whether or not we are speaking to friend or to foe. Perhaps there really are those philosopher kings who take every article they read, every conversation they have on the merits of the argument put forth, but I contend that they are few and far between. Most of us, on either side of this cosmic battle, are practitioners of the occasional butt sniff.

    • It is as you say. It is always wise to identify enemies and allies, especially when your allies are few and far between. If there is going to be nepotism, however, I’d prefer that it be honest nepotism. If there are going to be “religious tests” for advancement in society (as there are), I’d prefer that those tests be openly stated.

  7. Pingback: The Handmaiden of Leviathan – The Orthosphere


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