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I just walked across a car-park with Richard III.  Richard’s been seeing a lot of car-parks having spent, until very recently, about 530 years under one.  He must be sick to death of them.  Still, he was being carried – in three cardboard boxes – across another one this morning as I happened to be coming onto the Leicester University campus, so we shared a brief and rather odd moment of confluence before we went our separate ways: he into the boot of someone’s car, me to a nice warm office to write this.

Even before my brief encounter with the man himself, the events around his (probable, possible, very likely, confirmed (delete according to preference)) rediscovery were giving pause for thought about the way in which academia functions.  So I’m not just jumping on the Richard III bandwagon (well, just a bit), but there is a serious point to it.

This was highlighted less by Leicester University’s response to the discovery, than by the bitter and bitchy responses from other academics.  Most prominently, and in a frankly astonishing exercise in hypocrisy, classicist Mary Beard took to both Twitter and blog to gripe about Leicester ‘over-promoting’ itself.  Why hypocritical?  This is a media-savvy and highly media active academic taking to Twitter (a tool designed excusively for self-promotion) to moan about the promotional bent of contemporary academia.  She then followed it up with a long blog entry trying to justify her earlier tweets, ending up with a rather lame ‘steady on a bit’ message to universities.  Beard, like a number of other ‘churlish’ commentators also made the possibly more important point, that Leicester’s results have yet to be subject to peer-review and, therefore, are not in the ‘proper’ academic sense, confirmed.

Now, I am no apologist for Leicester even though I have worked here for over a decade.  But, like many here, I was actually rather impressed with the way the University handled the story.  Did they work the media to their advantage?  Yes, they bloody well did, and (as Beard herself conceded) so would any other HE institution in Britain these days handed such a gift.  But given the potential for OTT hype the team involved clearly realised that making too strong a  claim for the discovery too early would get shot down very fast, and that they would need to treat the remains with due respect.  And they seem to have done so, insisting that the journalists allowed into see the bones yesterday did so in silence, without recording equipment or cameras and in the absence of any University promotional material.  There was certainly no great drama attending the remains as they and I crossed the car-park together this morning.

In any case, anticipating the snarky responses to the find, the Leicester team assured anyone that would stand still long enough yesterday that while they believe the results to be conclusive, it will all be subject to publication in peer-review.  And here we come to the point.

Academic peer-review has become a tyranny of which the famously tyrannical Richard III could only have dreamed.  Nothing an academic does, in any discipline, on any subject is deemed ‘true’ or can be published until it has been subject to the scrutiny of her or his ‘peers’ – three or more respected figures in the same or related fields who are qualified to verify that the claims being made stack up.  As any academic will tell you that has been through this system, the ideal of collaborative, collegiate self-regulation is a long way from the reality of the process.  Not only is it becoming increasingly difficult for many journals to manage the process effectively (cf. Stuart Elden’s first-hand account of this from a couple of years ago), there are many problems with it in practice.  Reviewers hide behind the anonymity still afforded them by many journals to block work they don’t like. Some reviewers use peer-review as an opportunity to lambast anything that even remotely disagrees with their world-view.  Still others do the opposite – they actively encourage dodgy articles that cite their work (indeed many demand revisions that will result in more citations) because citations matter to the evidence of academic impact.  Journals themselves abuse the system.  I know of (but will not specify) many instances where journal editors ‘bend’ the process to secure articles they want to adorn their pages.  In one instance a few years ago, a prominent Professor responded to the suggestion that his work might be peer-reviewed with a two-word response – ‘What’s refereeing?’.  Taking the hint, the editors carried out what might generously be called ‘internal review’ (i.e. one of them suggested a few minor changes) and the article was published.  Elsewhere I have seen instances of articles effectively ‘commissioned’ by editors, ‘peer-reviewed’ in less than 24 hours and published within days.

I am sure that not all review processes are subject to these kinds of manipulation, but the point is that peer-review is absolutely no guide to the security of the resulting article and its findings.  The level of retractions in prominent scientific journals catalogued by the ‘Retraction Watch’ blog gives some indication of just how easy it can be to publish  exaggerated or entirely falsified garbage as ‘science’ even through a ‘rigorous’ peer-review system.  See also this article by Curt Rice, on the ten-fold increase in retractions from peer-reviewed science journals in recent years.

So, will the car-park skeleton’s identity be confirmed by peer-review?  Ironically, given the sniping, almost certainly.  Because of the public profile of the story, this will be subject to a very high degree of scrutiny throughout the entire process – far higher than most of the stuff published elsewhere.

But all this raises another point – who cares anyway?  Peer-review is commonly touted as the ‘gold-standard’ means by which we (academics and public alike) can have confidence in academic publishing.  But, quite apart from the abuses of the process mentioned above, the public only very rarely gets to see this stuff anyway.  This is partly because it is hidden away behind journal-publishers’ paywalls and thus impossibly expensive to access unless you have access to a University library account.

Even assuming the public at large wanted to access this stuff, one of the more interesting aspects of the documentary shown last night on Channel 4 about the ‘king in the car-park’ was the disconnect between the ‘story’ and the ‘science’.  Rigorous though the archaeology, osteology and genetic analysis no doubt was, the whole thing was driven by the obsessive beliefs of an odd collection of amateur historians, archaeologists and, generally, ‘Ricardians’; convinced both that their hero had been hard done by and wasn’t so bad after all, and that he was buried in that car-park.  We were invited to scoff at the Phillipa Langley’s ‘insane’ belief that the parking space marked ‘R’ was right above Richard’s grave – and scoff we did.  Except that she was right.  They found the body on the first day of the dig (that she initially funded with help from the slightly scary folk of the Richard III Society).  And despite the professional scepticism of the academics, her firm belief that they’d found him was demonstrated at every turn.  OK, the idea that he wasn’t really disabled was entirely wrong, and it seems very likely that he was a bit of murderous bastard, but there’s no getting round the fact that the science was playing catch-up on some amateur sleuthing and otherwise ‘unscientific’ hunches (no pun intended, honest).  But no-one is peer-reviewing that bit.

Even more interestingly, geneticists interviewed in the press this morning, whilst careful not to deny the claims of the DNA matches between the skeleton and living descendants of Richard III’s family, are suggesting that even were the match very close, the historical, circumstantial and osteological evidence would be stronger anyway.

So, some peer-review process might one day ‘confirm’ that the skeleton is Richard’s, but only to a self-regarding academic publishing system woefully out of touch with the ‘public’ it claims to serve.  Here is a case where the story in all its complexity is much, much bigger, more interesting and more exciting than the academic science.   I say that not to detract from the rigour of the people and departments involved and not to suggest that academia is redundant, but simply to point out that they are not necessarily the most important part of the story overall.  The peer-reviewed bit will be marginal, even if it does end up casting doubt on the identity of the skeleton.

And this begs the question of why academics are so hooked on peer-review. OK, for the medical sciences it really matters (despite the fact that that’s precisely where many of the abuses happen), because people are hurt or die if false or exaggerated results are published.  But for the majority of academia – especially the arts and humanities and most of the social sciences, it does not matter at all.   Indeed, we only submit ourselves to it because a combination of universities, government and the publishers insist that we do.  In most cases it adds little or nothing to the end result.

The ‘truth’ about Richard III – and what the hell does that word mean after 500 years under a car-park?  – is far less significant than the many stories within which the multiple and contradictory truths of the life and death of the man are embedded.  And they, ultimately, will be much more enduring than the ‘confirmed’ bit, whenever and wherever it appears.

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