Familiarity and peer review


I’ve been doing some work. How don’t get me wrong, I love literature work. But I am finding it all a bit same old same old right now. All the papers read the sme, even though they have different things to say. Yawn. I think I have an explanation for why that’s so.

There’s a concept in psychology called the mere exposure effect. The mere exposure effect basically suggests that we persons have a tendency to prefer things we are already familiar with.  It is therefore, duh, sometimes called the familiarity principle. So think stereotypes here – asking for fish and chips when you’re faced with noodles and soup. As I understand the research, the suggestion is that going for what we already know is not a rational thing, but something much more subconscious – it’s emotional and embodied.

Psychologists say that the tendency to gravitate to what we already know can make for poor decision-making. If we have a cognitive bias (alternative theory but somewhat the same idea) then we tend to do what we have always done regardless of the particular circumstances. Our tendency to close down our options and do what we already know, think what we already think, reduces uncertainty and allows us to interpret things quickly. We incorporate new stuff into our existing frameworks.

Of course I’m not a psychologist but a sociologist. I am sure that there is a load of stuff out there that says that this concept is nonsense. So of course as soon as I hear one of these kinds of “rules” I immediately want to find loads of examples where this is not the case. And of course I can, as I am sure you can too. But that response might also be a familiar one ;). I might just be the kind of person who likes being contrary, who is familiar with being ornery.

At a common sense level, the mere exposure effect isn’t entirely unhelpful. There is something in the idea of the mere exposure effect that is helpful to researchers. It’s coming again at the well worn phrase, making the familiar strange. We can always ask ourselves if we are doing research in a particular way because it’s the way that feels most comfortable. Or whether we read something and dislike it just because it’ s entirely new and strange. And perhaps we interpret data in a particular way because we are fitting our preconceived ideas. Yes, we all know those risks – but we can still fall into them, even when we think we aren’t. So being conscious of the possibility, indeed likelihood, of familiarity breeding nothing-much-new-in-here might be useful.

However today I am pondering whether familiarity might also operate very powerfully during peer review. Reviewers may read journal articles expecting to see a particular genre. The paper focuses on this or that. It follows a particular format. It follows particular conventions. But what happens when the reviewer is told that this is not what the writer wants to do? The writer knows the rules but wants to do something else. Does the reviewer first of all feel that this isn’t a good paper and then look for things that might bring it towards their familiar taken-for-granted genre? The mere exposure effect concept suggests that this is what could happen. The reviewer does not act rationally in the first instance, but subliminally. They then rationalise their response.

Now I’m not talking about badly written and poorly conceived papers here. I’m referring to academic writing that is still eloquently argued and evidenced but also crafted differently. Writing that signals it wants to go elsewhere, to be otherwise. What would happen, I wonder, if the first thing that reviewers wanted from a paper was to be surprised?  Challenged? Taken somewhere they didn’t expect? Delighted? Aesthetically pleased? To encounter the unfamiliar?

If the mere exposure effect is in play then familiarity with a small range of genres may well be a recipe for a ensuring a conservative and narrow approach to academic writing. I’m sure that familiarity leads to standardisation which is great for audit purposes. Papers can be easily compared if they all follow much the same patterns.

But familiarity may contribute to lack of boundary breaking in academic writing. And I’m not at all sure that’s what I want to rea. all the time. Certainly not when Im slogging through a big pile of texts in a short time period. Yes, a little bit of surprise in the papers I have to read and review right now would really be welcome.

Note to reviewers – do fight the mere exposure effect. We may all benefit in surprising ways.